Good argument, questionable chart

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The New York Times had a graphic today showing how the economy fared under Democratic and Republican presidents since Herbert Hoover. They seem to be making a shortened and simplified version of the argument presented by Larry Bartels in his book Unequal Democracy (For those who don’t have a book-length period of free time, Steve Benen summarizes).

While I think Bartels’ argument is fascinating, I’ve really got to take issue with the Times' graphic. They obscure the progression of time and the length of term that each president had. Yes, the S&P 500 grew 10.8% under Gerald Ford, but he was only president for about 2 years. And yes, the S&P 500 grew 15.2% under Clinton, but was that his economic genius, or the continuation of a trend started 20 years earlier and lasting through three administrations under both parties?

I think the time series clarifies things greatly. Here’s a recreation of the original NYTimes graph, which sorts by party and orders by growth rate:

Here's a new one that orders by year, and shows term length:

I think the new chart does a much better job of showing the sequence of presidents, which helps the reader understand larger trends. Maybe the economy is more likely to grow under a Democratic President than a Republican one, but if that's the case, I'd like to see it shown more robustly.


Chris Townsend October 15, 2008 at 12:06 PM  

Steve, have you read any of Edward Tufte's work? I think you might really like it.

Steve P. Davis October 30, 2008 at 12:33 PM  

I have, in fact. He's the godfather of graphs!

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