Thursday, January 12, 2017
Maybe this blog will live on with only meta commentary looking back on past thoughts. But on this day the Pittsburgh Steelers began an era. Defeating the Minnesota Vikings (16-6) on January 12, 1975, the victory was the first of 4 Steelers Superbowls over just 6 years.
There continues to be this persistent mythos that the Steelers fans during those first Superbowl years were largely made up of vast number of unemployed workers who were cheering the team on as their jobs were being eliminated en masse. It remains to me an odd memory that only lacks in any economic data to support it. So strong is this whole idea that whole books (by respectable authors)have been written on the topic. I have written about this here many times (for example in 2010: The Economics of Cliff Stoudt), but have had this conversation with innumerable folks who all, almost universally, disagree with me. Often quite vehemently.
Let’s start with this factoid. Here is a short table of the unemployment rates in Pittsburgh and the United States during the months of each of Pittsburgh’s Superbowl victories.
Superbowl – Pittsburgh Unemployment Rate – US Unemployment rate
Superbowl IX (January 1975) 6.4% 8.1%
Superbowl X (January 1976) 6.7% 7.9%
Superbowl XIII (January 1979) 5.8% 5.9%
Superbowl XIV (January 1980) 6.8% 6.3%
So during 3 of those 4 games, the local unemployment rate was well below the national rate, and in two cases far below the national average. If you want to take the last game as an exception, here is something to think about. Pittsburgh MSA employment reached 1,099,600 jobs in February 1980, or just a few days after the Superbowl was played. That was actually an all-time high in the region’s employment count. By that I mean an all-time high going back as far as there is consistent metropolitan data reported in 1946.
Not convinced or think, as some have tried to argue with me, manufacturing employment was collapsing at the time even if overall labor force stats were more positive? I once posted here the manufacturing employment levels across the 10 counties of southwesternPennsylvania during the 1970s. In 1974 (when those games leading up to Superbowl IX were played), SWPA averaged almost 316 thousand manufacturing jobs, an increase over the most recent years and likely a peak going back over a long time before then. In 1979 the same region still averaged over 300 thousand manufacturing jobs, about the number the region had at the end of the 1950s if not higher. There had been no big plunge of factory jobs here (yet).
Still, there are few things I’ve been less able to convince people of than this. Numbers don’t matter and I’ve had very thoughtful people just say it does not add up to them. What they remember is something very different and contradictory. It's not a question of memory persisting, its a memory that only came later. This may all mean something to recent political news as well, but I will leave that to other pseudo-pundits.
So why the disconnect? I think the 1970s were a traumatic economic time with multiple oil embargoes making gas prices jump, high inflation and the dreaded ‘stagflation’ or inflation without growth. Certainly those things impacted everyone in Pittsburgh, but they impacted all Americans. Did manufacturing have slow times during the two national recessions of the 1970s? Yes, but even that has to be taken into context. Manufacturing employment had always been highly cyclical and fluctuated with the national economy. When national unemployment rates went up, unemployment in manufacturing industries, and manufacturing regions, went up even higher. Pittsburgh experienced multiple periods of double digit unemployment rates many times during the 1950s and 1960s, yet never even came close to a a double digit rate during the 1970s. Even in the two national recessions of the 1970s, US Steel - then still the region's largest employer - did not fare badly during the decade (again, strongly against popular belief). Don't take that from me, here is a contemporary quote from then US Steel Chairman in 1975 saying the recession the nation was then in the middle of was "Steel's best recession ever."
But history has many ironies. In the very month the very last of those superbowls, Superbowl XIV in January 1980, the NBER later recorded that month as the beginning of a new recession. Though it was a short recession, ending officially after just 7 months, there was only a brief respite before another recession started in 1981. Some consider the two just part of one big economic downturn, but one which see the palpable collapse of so many local steel jobs. But another Superbowl victory did not come for decades.
Anyways… playoff time is a funny time in pundit land. The merging of sports and general opining can get kind of funny this time of year. Who remembers our friend Bill Johnson from Denver who parachuted in to write a story criticizing Pittsburgh aesthetics during the championship game in 2006. I am sure we have a few alien reporters among us from Kansas City right now.