Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Robert Reich, I beg of you, don't start calling it a depression quite yet.

Seriously folks, I used to really like Robert Reich.

He's a really smart guy - a smart guy with a generally high likability quotient (from what I see of him on TV). I may even have voted for him in the Democratic primary when he ran for governor of Massachusetts a few years ago. I seem to recall passing him on the street one time. We smiled and nodded, in that way you do when you make eye contact with someone kind of famous who's willing to make eye contact. He looked likable.

He can really write. I even bought one of his books - the one with the blue and white cover - in hardback. Yes, it's still somewhere in my reading pile, but I will get to it one day.

He's someone I usually agree with politically. (Well, duh, I did say I probably voted for him.) I was especially happy when he called out the Clintons for some of their more egregious behavior during this last political cycle.

But I'm not agreeing with him this week.

On Friday, Robert Reich wrote a blog post entitled Shall We Call it a Depression Now? I believe he was on one of the talking head shows last week talking the same talk. (Truly, I watch so many of those shows that I'm forgetting which pundits I've seen where - or even if. Maybe I only saw him punditing in my dreams, the same way that TaiPei and Tetris show up in the wee small hours of the morning when I've been spending too much time playing games.)

Shall we call it a depression now?

As we used to say in Worcester:  Let's not and say we did.

The last thing we want to do right now is make things worse by pushing folks who are distressed enough already into a near-complete paralysis - partial paralysis, of course: we'll still all have the ability to work ourselves into a froth.

By posing this as a rhetorical question, of course, Reich is coyly not giving us the answer. He's just leaving us to infer that, of course we should be calling it a depression. (OMG, Robert Reich says we're in a depression! Run for the hills!)

I agree with Reich when he writes that the unemployment numbers - by not taking into account "discouraged workers," part timers wishing they were full timers, "consultants" wishing they were employees, et al.  -  very likely understate true unemployment.  And that unemployment - no matter how stated or understated it is - is likely to rise even further.

He is also likely correct when he characterizes consumer spending as "falling off a cliff." Black Friday and Cyber Monday quasi-optimism aside, I don't imagine that a lot of people are dealing with the current dreadful uncertainty by buying up a storm, unless they're hoarding.

But when he writes:

When FDR took office in 1933, one out of four American workers was jobless. We're not there yet, but we're trending in that direction.

Okay, okay. As with the rhetorical question, Reich is not saying that we're looking at 25% unemployment, just that "we're trending in that direction" - a position that's in clear accord with the unemployment rate rising. But as with the rhetorical question, it is ours to infer that he may well foresee catastrophic unemployment. (OMG, Robert Reich says we're gonna have 25% unemployment. Head for the hills! But not before turning in everyone you suspect of being an illegal alien holding one of the those glam jobs like house cleaner.)

Reich also provides some policy suggestions, so he clearly believes that the Federal government, in all its power and glory, has access to the "instruments" that will help turn the economy around.

But I think that he does us all a disservice by framing his comments with a question about terming the current meltdown a depression.

Yes, it's scary.

Yes, it's big.

Yes, it's bad.

Yes, it very well could by nasty, brutish, and long.

But do we really believe that we haven't learned enough about fiscal and monetary policy over the years to make 25% unemployment and double digit declines in GDP over a couple of years unthinkable? (Over the most severe years of the Great Depression, GDP fell by nearly one-half.)

Of course, you don't get to be a pundit - on Hardball, on Countdown, or in Maureen Rogers' dreams - by not being more than a bit out there. (What's more sound-bitey: 'we're-in-a-recession,' or 'hey, hey, let's talk the D-word'?)

Puritanically speaking (if an ex-Catholic can, in fact, speak puritanically), whatever's happening now may be a necessary corrective, the wake up call we need to remind us that we've overeaten and under-exercised.

And the inner-Pollyanna in me - brought out by Robert Reich's post; who knew she even existed? - wouldn't mind if we as a nation took the opportunity (all that time we'll save not shopping and playing with our new gadgets) to join in a discussion on what type of country we want to be when it comes to what we work at and, more to the point, how we share our still amply abundant wealth with each other, and how we share the resources  of this small and fragile planet with everyone else who calls it home.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't think that asking whether we should call "it" a depression is really going to help us out of "it", let alone encourage us to have the long-overdue conversation that I'm guessing, in his heart of hearts, Robert Reich also wants us to have.

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