Still the Optimist

Paul Greenberg

5/5/2010 9:01:13 PM - Paul Greenberg

"Of comfort no man speak . . . ."

--"Richard II"

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.

Michelle Malkin

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.

Then there were the recurrent Panics of the early 1900s and earlier -- all through the 1800s. Today's slowly passing recession is really more of an old-fashioned financial panic -- without a J.P. Morgan to end it with dispatch.

And let's not forget other precedents: The long-running recession that began in 1837, following in the wake of Andrew Jackson's war on the Bank of the United States. (He won, the United States lost.) Or the New Madrid of economic shocks that struck in 1819.

This current, easing recession was anything but unprecedented. But to say so at the time was a lonely experience. There were times when I felt like a minority of one. "The last optimist" was the headline on a column of mine that ran in March 2009.

To keep your head when others all about you are losing theirs ... may be just a sign you don't understand the situation.

A year later, the sunshine is breaking through here and there, but there will always be those who hate to give up the gloom. It seems to cheer them. If they can no longer compare these times to the Great Depression without sounding silly, they seem determined to hold on to the moniker, Great Recession. ("All over our country, people who lost their jobs in the Great Recession are looking for work." --Barack Obama)

For the greater the recession, the more sectors of the economy the federal government needs to control, right? Pessimism is the natural ally of those who would ever expand government power. Bad times are the health of the state.

Even if the economy isn't ending, then the world is -- through climate change. And the only way to save it is, as usual, higher taxes.

Those of us who dare point out that this crisis, too, will pass, and indeed is passing, are sure to be accused of cock-eyed optimism. We prefer to think of it as historical perspective. For just as English history may be read as a continuing thesis against revolution, American history may be read as a continuing thesis against pessimism.