There is an old joke about the difference between a recession and a depression that goes something like this:
"A recession is when your neighbor is out of work.
A depression is when you are out of work."
Economists tell us that we are in the throes of a "recession." Tell that to the millions of people who have been out of work, with a staggering forty percent of them jobless for more than six months. They would surely call it a depression. Worse still, many of those same people are seeing the jobs they once enjoyed simply vanish. Recovery or not, they are gone forever because the industries that supported those jobs are shrinking or changing radically. I think of many of my colleagues and friends at newspapers and television networks, seeing their careers disappear overnight. But there are millions of others today in different industries in that same desperate, helpless situation.
Some politicians and economists say things may be getting better. Sunday's Washington Post suggests otherwise, proclaiming in its headline, "Three Indicators Spell Trouble For the Recovery." According to the Commerce Department, new home sales plunged to their lowest level in 50 years. A new CBS news report quotes the managing director of the Economic Cycle Research Institute calling certain unemployment figures "off the charts." Last week, new jobless claims confounded experts, growing by more than 20,000 instead of shrinking by that same amount which had been predicted. A recent New York Times headline pointed to an equally gloomy foreseeable future, "Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without jobs." If you are a homeowner, in over your head and trying to get out -- good luck. Sales of previously owned homes, which make up the bulk of the nation's buying activity fell for the second straight month.
Let's not overlook the walking wounded -- those who still have jobs but with additional workloads, reduced salaries or mandatory furloughs. Are you at work? Look around you. Are there fewer colleagues in your office today than two years ago? You are probably told by your friends, and perhaps even by your boss that "you're lucky to have a job." Be grateful, they say, and for the most part, we are. But we are also sad.
There is a general malaise sweeping the nation. Consumer confidence, as rated by the Conference Board's "present situation index," reveals the lowest marks since 1983. There is also a growing wariness of public and private institutions. People no longer trust their own government -- in fact a recent CNN poll suggests that a majority of Americans believe the federal government "poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens." Fewer people than ever seem to have faith in the financial system itself. Who can blame them? Brokerage houses and banks benefited to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, only to rebound quickly, claim record profits and offer massive bonuses for their top executives.
The news is downright distressing. Thank goodness much of the "news" we see and hear isn't news at all, but mere diversions. How else can you explain the fascination with who was eliminated from the "Top 24" on American Idol? We haven't even known them long enough to learn their names. And what about the sudden attention given to the cast of Jersey Shore? More people have seen them on news and entertainment programs than ever saw them on their MTV show. Fewer still can express why we are supposed to care about them in the first place. Even Tiger Woods dominated the airwaves and the ratings with his sex scandal. We can pretend that there is a significant economic importance to that story, given the dramatic fall in stock value of those companies he previously endorsed, but let's face it -- we watch because sex and scandal are interesting in some prurient way that we dare not admit publicly but we all understand. So much of the news is made up of these distractions that perhaps we won't have to linger too long on what is really happening around us -- people are losing their jobs, their homes, their retirement savings and sadly, and perhaps most importantly, they are losing hope.
To my way of thinking, that is a very basic, real world definition of depression.