The Great Recession: Is “Great” the Right Word?

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Sometimes, an adjective seems inappropriate. Take “great.” It seems both overused and misused. Wayne Gretzky? No doubt about it: GREAT. Alexander the Great? Sure. Muhammad Ali? The Greatest. But plagues, wars, floods, depressions, economic panics, riots, and recessions? If any of these things are occurring, the situation seems less than great. Not even good, or mediocre. Nonetheless, we are apparently in the middle (or fingers crossed, toward the end) of the Great Recession.

The WSJ analyzes how the current recession matches up against previous downturns, and indeed, in many ways, we’re number one! It’s already the longest recession at 19 months—take that, measly 16-month recessions of the early 1970s and 1980s. The unemployment rate was higher in 1982 than it is now (10.8 percent vs. 9.5 percent), but fear not: Most economists believe beating that old high mark is likely in the near future.

Where today’s recession really sticks out is how quickly and dramatically it is has made people less wealthy.

Falling home prices have decreased the equity the U.S. households have in their homes — that is, the value of their homes minus what they owe on them — by $5.1 trillion, a 41% drop. They also have lost trillions of dollars in the stock market. No other episode of wealth destruction since the 1930s comes close.

I guess the flip side is: People have fallen from financial heights that they probably had not earned to begin with. It was a false sense of equity. We couldn’t have fallen so far if we hadn’t soared so high, though falling back to earth still hurts. When are we going to land? Your guess is as good as mine—and perhaps it is better than most economists’ forecasts.