July 30, 2004 | WebMemo on Economy
The gods of economic statistics are smiling on John Kerry today. This morning's second-quarter "advance" gross domestic product (GDP) report seems to confirm the view expressed in Kerry's Democratic nomination speech that the economy "can do better" what with growth rates of a mere 3 percent, which is 0.7 percent below expectations. But the gods are fickle, and we might take care in interpreting their signs.
Remember that annualized GDP growth in the first quarter was initially estimated at 4.2 percent in April, raised to 4.4 in May's "preliminary" estimates, and then "finalized" at 3.9 percent in June. Today's report revises first quarter GDP growth to 4.5 percent, but that won't be the news of the day, even though it essentially balances out 2004 as an above average year for GDP growth.
Like usual, Wall Street and the media could use a sense of perspective before proclaiming the second quarter a disappointment. Three percent growth means three percent acceleration in the value of what America produces in a year. If your car could go three percent faster than was possible a year ago, would you fire the mechanic?
It is far too easy to take progress for granted, and the expectation of constant improvement clouds appreciation for what the American economy has achieved. For example, in the thirty-three months after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. economy has grown ten percent bigger. That is the equivalent of adding half the French economy in less than three years, hardly a sign of the doldrums.
The real gods of economic statistics are the economists at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), and their second-quarter "advance" estimate of GDP contains a handful of interesting surprises:
In sum, economic pessimists are likely to point to the GDP growth rate of a mere 3 percent as proof that the economy can do better. John Kerry may be dead right that the economy can do better, but an honest assessment has also to admit that the economy is doing very well to start with. Even those smiling gods may in fact be smirking, because the data tell a far more pro-trade, pro-investment, and pro-supply-side story than the pessimists will admit.
Hostile anti-trade rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the major contributions that trade in goods and services is making to today's economy. Just look at how exports have stoked manufacturing and the service industries in recent quarters and how imports and outsourcing have kept core inflation low, to consumers' ultimate benefit. The pessimists' anti-trade policies, if realized, would cause a "good old" deep recession of the sort that we managed to avoid in 2001. And the gods of statistics would have the last laugh: what else could change America's ambivalence towards the pace of incremental progress?
Tim Kane, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.