Amid talk of how governments should measure ‘happiness’, we should perhaps note that ‘misery’ – at least economic misery – may have recently peaked.
This week’s releases of inflation data in the UK and US, and labour market numbers for the UK should see the ‘misery index’ continue to fall in both countries.
This index – simply the unemployment rate plus the annual rate of inflation – has seen a modest revival of interest among economists in recent years.
Originally proposed by Arthur Okun, economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, the measure came to prominence in the 1970s, when the inflationary effects of the Vietnam war and two oil price shocks combined with the first major recessions since the second world war to give the word ‘stagflation’ to the English language.
It has been given a new lease of life in the fall out from the 2008 crisis.
The index is a crude measure but is useful in conceptualising the pressures of the crisis on the population, with those not hit by redundancies subject to falling living standards as wage rises fail to keep up with prices.
In the UK, the index was at its highest last September, at 13.5 per cent (unemployment at 8.3 per cent; annual inflation at 5.2 per cent), the highest since mid-1992. Inflation is now forecast to fall and the unemployment rate to stabilise in the first half of the year.
In the US, the peak in the misery index – again in September – saw it at 12.9 per cent (unemployment 9 per cent, inflation 3.9 per cent), the highest level since 1983.
If measurable ‘misery’ has indeed peaked in the US — and Friday’s release of CPI data for January is forecast to show lower inflation — then it will be extremely precipitous for President Obama, at the start of an election year.
It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that Obama’s approval rating — the proportion of voters who think he’s doing a good job — finally crept into positive territory last week, according to RealClearPolitics, for the first time since the months following the US operation against Osama bin Laden. The President has also opened up a five point lead in RCP’s poll of polls against likely Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
The election campaign may not quite boil down to, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, but after the last few years of ‘misery’ the change — if it lasts — may have come just in time for the President’s re-election hopes.
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