Morning Joe crew distorts New Deal unemployment figures in continued assault on recovery plan

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski continued their assault on the economic recovery package, misrepresenting New Deal unemployment figures to argue that government spending does not boost employment.

During the February 3 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski continued their assault on the economic recovery package, misrepresenting New Deal unemployment figures to argue that government spending does not boost employment. Echoing false statements by numerous conservative media figures, who have responded to President Obama's proposals for large-scale stimulus spending by denouncing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies as ineffective or damaging, Brzezinski said of the recovery bill: “This bill -- I think we're going to have the same unemployment in three or four years, just like the New Deal.” In addition, Scarborough cherry-picked unemployment data to claim that unemployment was at “20 percent” in 1938, a conservative tactic used to ignore the downward trend in unemployment that occurred under the New Deal.

Contrary to Brzezinski's suggestion that unemployment did not improve during the first “three or four years” of the New Deal, as Media Matters for America has noted, unemployment fell every year from 1933 through 1937. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) -- which did not count those in work-relief programs as employed -- the unemployment rate in 1933 was 24.9 percent, which fell each subsequent year -- 21.7 percent in 1934, 20.1 percent in 1935, 17 percent in 1936, and 14.3 percent in 1937 -- until 1938 when it rose to 19 percent.

Scarborough later said: “Unemployment dropped, and then, guess what? When [then-Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau] went five years later, back to Congress, they still had 20 percent unemployment.” However, in addition to ignoring the decline in the unemployment rate from 1933 to 1937, and the fact that the rate was higher in 1933 than 1938, Scarborough's claim that “they still had 20 percent unemployment” in 1938 ignored employment figures that included government jobs created by New Deal programs. His figure echoed BLS data pegging the unemployment rate for 1938 at 19 percent. After World War II, BLS ceased counting those in work-relief programs as unemployed, as noted by economist Gene Smiley in a 1983 Journal of Economic History article. Media Matters has documented other conservative media figures and outlets cherry-picking unemployment figures to assert that the New Deal failed to reduce unemployment.

Further, according to several prominent economists, the unemployment rate rose in 1938 not because New Deal stimulus spending failed but, rather, because Roosevelt did not go far enough in pursuing those policies and because his attempts to balance the budget hindered recovery. Even though unemployment did rise in 1938, it did not surpass the 1933 unemployment rate.

As Media Matters has documented, in recent weeks, Morning Joe has launched baseless attacks on the economic recovery plan, including repeated false claims that welfare programs and nutrition assistance do not stimulate the economy.

From the February 3 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

HAROLD FORD JR. (Democratic Leadership Council chairman): One of the reasons that America's economy has not totally found itself in the toilet over the last few years is that exports have been up because of the -- the global economy has grown. We've now seen an incredible slowdown there. Housing demand is so depressed. There's so -- there are a few pieces to this. It's much -- I hope neither of these happen. I hope we spend a trillion dollars right.

SERWER: You can't --

FORD: You and I are on the same page.

BRZEZINSKI: But, Joe, I don't think --

SERWER: You can't choose between a deficit and unemployment. I'll take a deficit.

BRZEZINSKI: But, Andy, this bill --

SERWER: I'll take a deficit every time.

BRZEZINSKI: -- I think we're going to have the same unemployment --

SERWER: Every time.

BRZEZINSKI: -- in three or four years --

SCARBOROUGH: My point --

BRZEZINSKI: -- just like the New Deal.

SERWER: Well --

SCARBOROUGH: The problem is, Andy, that --

SERWER: -- and what would be worse than that?

SCARBOROUGH: My concern is: I've got no problem with deficit spending.

SERWER: All right.

SCARBOROUGH: I'm not Herbert Hoover here. Deficit spending's fine if we want to engage in deficit spending. My problem is that everything is happening so quickly. We're up to $12 trillion. We're going to start running trillion-dollar deficits.

SERWER: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: Andy, historically, it took us 204 years to get a hundred -- to get a trillion-dollar debt.

SERWER: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: Now, we are burning through a trillion dollars every year for the next three, four, five years, and the impact on that could be shattering --

SERWER: Well, you've got to look at that --

SCARBOROUGH: -- to this economy.

SERWER: -- relative to GDP, right? I mean, relative to how big we are. So this --

SCARBOROUGH: Relative to -- yeah. Relative to GDP --

SERWER: But I just think we don't --

SCARBOROUGH: It's going to go to World War II levels.

SERWER: Well, listen, you know, we don't have a choice, though. I mean, we've got -- we have to do it.

SCARBOROUGH: But we could do it wisely.

SERWER: And we've got to do it with some sense, yeah, but, I mean --

SCARBOROUGH: We could do it wisely.

SERWER: -- you can't just sit here and debate this until the fall --

BRZEZINSKI: We could wait a month or two.

SERWER: -- right?


SERWER: Well, that's true.


BRZEZINSKI: We could wait --

SCARBOROUGH: -- fools --

BRZEZINSKI: -- we don't need to rush this through like the Wall Street bailout --

SERWER: Yeah, well, that is --

BRZEZINSKI: -- and just --

SERWER: -- totally uncharted territory, the TARP.


SERWER: I mean, that I agree. And, you know, I don't think anyone knows what's going on. But, here, we know --

SCARBOROUGH: But -- OK. Hold on. Hold on. Let me stop you --

SERWER: -- that the stimulus helps the economy.

SCARBOROUGH: Let me stop you right there.

SERWER: It's going to be tax cuts; it's going to be spending.

SCARBOROUGH: We don't know that.

SERWER: It's blocking and tackling.

SCARBOROUGH: You just -- you just said something -- I wish it were blocking and tackling -- you say we know the stimulus will help the economy. You had [Henry] Morgenthau, FDR's own, you know, best friend --

SERWER: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: -- his secretary of Treasury, going to the Democrats in 1938, after they'd been in power for four years, saying we've failed. The stimulus package --

BRZEZINSKI: Didn't work.

SCARBOROUGH: -- hasn't worked. And he -- this -- his own words.

SERWER: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: That's his own words. He said the only thing it's done is strapped us with a greater debt.


SCARBOROUGH: Deficit. You have --

SERWER: The unemployment rate did drop before World War II.


SERWER: It did.

SCARBOROUGH: Unemployment dropped --

SERWER: It did.

SCARBOROUGH: -- and then, guess what?




SCARBOROUGH: When he went five years later, back to Congress --

SERWER: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: -- they still had 20 percent unemployment.

BRZEZINSKI: That's right.

SERWER: But it --

SCARBOROUGH: It took a dip in '38.

SERWER: Yeah, but it -- right, but it'd gone to 33, and then it went down to 14 right before World War II.

SCARBOROUGH: And then --

SERWER: I mean, it's still -- that's still crazy.

SCARBOROUGH: Yeah, you're talking the 1940s.

SERWER: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: You're talking '41 --

SERWER: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: -- I'm talking --

SERWER: Right. You know, but, again --


SERWER: -- I don't know what we could have done instead of that, though.

SCARBOROUGH: You also have --

SERWER: What should we have done instead --

SCARBOROUGH: You also have Obama's --

SERWER: -- in the 1930s.

SCARBOROUGH: -- the chairwoman of his economic council, who wrote a book in 1994 saying stimulus plans don't work.

SERWER: But then, what should we do?

SCARBOROUGH: It's not blocking and tackling. I think what we need to do is we need to borrow the best from both sides. I think we need to borrow from Republicans, who say there's no reason why our corporations should have the highest tax rates in the world. That does not make us competitive globally.

BRZEZINSKI: Get them hiring people again.

SCARBOROUGH: I think we should use some stimulus spending on the Democratic side, the best of those ideas. I think we should talk to Al Gore about a new grid that transforms -- I would like to see this bill --

BRZEZINSKI: And that will take a few months at least.

SCARBOROUGH: -- have a transformative effect on our economy.