“It was the worst of times, and it was the worst of times.”
I imagine that’s what Charles Dickens would conclude about the current condition of the U.S. economy, based on the relentless drumbeat of pessimism in the media and on the campaign trail. In the past two months, this newspaper alone has written no fewer than nine times, in news stories, columns and op-eds, that key elements of the economy are the worst they’ve been “since the Great Depression.” That diagnosis has been applied twice to the housing “slump” and once to the housing “crisis,” to the “severe” decline in home prices, to the “spike” in mortgage foreclosures, to the “change” in the mortgage market and the “turmoil” in debt markets, and to the “crisis” or “meltdown” in financial markets.
It’s a virus — and it’s spreading. Do a Google News search for “since the Great Depression,” and you come up with more than 4,500 examples of the phrase’s use in just the past month.
But that doesn’t make any of it true. Things today just aren’t that bad. Sure, there are trouble spots in the economy, as the government takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and jitters about Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers, amply demonstrate. And unemployment figures are up a bit, too. None of this, however, is cause for depression — or exaggerated Depression comparisons.
There have been 11 recessions since the Great Depression. And we’re nowhere close to being in the 12th one now. This isn’t just a matter of opinion. Words — even words as seemingly subjective as “recession” — have meaning.
Whatever the political outcome this year, hopefully this will prove to be yet another instance of that iron law of economics and markets: The sentiment of the majority is always wrong at key turning points. And the majority is plenty pessimistic right now. That suggests that we’re on the brink not of recession, but of accelerating prosperity.
That was published in The Washington Post on September 14, 2008. Only a day later, Lehman Brothers would filed for bankruptcy and, the next day, the stock market would begin a free fall that didn’t let up until well after the 2009 had begun.
If you had a time machine, knew the future, and purposefully tried to write something where every word was literally wrong, you could not have done a better job.
One wonders what Mr. Luskin is thinking about today.