In the second presidential debate on Tuesday night in Hempstead, New York (incidentally the first debate moderated by a woman in quite a long time), citizens were asking questions of the candidates. Apparently President Obama won this one, whatever that may mean. Despite Barack Obama letting go of his policy to ignore Mitt Romney’s spinelessness and lies, the child of the ruler of planet Kolob appears not to have stopped to lie to the voters after all. If you’re interested in studying them, George Zornick has a handy list. I am more worried by the logic Romney applies, which is not strictly a lie, but is very misleading indeed, potentially leading to more harm than outright lies, which can be easier to detect.

Pastor Romney used a few arguments that exemplify the logic I mean. You could have heard these sentences during the debate:

“We have fewer people working today than we had when the president took office. If the — the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent when he took office, it’s 7.8 percent now. But if you calculated that unemployment rate, taking back the people who dropped out of the workforce, it would be 10.7 percent.”

“There are 3.5 million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office.”

“When he took office, 32 million people were on food stamps. Today, 47 million people are on food stamps.”

These will remind you of the platitudinous question of whether you’re better off than you were four years ago, which is very simple to both ask and answer, but can also be very confusing. Of course you are better off, assuming you’re an everyman; the evidence is overwhelming. But it’s also irrelevant whether you are or not. And so are the statistics Mitt Romney brings up. All these assume that if Obama hadn’t been in The White House all things would have stayed exactly the same as they were four years ago, a proposition which is blatantly absurd. Imagine the whole world freezing in place for four years, unchanging, aghast, awaiting Mitt Romney’s arrival on a white horse, as a saviour, almost as in the Second Coming from the bellwether state of Missouri. The truth is that the world would not have stopped or be substantially changed if Obama hadn’t been elected in 2008, much of the processes in the world, and even in the United States have a much broader scope and are just slightly affected by the President’s behaviour.

If the assumption is incorrect then the whole question is meaningless also. A question which would be more useful, but which is also much harder to answer, would be whether you’d be better off had Mitt Romney or John McCain been the President for the past four years. The reason why this is not discussed is precisely the intricacy of these questions, not fitting the short attention span of the people and the news. But if we want to get real answers we’re going to have to start asking the real questions. Not only do we have to consider thoughtfully crafted counterfactuals, but our discussion should also concentrate on the long-term consequences of the alternative visions, going from the past through the modern day into the future.

The everlasting argument about the monthly jobs growth reports is an excellent example of mentality fixed on insignificant but politically attractive arguments. While the number of jobs may be in some, perhaps even somewhat substantial, way influenced by the actions of the President, the real difference is produced by the policies lasting for decades, and their macroeconomic footprint. Yet the discussion is fixed on the timescales of months (as with the job growth reports), or at best a four year period. But even assuming there is some importance in the short-term discussions about jobs, what Mitt Romney said is ignoring reality.

It is vaguely true that unemployment numbers are similar to what they were when President Obama took office, but comparing the two numbers is incorrect and purposefully misleading. Two numbers from two different periods are never directly comparable, in order to have two numbers which may be meaningfully contrasted they have to be brought together, to one point in time. Since the present is most relevant to the political argument, it is more convenient to bring the data from four years ago to now. The only way to do this is to use counterfactual analysis, asking what would have happened had Obama not been the President. This is a complex issue, and estimating what the unemployment would have been would take a lot of work, discussion and controversy, but it can be easily shown how absurd saying that Obama’s policies destroy jobs is. Below are unemployment rates released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The red line shows what the unemployment was during Bush administration. Estimating what it would have been had his policies continued would be tricky, but the very basic trend line in black shows that it was to go up, which it indeed did. Whether it was a fault of President Bush or the economic situation as a whole is irrelevant to the argument, the point is that these numbers were going up substantially around the winter between 2008 and 2009.

Comparing this with the data incorporating unemployment during Obama’s administration (in blue) clearly shows that after the first year (2009), which was largely affected by Bush’s policies and budget (not to mention the global recession) the unemployment is clearly falling down. And with that, I rest my case. But the bigger point remains: it is easy to compare the incomparable and ignore the intricate nature of counterfactual analysis. Similar analyses can be produced for number of people on food stamps and poverty statistics. But these arguments wouldn’t work in a debate, where simplicity and not correctness matter. Hopefully, for the sake of an informed campaign, they work in print.

This essay first appeared in The Firebrand Magazine.