The Year in Charts

by Steven Rattner
Steven Rattner, a long-time Wall Street financier, led the restructuring of the auto industry in 2009 as counselor to the Treasury secretary under the Obama administration. His book “Overhaul: An Insider’s Account of the Obama Administration’s Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry” was published in 2010. He is the chairman of Willett Advisors, the investment arm for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s personal and philanthropic assets, and the economic analyst for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Follow Steven Rattner at
Source: The New York Times

Although developments on the political front were certainly dispiriting, for the first time in years, the economic news was not all gloomy. But with the economy improving, there was less focus on the continuing need to address flagging incomes, rising inequality and unbalanced government spending. Below are 10 charts to illustrate the crosscurrents of the past year in economics and politics:

The Economy Picks Up Speed

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Economic Analysis

By the end of 2014, even the most hardened cynics had to concede that the darkness that had pervaded the American economy since 2008 had lifted a bit. Most visibly, the rate of job growth accelerated, from 194,000 per month in 2013 to 241,000 per month in 2014. By May 2014, the total number of jobs had run past its previous peak in early 2008. Meanwhile, the overall economy began to expand at faster annual rates — 4.6 percent in the second quarter and a remarkable 5.0 percent in the third quarter.

Plunging Oil Prices

Sources: New York Mercantile Exchange; American Automobile Association

An autumn collapse in oil prices brought more good news. A barrel of oil that fetched $107 in June commanded only $55 by Dec. 22. For consumers, that meant gasoline prices that fell to an average $2.38 per gallon, compared with their peak of $3.70 in April. All told, the drop in oil prices was equivalent to an annual tax cut of about $750 per American family. And with the United States still importing an estimated 26 percent of its petroleum, lower prices raise the economy’s growth rate and reduce the balance of payments deficit.

Wages Still Lag 

Year-over-year percentage change in hourly earnings of all U.S. private workers.

Economic news was not all positive. Most important, there were only hints that stagnating wages might finally be turning upward. November figures showed that the cash pay of hourly workers rose by a slender 0.8 percent after adjustment for inflation over the previous year. The picture is modestly better when cash benefits are added to the equation. In the past two years, median family incomes, including items such as pensions, Social Security and unemployment insurance, edged up to about $53,500 from $52,600 in 2012. But they have remained well below their previous peak of $57,500 in January 2008. The decline between 2009 and 2012 was the first time this inflation-adjusted measure had dropped during an economic recovery.

Inequality Gets Even Worse

Percent change in median family income, 2010-2013. 

It’s Very Good at the Very Top

Percent of all income received by the top 1 percent and 0.01 percent of U.S. households. 

Source: The World Top Incomes Database 
Happily, the problem of income inequality was brought front and center by the publication of the economist Thomas Piketty’s landmark book, “Capital in the 21st Century.” Originally written in French, weighing in at 696 pages and laden with incomprehensible equations, the book nonetheless spent 22 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, including three weeks at the top. While Mr. Piketty’s solutions, such as a global wealth tax, were mostly impractical or ill advised, his meticulous identification of the problem was unassailable. By 2012, a mere 0.01 percent of American households — earning an average of $21.5 million annually — commanded a near-record 4.1 percent of all income, compared with 0.5 percent when income inequality hit its trough in 1973.

Government Does Little to Help

The U.S. ranks favorably in the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality — until taxes and government transfers are factored in. Then, among these countries, it is the worst.

Obamacare Succeeds

Total who gained health insurance via Obamacare in 2014, in millions.


A Bad Election for Democrats

The fates of ten key Democratic Senate candidates hewed closely to the results that would be expected, statistically, by the president’s low job approval.

Sources: The New York Times (Democrat vote); pre-election polls by NBC/Marist except for Fox News (Alaska) and Real Clear Politics (New Hampshire and Virginia)

It’s hard to view the results of the 2014 midterm election as anything other than a referendum on President Obama. In fact, a statistical analysis of 10 key Senate races shows that the president’s low popularity ratings explain about 65 percent of the vote shares achieved by these individual Democratic candidates. In Arkansas, where President Obama’s approval rating was only 34 percent, the incumbent, Mark Pryor, received less than 40 percent of the vote. Weak candidates in states like Kentucky and Louisiana underperformed their predicted vote share. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Mark Warner in Virginia benefited from the president’s relatively high popularity (40 percent!) but still had to outperform their expected shares to win re-election.

Polarization Vortex

The public is more ideologically divided now than it was two decades ago. 

Source: Pew Research Center 
Not surprisingly, a new Pew study found that the American public continued to grow more polarized, with both Democrats and Republicans moving further into their ideological corners. Today, 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, compared with 70 percent back in 1994. Similarly, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the typical Democrat, compared with 64 percent 20 years earlier. This is reflected in a Congress that is also more polarized than it has been in at least 100 years, as measured by the voting records of individual legislators.

Congress of Little Consequence

The 112th and 113th Congresses were the least productive in many decades.

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