Recession, Depression, or Neither?

There’s no doubt that the U.S. economy is in a downturn. The cost of petroleum has skyrocketed, creating all manner of ripple effects throughout the economy. The “housing bubble” has burst in several cities and the sub-prime mortgage industry has gone bust, leaving many people upside down in their houses or facing — or experiencing — foreclosure. Bear-Stearns sold for pennies on the dollar. And the government is scrambling to at least give the appearance of doing something about all this.

Despite all this, there’s serious debate as to what to call all this. The media and political class seems to agree that we’re in a recession and some pundits say that we’re actually past recession and into a full-blown depression. Others reject these labels.

David Usborne says that we’re in a depression and that food stamps are the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Recession, Depression, or Neither? Michigan has been in its own mini-recession for years as its collapsing industrial base, particularly in the car industry, has cast more and more out of work. Now, one in eight residents of the state is on food stamps, double the level in 2000. “We have seen a dramatic increase in recent years, but we have also seen it climbing more in recent months,” Maureen Sorbet, a spokeswoman for Michigan’s programme, said. “It’s been increasing steadily. Without the programme, some families and kids would be going without.”

But the trend is not restricted to the rust-belt regions. Forty states are reporting increases in applications for the stamps, actually electronic cards that are filled automatically once a month by the government and are swiped by shoppers at the till, in the 12 months from December 2006. At least six states, including Florida, Arizona and Maryland, have had a 10 per cent increase in the past year.

Steve Fraser was using the “D” word back in December.

It is not only a matter of mass foreclosures. It is not merely a question of collapsing home prices. It is not simply the shutting down of large portions of the construction industry (which is inspiring some of the doom-and-gloom prognostications). It is not just the born-again skittishness of financial institutions that have, all of a sudden, gotten religion, rediscovered the word “prudence” and won’t lend to anybody. It is all of this, taken together, that points ominously to a general collapse of the credit structure that has shored up consumer capitalism for decades.

The equity built up during the long housing boom has been the main fallback position for ordinary people financing their big-ticket-item expenses, from college educations to consumer durables, from trading up in the housing market to vacationing abroad. Much of that equity has suddenly vanished, and more of it soon will. Also drying up fast are the lifelines of credit that allow all sorts of small and medium-size businesses to function and hire people. Whole communities, industries and regional economies are in jeopardy.

All of that might be considered enough, but there’s more. Oil, of course. Here the connection to Iraq is clear; but, arguably, the wild escalation of petroleum prices might have happened anyway. Certainly the energy price explosion exacerbates the general economic crisis, in part by raising the costs of production all across the economy and so abetting the forces of economic contraction. In the same way, each increase in the price of oil further contributes to what most now agree is a nearly insupportable level in the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit. That, in turn, is contributing to the steady withering away of the value of the dollar.

Finally, it is vital to recall that this tsunami of bad business is about to wash over an already very sick economy. While the old regime, the Reagan-Bush counterrevolution, has lived off the heady vapors of the FIRE sector, it has left in its wake a deindustrialized nation, full of super-exploited immigrants and millions of families whose earnings have suffered steady erosion. Two wage-earners, working longer hours, are now needed to (barely) sustain a standard of living once earned by one. And that doesn’t count the melting away of health insurance, pensions and other forms of protection against the vicissitudes of the free market or natural calamities.

Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s first Labor Secretary, has been throwing the word around, too, including in an appearance on NPR this past weekend.

American consumers are coming to the end of their ropes and don’t have the buying power they need to absorb the goods and services the U.S. economy is capable of producing. This is likely to mean fewer jobs, which will force Americans to pull in their belts even tighter, leading to still fewer jobs — the classic recipe for recession. That recession may turn into a full-fledged Depression if fiscal and monetary policies can’t make up for consumers’ lack of buying power. And there’s reason to worry they cannot because consumers are in a permanent bind. They’re deep in debt, their homes are losing value, and their paychecks are shrinking.

At the other extreme, the likes of John Lott are arguing that even talk of “recession” is a product of liberal media bias.

During the 2000 election, with Bill Clinton as president, the economy was viewed through rose-colored glasses. According to polls, voters didn’t realize that the country was in a recession. Although the economy started shrinking in July 2000, most Americans through the entire year thought that the economy was fine. But over the last half-year, the media and politicians have said we were in a recession even while the economy was still growing.


A little perspective on the economy would be helpful. The average unemployment rate during President Clinton was 5.2 percent. The average under President George W. Bush is just slightly below 5.2. The current unemployment rate is4.8 percent, almost half a percentage point lower than these averages.

The average inflation rate under Clinton was 2.6 percent, under Bush it is 2.7 percent. Indeed, one has to go back to the Kennedy administration to find a lower average rate. True the inflation rate over the last year has gone up to 4 percent, but that is still lower than the average inflation rate under all the presidents from Nixon through Bush’s father.

Gas prices are indeed up 33 percent over the last year, but to get an average of 4 percent means that lots of other prices must have stayed the same or gone down. On other fronts, seasonally adjusted civilian employment is 650,000 people greater than it was a year ago. Personal income grew at a strong half of one percent in just February.

As improbable as it may seem, all these things are true. We’ve simultaneously got a booming economy — in the sense that almost everyone who wants a job has a job and that most of us are living in material luxury that our parents, let alone our grandparents, could never have dreamed of at our age — and yet serious signs of an economic crisis. At both the government and family level, we’re generally living beyond our means, sustaining ourselves on easy credit and the unrealistic expectation that the good times will never end. With minor blips, we’ve had a booming stock market, made tons of money off our houses, and had historically low inflation for a quarter century.

Lott’s right that, to a large extent, perception is reality in economic matters. During most recessions, the effects are felt by a small percentage of the population as certain sectors shrink and a few simply go away forever. Yet the perception of a recession becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as people fear making large purchases, fear risking starting a new business or expanding their existing one, and otherwise hunker down.

He’s also right that, by traditional measures, we’re not in a recession. Historically, we’ve defined the term as “a decline in a country’s gross domestic product (GDP), or negative real economic growth, for two or more successive quarters of a year.” We haven’t even experienced one down quarter by that standard. More recently, though, the National Bureau of Economic Research has used a looser, more qualitative definition:

a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough. Between trough and peak, the economy is in an expansion.

By that standard, the current economy probably qualifies as being in recession — but we won’t “know” until NBER tells us months from now.

Reich and Fraser are right, too, that we’re afraid of the “D” word and have been loathe to apply it in recent decades. Depressions were relatively common in American economic history but the “Great Depression” of the late 1920s and 1930s forever changed our perception of that concept. Indeed, we invented the term “recession” afterwards to differentiate smaller downturns from major calamities.

Which brings us back to our question:

So how can we tell the difference between a recession and a depression? A good rule of thumb for determining the difference between a recession and a depression is to look at the changes in GNP. A depression is any economic downturn where real GDP declines by more than 10 percent. A recession is an economic downturn that is less severe.

By this yardstick, the last depression in the United States was from May 1937 to June 1938, where real GDP declined by 18.2 percent.

If we use this method then the Great Depression of the 1930s can be seen as two separate events: an incredibly severe depression lasting from August 1929 to March 1933 where real GDP declined by almost 33 percent, a period of recovery, then another less severe depression of 1937-38. The United States hasn’t had anything even close to a depression in the post-war period. The worst recession in the last 60 years was from November 1973 to March 1975, where real GDP fell by 4.9 percent. Countries such as Finland and Indonesia have suffered depressions in recent memory using this definition.

We’re certainly not in a depression. And any of us old enough to remember the 1970s know that this doesn’t feel at all like a major recession. Even with the skyrocketing prices at the gas pumps, inflation is unfathomably low even by Carter era standards. The “misery index” is amazingly healthy. Nobody’s sporting “Whip Inflation Now” buttons, instituting wage and price controls, or even sitting around in a cardigan talking about our national malaise.

But the boom times of the last quarter century have recalibrated our expectations. The milk and honey are now fully contained within the river beds rather than flooding the streets. So, naturally, people expect the government to stop pretending that it doesn’t have a magic wand to wave and get on with making it all better.

Usborne and Lott links via Memeorandum

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Raising the spectre of Hoovervilles, massive unemployment, and soup lines is a winning formula for the Democrats. Regardless of the merits I suspect we’ll hear lots of talk about economic depression for the next seven months.

    On the merits there’s probably an argument that some areas are experiencing depression. Some areas haven’t recovered the reduction in heavy industry that started thirty years ago. Isn’t that what Michael Moore built his career on?
    And the areas that have been most dependent on the boom in housing for their continued prosperity are bound to suffer most as that runs out of steam.

    Finally, what you’re accustomed to conditions how new developments look to you. There are lots of people (basically, anybody under 40) who have no active memories of really troubling economic conditions here in the U. S. Every slowing of economic growth will feel like a depression to them. The turndowns over the last 20 years in particular have been quite short and quite shallow. Although you’d never have known that from the reactions at the time.

  2. rodney dill says:

    “Whip Inflation Now”

    Heh, I remember those buttons, and I remember turning them upside down for “No Immediate Miracles”

    When I bought my first house the mortgage rates were around 13-15%. I was real happy to assume an existing mortgage around 9%. My current house I refinanced several times and got down to 6 and 5/8 percent before I got it paid off.

  3. Jimmie says:

    It’s amazing to me how the media can take a downturn in one industry (housing) and turn it into an indictment of the entire economy.

    There are very good reasons the housing market is falling right now and they aren’t reasons that are likely to drag the rest of the economy down unless we panic or Congress gets stupid. I’d argue that it’s already gotten stupid with Ethanol, which is pushing food prices higher, which is pushing the perception that there’s a bad recession on the way. It needs to sit on its hands and let the next six to nine months play out the way it needs to.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    It needs to sit on its hands and let the next six to nine months play out the way it needs to.

    If this were a year ago that might have been possible but I doubt they’ll be able to resist temptation in an election year.

    I think there’s a little more risk than you do, Jimmie (BTW, miss you at the Watcher’s Council). Most of the job growth over the last seven years has been in government, health care (50% or more of which comes from the government), and home construction. The housing bubble has tended to conceal the weakness in other sectors.

  5. When did government, or at least presidential candidates, stop pretending?

  6. peterike says:

    The media-induced “recession” will end the minute a Democrat is elected President. It always does. If McCain wins, we’ll keep hearing the same song we’ve heard for the past eight years, no matter which way the economy goes.

    Meanwhile, as unemployment creeps upward, it may have a positive effect by focusing people’s attention more on the calamity of unchecked immigration (legal and illegal) and the consequent downward pressure on wages, particularly among those who can least afford it.

    To give but one example, if people are losing jobs in the housing industry, why are there still countless illegals working in that industry? Perhaps a softening economy will finally generate the public outrage needed to fix our immigration mess.

  7. Bithead says:

    Let me put it this way, James;

    It’s always amazed me how the perception of Democrats, as to the condition of our economy, changes in relationship to where we are in the election cycle, and who it is that’s currently in power.

  8. davod says:

    The Dems have been screaming economic downturn ever since Bush took office. The only difference now is there is a downturn. It is not a depression or a recession – Yet.

    There is such a thing as talking down the economy.

  9. David says:

    When will we learn? Commonly accepted definitions mean nothing to politicians *spit* and Mass Media Podpeople. By any rational definition, we’re neither in a recession nor a depression at this time. YAking about those only conceals the real economic issues that lay in wait to take the U.S. down:

    –job depression for low-skilled workers by illegal immigrants (who, BTW, also place an undue, unearned stress upon public services)
    –a wacky tax structure (of the kind that the Founders wisely eschewed) that drives manufacturing offshore and exacerbates our trade imbalance
    –an education system (yes, it is an economic issue) that takes an ever bigger slice of tax monies for an ever-decreasing return of literacy and competence, fast depriving the U.S. of the workforce (and here) it needs to stay a first world economic power.

    And these are but a few of the real issues facing our economy. Of course Mass Media Podpeople and politicians *spit* ignore these.

  10. Steve Plunk says:

    We haven’t had a depression in seventy years. We haven’t had a real recession in about thirty years. In those time periods we have seen our economy change in many ways. Why are we not recognizing those changes and realizing the old models don’t apply?

    The market mechanics have changed and the governmental controls have changed. The investor class is different and the media reporting is more accessible to investors. Things are just too different to compare to previous eras.

  11. M1EK says:

    False equivalence: Lott is a sketchy guy to use as a source. If he’s the best you can drag up, we should be very worried.

  12. James Joyner says:

    If he’s the best you can drag up, we should be very worried.

    Nah, he’s just someone whose article is being talked about and therefore worth noting. The argument he’s making, though, is nonetheless reasonable in this instance.

  13. Bithead says:

    If he’s the best you can drag up, we should be very worried.

    So your defense is to attack the messenger and hope nobody notices what he’s saying?

  14. Jane Quatam says:

    He who fakes the numbers controls the economy. If anyone thinks the unemployment numbers are real or the core inflation numbers are real, then they have been smoking out of G.W. crack pipe.

    A thin veneer of elites has been looting the assets of this country since the early 80’s now a quick game of economic collapse is gaining steam to allow those with cash to grab whatever assets have been “overpriced”. The country is not monolithic, it must have all economic classes to exist, soon there will only be 2, the very rich and the very poor.

    The media’s job is to obfuscate and confuse while their masters take what they want, I don’t see anyone taking responsibility for the shoddy lending practices that precipitated this collapse. In fact I see the Federal Reserve trying to do a power grab and set themselves up as a regulators of the unregulated. The Fed is a private entity and has no business regulating the things the government should be regulating and enforcing.

    Depression, recession, boom time, it makes no difference what the media call it when your living in a cardboard box burning worthless dollars to keep warm. We’ve allowed the politicians to spend like drunken sailors, we are overextended and underfunded, we are dead men waiting to fall over.

  15. James Joyner says:

    Depression, recession, boom time, it makes no difference what the media call it when your living in a cardboard box burning worthless dollars to keep warm.

    How are you commenting on blogs from your cardbox box?

  16. Dave Schuler says:

    Broadband Internet for every cardboard box!

  17. Don Birkholz says:

    In reference to the increase in food stamps in the above article on recession or depression, a little known fact is that there are a lot on food stamps due to mandatory auto insurance laws.

    A survey done in Billings, MT, at my request thru the Montana DPHHS showed that 12 of the 96 food stamp applicants listed auto insurance as a reason for needing food stamps (

    Hank Hudson is incorrect, Allen Nichols is correct, a mandatory auto insurance law can cause an increase in food stamp nrs.

    Dr Maril did a study that showed that 44% of the respondents said they could not buy food due to auto insurance. (

    Maybe it is time we changed the way accidents are paid for and get these people off food stamps.

  18. C.Wagener says:

    Me and my kin folk are down to our last tatter. I hope that Barax Alabama feller gets elected. Things will be real good then.

  19. spencer says:

    Most of your analysis is good, but your data on the 1937-38 recession is incorrect.

    First, there is no official quarterly data on real GDP in the 1930s, only annual data.

    Second, the annual data shows a 3.5% drop in real gdp from 1937 to 1938. This is a severe recession by post war standards but not anywhere near the 18% drop you cite. The 1929 to 1933 drop in real gdp was 26.5% and the average drop from 1950 to 1984 was 2%. So by comparison you can see the 1937-38 estimate of 18% is way off.