The Economy, In Pieces

As the campaign lurches forward, economic stories are destined to become a staple of the American diet, with Republicans trying to paint a rosy picture, Democrats a bleak one, and journalists struggling to make sense of the numbers.

Undoubtedly, we’ll see lots more stories like today’s analysis by David Leonhardt of the New York Times. Leonhardt delivers a classic on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hand assessment that economists may be able to get away with, but which journalists should avoid like a bad toupee.

Leonhardt’s take on the economy — and the jitters it has engendered among many people — is best summed up with his kicker, in which he quotes Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.):

“People just have mixed views. It’s not cut and dried one way or the other.”

We’re left asking, what’s the point? Merely to confirm that most Americans are as confused as the experts — and, certainly, the candidates? Do these “meta” stories even come close to accurately portraying the state of the nation’s economy? Or, should journalists eschew Panavision, and stick with smaller but more quantifiable economic indicators that just may be more reliable?

Coincidentally, the dateline on Leonhardt’s story is Maple Grove, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb where a major employer is hiring for jobs that pay $80,000 and up. Today, the St. Paul Pioneer Press offers its own gauge of the region’s economy, reporting that demand at suburban food banks “is soaring to all-time highs.” Organizers blame layoffs of mid-level managers and two-income families who are “wiped out by even a minor [financial] setback,” writes reporter Bob Shaw.

The Detroit News delivers another worrisome indicator today, reporting that General Motors plans to “sharply increase the amount of new white-collar work it sends outside the United States this year as part of an overall effort to reduce costs.”

The News quotes an internal GM memo: “In 2003, we began offshoring activities moving $3.5 (million) of work to lower-cost locations,” the GM report says, “and we are planning to increase that to $48 (million) in 2004.”

Today’s Chicago Tribune describes the economic forces buffeting job-seekers like David Darrow in Bend, Ore., where, despite a booming tourist industry, good-paying jobs are scarce. Correspondent V. Dion Haynes quotes Darrow: “Real estate has gone way up, and wages haven’t. Most [service and tourism industry] jobs are paying $8 or $8.50 an hour. I made that 17 years ago.”

While David Darrow, the memo-writers at GM, and the managers of the Twin Cities’ food banks are just small pieces in the pie, their take on the economy has a resonance totally lacking in the analyses from the “experts.”

Lesson here? Remember your audience.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.