Annapolis Institute Overview


Let’s not forget the Misery Index

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, May 30, 1991

Remember the “Misery Index”?

The Misery Index is a good example of how the economy influences politicians.

The Misery Index was used first by President Reagan in presidential election campaigns. It is equal to the sum of inflation and unemployment rates. Applied to presidential elections of the 1950’s, the index was under 6 and under 8 for each election during the 1960’s.

The index crept up to 8.8 for the election in 1972, when we had a 3.2% inflation rate and a 5.6% unemployment rate.

Then it went off the charts. The Misery Index was 13.5 for the election of 1976, when President Ford had to defend a 5.8% inflation rate and a 7.7% jobless rate. Ford lost.

Four years later, President Carter gave the country an unprecedented Misery Index of 20.6 — with 13.5% inflation and a 7.1% jobless rate. Carter lost.

President Reagan started the Misery Index on a downward slope It was down by almost half — to 11.8– by 1984 and Reagan was re-elected. It was down some more to 10.1 by 1988 with 4.5% inflation and 5.6% jobless. The Republicans won again, and George Bush became president.

What are the lessons from the Misery Index applied over the post-World War II period? First, the economy has a powerful impact on the electoral choices that people make.

Second,the economy has a different impact depending on the party: Runaway inflation hurts the Democrats, as Carter learned in 1976. Economic slowdowns hurt Republicans, as Richard Nixon learned in 1960 and Ford learned in 1976.

What does this mean as we look to 1992? President Bush owns both the peace and prosperity issues. He enjoys unprecedented popularity with approval ratings swinging between 60% and 90%.

Today the Misery Index is 11.4, with 4.9% inflation and 6.5% jobless. The economy looks as if it is set for another upturn just in time for the 1992 election.

According to political analyst Kevin Phillips, a Misery Index in the 10-12 range cinches the election for Bush. An index in the 13-14 range could be “tricky.” A Misery Index over 15 could be “the stuff of defeat.”

But the Misery Index does not include important New Economy issues that also are not measured by national political pulse takers. These include investments in people, especially education reform, primarily a state and local issue, and access to health care for all Americans.

They include investments in infrastructure and a national telecommunications policy, to make sure the U.S. leads the world in this all-important technology in the 21st century. They include environmental policies that deal effectively with clean air, water, waste management and land use while watching out for jobs and wealth.

Neither Republicans nor the Democrats score well on these New Economy issues. The Misery Index needs to be updated.

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