Birthers as an Economic Indicator

March 5, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andy Borowitz sprays out a daily stream of one-liners, mostly political (you should follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his newsletter).  Some are just name calling (“Eric Cantor's Endorsement of Romney Could Persuade Undecided Sociopaths”).  But some are on target. 

When wingnuts got some press recently by claiming that Obama’s birth certificate was a fake, Borowitz posted  

In Positive Economic Sign, Republicans Starting to Say
Obama Wasn’t Born in US Again

It was just a joke.  But Barry Ritholtz stopped chuckling long enough to see if it fit with the evidence.  He compared
  • the timing of birther references (Lexis-Nexis search with “Obama” and “birth” separated by no more that five words)
  • with the fluctuation in jobs added (three month average)
Sure enough, when the job reports are good, birther stories go up. After all, the anti-Obama machine has to find some kind of fuel.

(How many gag writers have the data to back them up?  Maybe it’s because Borowitz, as an undergrad at Harvard, was a research assistant to sociologist Wendy Griswold.)

Something similar happened in the past few days.  For a while, the Republicans were shouting about “religious freedom” – i.e., the freedom of employers to pick and choose which prescription and procedures their employees’ health plan would cover.  Then Rush Limbaugh joined the chorus with personal attacks on a young woman, name calling the even Republicans felt uncomfortable with.  Rush screwed everything up, and that issue became a loser.  All of a sudden, Republicans couldn’t change the topic fast enough.  The whole thing was “absurd.”  They wanted to talk about the “real issues” that are “important to Americans.”  Limbaugh himself echoed this dump-your-losing-issues idea in an “apology”  that is characteristically inaccurate, and in its inept language is probably funnier than most of his material.  “I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress.” 

UPDATE (March 5):  John Sides at The Monkey Cage re-graphed the data.  Rather than plotting both variables against a time line, he created a scatterplot with Jobs Added on the X-axis and Birther stories.  The graph shows only a slight correlation, which disappears entirely when he removes two outliers (Trumps birtherism and Obamas release of his long-form birth certificate).

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