New column: Don’t say the D word

  • Share
  • Read Later

My new column is online and in the issue of TIME with a bunch of lists on the cover. It begins:

It was only on the first of December that we finally got formal permission–from the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)–to call what the U.S. economy is experiencing a recession. Just a few days later, after the Labor Department announced that U.S. employers shed 533,000 jobs in November and 1.2 million since August, some were agitating to ditch the R word and replace it with the more ominous D one. “Shall we call it a depression now?” asked former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “The threat of a widespread depression is now real and present,” argued the University of Maryland’s Peter Morici.

It’s a little hard to know what to make of such portentous statements, given that there is no agreed-upon dividing line between recessions and depressions, and no descriptive word in between. “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job,” Harry Truman once quipped. “It’s a depression when you lose yours.” What Reich and Morici seemed to be groping for–other than media exposure (mission accomplished!)–was a way to express that the current downturn may be a more serious phenomenon than other recessions of the post–World War II era.

In terms of length, this recession already looks likely to break the postwar record of 16 months set in 1973-75 and equaled in 1981-82. The NBER has deemed December 2007 the start date (because that’s when employment peaked), and it’s very hard to find anybody willing to predict that the economy will resume growing by May. As for severity, though the first eight months of the recession were quite mild, the pace of job losses since August is beginning to rival that of the big 1970s and ’80s recessions. So while President-elect Barack Obama and others who dub this the worst downturn since the Great Depression don’t have definitive evidence just yet, they’re not blowing smoke either. Read more.

Farther down in the piece is what I think is a first: A quote from a comment to this blog. So, Bryan from Houston, if you want a couple copies of the magazine in which your brilliance is immortalized, just send me an e-mail.