The common definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth, as we reminded readers in a January 24, 2008, editorial, "Recession Looms?" Well, despite the determination of politicians in Washington to deliver a "stimulus" to counter a recession, despite the persistence of the huffing and puffing from Paul Krugman about how the economy is about to go into a recession, despite the harrumphing of even the likes of Alan Greenspan, somehow the recession is proving elusive.
That is certainly the indication from the Department of Commerce, which yesterday announced that the gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2008 grew at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 0.6%. That's a real rate of growth, which means that the economy grew faster than inflation, which was itself not negligible. It was the same real growth rate that the government measured in the fourth quarter of 2007.
We'd like to see stronger growth, like, say, in the third quarter of 2003, when the economy started to get the feel of the Bush tax cuts and grew at an astonishing seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 7.5%. Or the year that began in April of 1983 and ended in March of 1984, when President Reagan's supply-side measures began to work their incentives and when the American economy grew consistently at a supercharged rate of more than 8%.
But two consecutive quarters of 0.6% growth is not bad, when measured against, say, the fourth quarter of 1990 and the first quarter of 1991, when real GDP shrank at an annualized rate of 3% and 2%. That was negative growth, not merely slow growth. Another genuinely bad patch was in spring and summer of 1980. In the second quarter of 1980, growth was negative 7.8%.
What we're seeing now ó a national unemployment rate of 5.1% in March, a stock market whose indexes are up nearly 5% for the month of April ó does not a recession make. In the early 1980s, we saw double-digit unemployment rates. In the early 1990s, the unemployment rate reached 7.8%. A 5.1% national unemployment rate is not a recession. There may yet be a recession, but Mr. Krugman & Co. will have to wait a bit more.
This is not to minimize the pain or hardship felt by those who have been affected by the job losses on Wall Street, who face losing their homes in a foreclosure proceeding, or who have been affected by the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas. But the American economy and the capitalist system and open markets are remarkably robust.
President Bush has now presided over 26 consecutive quarters of positive GDP growth, beginning immediately after the quarter that included the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. President Reagan was credited with the "Seven Fat Years" in a book of that name by Robert Bartley that derived its title from Genesis. President Bush has two more quarters to go to make it to 28 quarters of growth, which would be seven fat years of his own and leave responsibility for protecting the Bush boom to whomever America elects as the next president.