"Of comfort no man speak . . . ."
It is difficult now to conjure up the semi-hysterical atmosphere hovering over the American economy this time last year. All was lost, the end was near. Or at least nearish.
Every day's paper brought another harbinger of doom. Paul Krugman, the New York Times' man in the dismal science, was being hailed as our contemporary Cassandra. O, woe was us.
The news was full of jeremiads, complete with accompanying panaceas out of the still new Obama administration, most of them involving expansion of the still new Obama administration. Into everything from Government Motors to health care. For no crisis must go to waste, and the bigger the crisis, the bigger the government (and the national debt) must grow. Therefore this crisis had to be not only big but Great, as in the Great Depression.
That was the message from Congress, the White House, the oh-so-learned punditry, and the ever-talking heads on the telescreen who assured us that even more bad news was on the way. Eeyores proliferated. Even the blues were bluer than ever. ("Since this recession I'm losing my baby/ because the times are getting so hard...." --B.B. King.)
We common folk could read all about it in the headlines. ("Tumbling stocks end a bleak week") while the carriage trade got the same message in The New Yorker. In its glossy pages, connoisseurs of collapse could find a complete guide to every variety of economic pessimist: doomers, peakists, dystopians of all 57 varieties. They were all reveling in the bad news.
Depression chic was in. The new, vibrant young president of the country sounded more like a pallbearer. His favorite terms were Catastrophic and Unprecedented. As if he were going to scare us back into prosperity. He kept saying we faced economic conditions unknown since the Great Depression, or maybe the Beginning of Time: "We begin this year and this administration in the midst of an unprecedented crisis that calls for unprecedented action."
Unprecedented? That covers a lot of history -- indeed, all the history there is. For what is history but a series of precedents? So much for the Crash of '87, aka Black Monday at the time. And the Reagan Recession of '81-'82. (We tend to forget that the Reagan Years had their economic downside, too.) Or the runaway, Weimaresque inflation of the Carter Years. All the way back to Roosevelt Recession of 1937, the recession inside the Depression that followed FDR's decision to crack down on capital in '36. Sure enough, he succeeded. Capital dried up.