Thursday, September 3, 2009

Getting Ahead of Ourselves

I know we're all eager for the recession to be over.

Most economists say the recession began in December 2007, which means that the economy has been in the toilet for more than a year and a half. It's been just about a year since the economic meltdown that really sent things into a tailspin. Nationally, unemployment has been higher than 9% for the last couple of months — and we'll get an update tomorrow.

We could all use some good news.

But it seems a little premature for to be wondering "Who should get credit for a recovery?"

Maybe, as Chris Isidore suggests, there really is "a growing sense that the economy is now in a recovery." As one of the millions of Americans who is out of work, I devoutly hope it is. And maybe we will see evidence of that when the monthly jobs report comes out tomorrow.

That's the real key, isn't it? Most Americans won't feel that things are getting better until they can see a shift in the jobless pattern. For the last year, the economy has been losing jobs in the hundreds of thousands every single month. The days when job losses in five figures were alarming are nothing but a distant memory now.

In fact, Americans have become so conditioned to six–figure job losses that my guess is that, if we do see job losses that drop below six figures in tomorrow's report, it will be hailed as evidence that the recovery is under way — even though the report may still show the economy losing jobs, not adding jobs.

At the moment, though, that is hypothetical.

The issue of assigning credit for a recovery is not a frivolous ego exercise, Isidore points out. "[K]nowing what policies worked, and which ones need to stay in place, could keep the recovery from stalling out."

Ah, but there is the catch. Americans haven't concluded that the recovery has begun.

In fact, reports that "[n]early nine in ten Americans say the country's still in a recession."

CNN's Deputy Political Director Paul Steinhauser quotes CNN Polling Director Keating Holland, who says, "Economists may be speculating that the recession is over, but don't tell that to the American public."

The point is that perception is reality. And perception of the masses is more important than the perception of the few. If you have any doubts about that, I suggest that you consult George H.W. Bush.

The recession that occurred on Bush's watch was relatively mild, by historical standards, and economists proclaimed that a recovery had begun months before the 1992 election. But when Americans went to the polls, they voted for Bill Clinton. The historical indicators that a recession was over weren't evident in their own lives.

As I say, I know we're all hungry for some good news. But let's wait until there really is some good news before we start celebrating.

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