You call this a recession?

The traditional textbook definition of a recession is simple: two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. You might think that the 2001 downturn qualified on that basis for the term recession, since it is commonly called one, but it did not. The mild economic contractions that occurred were alternated with quarters of positive growth. The last real recession, by the textbook definition, was in 1990-1991.

Economists are unsure whether we are currently entering a recession now, but even many of those who think so aren't actually saying we are in a recession as defined by the traditional textbook criteria. What they are really predicting is that the current downturn will be categorized as a recession by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which has, by common acceptance, become the arbiter of such things.

While the NBER is a respected organization, its process of determining recessions is subjective: it is a judgment executed by a committee. This is less than ideal.

Anyone familiar with the work of committees knows that they are, to put it mildly, imperfect. It would be far better to stick to some kind of objective criteria, whatever it might be, than depend on the work of a committee for our perception of reality, however laudable its members.

It is at this point that I bring up my age. I am nearing 50. During my life I have seen inflation as high as 14%. I have seen local unemployment, in Chicago, of 12.5%. There used to be something called the misery index - the sum of inflation and national unemployment - which once approached 20%. It has been so low for so long that no one even tracks it anymore. We used to have real recessions, and no one needed to water down the definition, let alone consult with a committee, to declare them. 

Let's face it. We are living in a golden time. Unemployment, probably the most important measure of economic pain, is 4.8%. Economists fear it may rise to as high as 5.5%! Wow. That's rough. In my college economics classes, I was told that anything less than 6% was considered a 'labor shortage.' Of course, we didn't talk much about labor shortages in those days because, as I say, unemployment in Chicago was 12.5%.

So bear in mind, in this time of national angst, that recessions - like college grade point averages, 'quarter-pound' hamburgers, and the dollar - are not quite what they used to be. Especially in an election year.


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