What Color is Your Recession?

By George P. Brockway, originally published October 1, 1990

1990-10-1 What Color is Your Recession Title

EVERYBODY SEEMS to have a theory about the when or what or how of a recession. The official or customary theory (I’m not sure what office decrees the custom) is that you have a recession if you have two back-to-back quarters of falling real GNP. Some journalists, apparently trying to avoid monotony, say you need to have six months of falling real GNP-which is a little bit harder to do. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan has a different approach. A business downturn has to feed on itself for him to call it a recession.

1990-10-1 What Color is Your Recession Greenspan

Before Greenspan will sit up and pay attention, inventories have to rise, causing orders for more goods to fall, causing workers who might make more goods to be fired, causing stores that might have sold goods to those ex-workers to lose business, causing them to cancel orders from their suppliers, causing more factory closings, and so on and on and on. The trouble with this is that if such a self-cannibalistic process should get started, Greenspan is not likely to be able to do much about it. The Federal Reserve Board was not conspicuously effective when it realized (some months after the event) that the Great Depression was upon us. Anyway, Milton Friedman, the monetary guru, says it takes two years for monetary policies to take effect.

In short, most economists feel they have done their job if they just say No to recession. But whether what we are now going through is a recession or not, it seems like one to honest proprietors of S&Ls (there used to be many), to automobile dealers, to building contractors, to all the earnest Willy Lomans desperately trying to meet their Christmas-line quotas, and to all their regular customers trying desperately to emulate the Japanese and place their orders “just in time.”

My poet friend has what she calls the Taxicab Theory. As late as the middle of August, she says, you could not get a cab in New York even if there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It took a half hour or more to sweat out the line at the Vanderbilt Avenue side of Grand Central. Now, she points out, you can get a cab anywhere, rain or shine, night or day. She concludes that if people don’t have money for taxis, we are in a recession. “If you don’t believe me,” she says, “you can ask the cabbies. They’ll tell you.”

No doubt there are other recession theories. What difference do the different theories make?  Suppose all those who are saying we’re in a recession, whatever their degree of technical sophistication, are right. So what? To be able to refer to “The Recession of1990-91” will no doubt be convenient for future historians, but how does it butter our parsnips today?

The answer, of course, is that if somehow someone could convince the Federal Reserve Board that we are in a recession, they might bring themselves to do something about it. And (this is what Samuel Johnson would call the triumph of hope over experience) they might even do the right thing. That’s why Chairman

Greenspan’s definition of a recession is so ominous. If, as he says, a recession is a disaster feeding on itself, there is not much that the monetary authorities can do; and if we are not in a recession, there is no need to do anything. His formulation is an ideal excuse for inaction.

Rather, it is an excuse for no change of action, for what former Chairman Paul A. Volcker liked to call “staying the course.” He was probably brought up (like me) on Iron Men and Wooden Ships and Howard Pyle’s Book of the American Spirit; so he couldn’t help it if others of our generation had visions of him as David Farragut standing in the rigging, shouting, “Damn the torpedoes! Captain Drayton, go ahead!” or as Ulysses S. Grant, lounging on a rough bench during the Wilderness campaign, calmly proposing to “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

The “two quarters” approach to recession is only slightly less lethargic than Greenspan’s. According to this view, the last recession ended in 1982. It follows that we have had prosperity ever since-in fact, we are told, the longest sustained prosperity in our history. Thus the definition of recession is also important because when you say what you mean by recession, you ipso facto reveal what you mean by prosperity. The meaning of bad times implies the meaning of good times. How good are the good times we have been enjoying from the end of 1982 to the present? Let me count the ways. The national debt has increased from $1.137 trillion in 1982 to $3.319 trillion today. The annual trade deficit has gone from $7 billion in 1982 to $136.5 billion today (with two higher years in between). The nation’s atomic plants have so deteriorated that it will cost $200 billion to repair them. Likewise, at a similar cost, the interstate highway system. The United States of America, the world’s largest creditor nation at the start of the period, is now the world’s largest debtor nation.

To be sure, we have been staying the course in order to conquer inflation. So what has happened? The Consumer Index has risen 34.7 per cent. Perhaps you are politically inclined and want to compare these eight Reagan-Bush years with the eight Kennedy-Johnson years. During the latter (which included the Vietnam War), the CPI went up only 22.7 per cent.

The foregoing is not the worst that can be said of our allegedly prosperous era. The worst is what was done to people directly.

In the years since 1982, the number of our unemployed fellow citizens has never fallen below 6.5 million and has generally been much higher. The number of those too discouraged or demoralized to look for work has hovered around 1 million. The number of those working part time has not fallen below 35 million. The number of men, women and children living in poverty has not fallen below 31.5 million. The number of the homeless can only be guessed at. Our infant mortality rate has become the worst of any industrialized nation. We have the most expensive and the least satisfactory medical care system. And the gap between the rich and the poor has steadily widened, reaching its widest in the figures just released by the Census Bureau.

I submit that the economy sketchily described above is not prosperous. Nor is it “fundamentally sound,” although that meaningless phrase will be trotted out if anything more goes wrong. Certainly the current state of affairs is not so wonderful that it justifies “staying the course.” Every sane citizen must want America to do better. Therefore the customary definition of recession and the Greenspan definition are both mischievously misleading.

We want to be alerted to any weakness in our society, and we want especially to be alerted to faltering in our striving to build and maintain a fair and free economy. We don’t have an economy simply to put chickens in our pots and automobiles in our garages. Communism in the Western world has collapsed because its objectives narrowed to just such trivia. When capitalism judges itself on the basis of its GNP, it risks succumbing to the same fate.

We have economics so that we all can be free and responsible providers of our own sustenance, thinkers of our own thoughts, and definers of our own relationships with our fellows. By “all” I mean all. We have come a long way, and obviously we have a long way to go.

HOW CAN WE measure our progress more precisely? We now have two statistical series that will serve at least for the time being. The first gives us the number and percentage of families living in poverty.

To no one’s surprise, the proper way of determining poverty is in dispute. On one side are those who say that the reported numbers of the poor are too high because the definition of poverty is limited to cash income only and excludes the value of public housing, food stamps, Medicaid, and so on.

On the other side are those who say that the reported numbers are too low because the definition of poverty is based on an estimate of the cost of necessary food, which is assumed to be one-third of the minimum budget. It is argued the estimate of the cost of necessary food is too low, and that other essential expenditures come to more than double the cost of food.

We may eventually reach that happy day when we have reduced the number of poor to the point where it is vital to settle this dispute. In the meantime our performance is so disgraceful that almost any definition of poverty will serve to mark our progress (or lack thereof) from year to year. Whether the number is 31 million or 16 million or 40 million, it is shameful and should spur decent people to action.

The other relevant statistical series shows the share of the national income that goes to the different quintiles or deciles of the population. Again there are disputes over details, and again the trend is a good-enough measure for now. Surprisingly, many people (among them Friedrich Engels) have fretted that perfect equality is either impossible or bad or both, but they really need not worry.

The two statistical series-the number or percentage of fellow citizens living in poverty, and the distribution of the national income-are both socially revealing and economically crucial. A free economy not only produces goods, it consumes them. If significant numbers of the citizens are unable-for whatever reason-to produce goods, the economy is weakened. If significant numbers are unable-for whatever reason-to consume what is or might be produced, the economy is weakened. The supply side must be balanced by the demand side, or the whole thing grinds to a halt.

The grinding to a halt is very like Greenspan’s self-cannibalism. It is not quite so bloodthirsty, but it is no less deadly. Real GNP may be increasing from quarter to quarter, yet increasing numbers of men, women and children are excluded. It may take decades or centuries, but the resulting stagnation and rot could destroy the society (see The Evils of Economic Man,” NL, July 9- 23).

We are not fated to destroy ourselves. To avoid destruction, however, we must first understand what can go wrong what is going wrong. The current popular tests of recession hinder-they do not help-our understanding.

 The New Leader

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