Commentary

Keep Complaining about the Economy

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared on Marketplace on June 4, 2008.

Come on! Will we ever get a recession? Sure, gas and food prices are inspiring new expeditions into couch cushions across the nation. But without full-on recession, without a declaration that the economy’s officially hosed, it seems like we have to accept that it’s not that bad.

With a real recession, we could blame somebody — President Bush, the Federal Reserve, the Democratic Congress, greedy investment bankers — take your pick! And the upside of pain is complaining about it; a bona fide recession is a license to let slip the dogs of kvetch. But the economy keeps stumbling along like a drunk who never quite falls down. If it’s going to be so lousy anyway, you almost want to say: “Just fall, damn it.”

Economic growth is neither constant nor predictable. It speeds up and it slows down, sometimes so much the economy starts to shrink — the dreaded recession.

According to the standard definition, a recession is two consecutive quarters of contraction. But, somewhat mysteriously to economists, fluctuations in the business cycle have moderated over the past 25 years — as if the economy went on lithium in the early 80’s. Recessions are less common, downturns less severe, and that pattern seems to be holding. Which is to say, it really isn’t that bad.

Unemployment is up … to 5 percent, which used to be considered really, really low. The inflation rate, including energy and food, is up to almost 4 percent. But in 1981, the last time gas was anywhere near this expensive in real terms, inflation was over 11 percent. Despite everything, the American economy appears annoyingly resilient.

But I say we complain anyway, recession or no recession. We didn’t used to whine about spotty cell phone coverage, but now we do. And that’s progress. When things keep getting better, it takes less to warrant complaint. So what if the economy’s still pretty good? This is America! That’s not good enough.

Media Appearance Will Wilkinson talks about the economy on Marketplace (June 4, 2008) [MP3]

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.