Celebrating and Capitalizing on Our Misery

The economy, as measured by growth in the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), finally grew again in the third quarter. That bit of decent news only papers over an otherwise dreadful situation.

Of course, compared to the alternative, the positive GDP report is welcome. Barring drastic subsequent downward adjustments, it brings an end to the recession as normal people define it. Whether it concludes the recession as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which was inexplicably allowed to hijack the dictionary and substitute their arbitrary judgment as to what an “official” recession is decades ago, is anyone’s guess.

NBER’s alleged experts “determined” that the current recession really began in December 2007, during a quarter when the economy grew at an annualized 2.7%. The NBER-defined recession somehow continued during the second quarter of 2008 while GDP was growing at an annualized 1.5%. If the group ultimately declares that the recession ended during the past quarter, it will be the first time it has done so while the economy was shedding so many seasonally adjusted jobs (768,000, or almost 0.6% of the workforce, pending possible adjustments).

While GDP is up, many economic metrics that matter more to the average person are down, so much so that it’s probably fair to say that the economy as most Americans experience it is still shrinking. This explains why, despite the “it’s not that bad” hymn the choir known as the nation’s establishment press continues to sing, the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index fell sharply in October and is below where it was in September 2008.

The most obvious problems are soaring unemployment and growing underemployment.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in September was 9.8%. Even that horrid figure, which Christina Romer of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers expects not to change much between now and the end of 2010, masks how bad things really are. That’s because many potential workers are dropping out.

If you compare the sum of the civilian labor forces of all 50 states and the District of Columbia at this Bureau of Labor Statistics table as of September 2009 to a year earlier (separately calculated here), you’ll find that the workforce shrunk by almost 600,000. Take out Texas and the shrinkage is almost 900,000. Perform the same operation on this seasonally adjusted table (again shown here), this time comparing September 2009 to July, and you’ll see a decline of 351,000 in just two months (almost 400,000 if you again take out Texas). Meanwhile, during the past year the nation’s 16-and-over population has increased by almost two million. It’s clear that a lot of people who would prefer to be working have taken themselves out of the job market, thus disappearing entirely from the government’s jobs analyses.