The Great Recession of ’74, ’82, ’92 and ’07

By: - April 2, 2010 12:00 am

Popes choose their names. Hurricanes get theirs from the National Weather Service. But who decided we had to call our current economic downturn the “Great Recession”?

No one, it turns out. At least no one in an official position mandated adoption of the term, which started slipping into daily use last December, after President Obama incorporated it into a speech .   The closest thing to official designation came from the Associated Press , which announced in February that since so many people were using “Great Recession,” the news organization would include the term in its stylebook, a standard in newsrooms and journalism schools across the country.

It may be premature. For one thing, we do not even know the length of the recession. The National Bureau of Economic Research will determine that. The private company, based in Cambridge, Mass., established that the recession began in December 2007, but has yet to declare when it ended. Economists generally say the recession ended in mid-September of 2008.

“The AP is within reason to make the change that they did because their concern is contemporary language that appears in journalism,” says Orin Hargraves, a Maryland lexicographer and vice president of the Dictionary Society of North America. “The phenomenon is so widely discussed that it is helpful to have a standard name for it. But the needs of a dictionary and a journalist’s stylebook are quite different, and it is certainly way too early for this term to be in a dictionary. First, we don’t even know if the thing is over!”

I thought it would be fun to track down earlier uses of the term. Others have tried too, notably Catherine Rampell in The New York Times , who reached the same conclusion I did after I read through a pile of research ably compiled by my colleague Sage Hulsebus: The Great Recession has already been employed — or overemployed to describe other recessions since the 1930s. 

“Historians may look back on the Bush presidency as the beginning of a Great Recession, a period of prolonged economic stagnation, a kind of muted echo of the Great Depression, which too followed a decade of prosperity, growth and speculative excess,” wrote syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Krauthammer wrote that in 1992 about George H. W. Bush. The next Great Recession began 15 years later under Bush’s son, George W. Bush.

Then there’s the 1981-1982 slump. Why shouldn’t it count as a Great Recession? Unemployment was higher (10.8 percent peak) than it is now (10.1 percent peak). The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, certainly thought it was a momentous event, using the GR term in a 1982 speech. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan blamed Reagan for the Great Recession, saying in 1983 it was caused by “a crash between monetary and fiscal policy.”

Forbes magazine called the 1973-1975 downturn the Great Recession in several articles. Syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft wrote in May 1975, “Practically everybody agrees that recovery from the great recession of 1974 is about to begin.”

There have even been regional uses of the GR label. William McEachern, a University of Connecticut professor, coined Great Recession to describe Connecticut’s economy in 1992. “At the time, I never expected or wanted the term to catch on for the national economy,” he says. “But it did catch on for the Connecticut economy.”

McEachern tracked words and phrases used in presentations and paper titles at a recent meeting of the Allied Social Science Association, which includes economists. He found that “financial crisis” was the most popular expression for the current slump, with 39 mentions in the 2010 program. “Economic crisis” was used 26 times. “Recession” came up 11 times, eight times without a modifier, once as “deep recession” and twice as “Great Recession.”

At least one analyst goes so far as to call the crisis a depression. Richard Posner of the University of Chicago law school wrote in his book, “A Failure of Capitalism,” that “It is the gravity of the economic downturn, the radicalism of the government’s responses, and the pervading sense of crisis that mark what the economy is going through as a depression.”

No one would dispute that the current financial crisis is the most acute since the collapse of the 1930s and, as McEachern says, “probably deserves some sort of distinction.” Certainly anyone who follows the impact the recession has had on state government would arrive at that conclusion. But until more time passes, can’t we just call it the Recession of 2007-2009 and leave the “greatness” label to historians?

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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.