Who is to blame for unemployment?

President Reagan has said that he wanted to be fair about discussing the highest unemployment rate in over 40 years. He would accept responsibility, he said, for the 2.7 percentage point increase in unemployment since he took office. (Since he spoke in October, the figure has gone up to 3.4 percent.) But he wants others - the Democrats - to accept responsibility for the remaining 7.4 percentage points.

This is an unusual approach to managing the economy, since an administration generally accepts full responsibility for economic policy. But we thought we would accept the President's challenge and apply his procedure to the record of prior administrations.

We looked up the January unemployment rates for the years in which the presidency switched from Republicans to Democrats, and vice versa, and computed a score card for each party. When Eisenhower took over from Truman, unemployment was 2.9 percent; when he left office, it had risen to 6.7 percent. Score almost 4 points for Ike for this increase. After the Kennedy-Johnson years, unemployment had fallen to 3.4 percent. Give these Democrats just over 3 negative points for reducing unemployment. By January 1977, when Carter took office, the rate had risen to 7.4 percent. Give 4 points to Nixon and Ford. The rate was also 7.4 in January, so Carter gets no points.

The total difference between the 10.8 percent rate in December 1982 and the 2 .9 percent rate of 1953 is almost 8 points. Now add up the scores for our two teams. The Republicans - Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan - must accept slightly more than 11 percentage points of unemployment according to the Reagan arith-metic. The Democrats - Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter - score a negative 3.3 , meaning that they are responsible only for decreases in unemployment.

President Reagan may have thought he could shift the blame for unemployment to the Democrats. But if you follow his guidelines, responsibility for the entire unemployment rate must be accepted by President Reagan and his Republican predecessors.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.