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The Un-recession

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Good news. The folks in charge of such things announced this week that the recession is over. Actually, it's been over for some time. It officially ended in June 2009, according to the Business-Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is responsible for making such determinations. As of then, our national output stopped declining and started increasing, along with a number of other key indicators.

Hurrah. I guess.

The bad news is that we've lost more jobs than we've added since the recovery began. This is not the kind of statistic most of us would associate with an economic recovery.

The worse news is that there appears to be no end in sight for unemployment in the 9 percent to 10 percent range. In order to just keep unemployment where it is now -- at a rather unacceptable 9.6 percent -- the experts say the economy needs to grow at an annual rate of about 2.5 percent. The rate for the second quarter was only 1.6 percent, and the predictions for the third quarter aren't much better. What that seems to mean is that unemployment may actually go up, and it's certainly not going way down anytime soon.

The fact that we're in a recovery means that the Obama administration can't blame any future recession on what they inherited from George Bush. But at the same time, you don't get a whole lot of credit for turning the economy around when one in 10 people is unemployed. Not to mention all the people who are employed but are making much less than they used to and the people who have given up and so don't get counted at all. And then there are all the people whose single biggest asset -- their house -- has become a liability because they're "underwater" on their mortgage.

There may be some places where it feels like the recovery is in full swing. (Occasionally, I go to packed restaurants and think to myself: Is there a recession?) But the overwhelming majority of Americans have a relative or close friend or neighbor who is most assuredly not recovering, not even close. Most strikingly, one in seven Americans is living in poverty, many of them children, for whom the long-term consequences can be severe.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, a good show all around.

The president and his party are not in trouble because they finally managed to do something about health care, provided stimulus funds and regulated the financial industry. All of those things would be viewed in a completely different light -- a very positive light -- if more people were working at good jobs and being paid good wages. The problem is that none of the things the president has done has resulted in anything approaching the sort of full-employment economy it would take to celebrate those rather remarkable legislative accomplishments.

Patience is not one of our strong suits as a nation. Much of the time, our lack of patience works in our favor: We work hard, push hard, demand rewards and often get them. We expect things to happen fast. We are a young country, created by brave and ambitious immigrants looking to literally change the world. And we did.

It's hard to be patient when you're living on savings, barely scraping by, happy to have a job you would have once thought beneath you, loaning money to less fortunate relatives and friends, watching a recovery that means some people are making more but you're not making anything at all.

Barack Obama doesn't have any problem that about five points less unemployment couldn't solve. How long he -- and we -- will have to wait for that is another story. The truth is that a jobless recovery isn't really a recovery at all.

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