Watching the evening news tonight, once again the theme was something like “are we in recession yet?” Sort of reminds me of driving long distances with a small child. “There” is relative, but arriving there is inevitable. Living in the north like I do, I’m also thinking about the inevitable blizzards that will happen in the next few months. When a blizzard happens, I sit in my house, listening to the wind howl and I wonder, is it a blizzard? Is the blizzard here yet and will it get worse?
So, how does one know when recession, or a blizzard, is a certainty? The weather service defines a blizzard as sustained 35 mph winds which lead to blowing snow and cause visibilities of ¼ mile or less, lasting for at least 3 hours. As for a recession, the National Bureau of Economic Research defines recession as “a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales.” A simpler definition is that recession occurs when real gross domestic product (GDP) growth is negative for two or more consecutive quarters.
So, what is the significance of declaring a recession? Does it need to be made more real for the nearby real estate developer who lost his 70 partially finished houses to foreclosure? And what if the winter storm misses the mark of being a blizzard? Does it bring back the one who became stuck in wind-driven snow and lost her way and her life?
I can’t definitively define recession or blizzard, but like pornography, though I can’t define it, I recognize it when I see it. We are seeing increasing numbers of people coming into the libraries. Public computers are full and I’m hearing frequent complaints from people who have to wait to get on to access life-sustaining information (like jobs, unemployment benefits, etc.)
Last week I waived a fairly large overdue fine for a woman who was calling from a payphone (she doesn’t have a telephone) to plead her case that she and her partner were out of work and couldn’t afford the fine (the materials had been returned). She thanked me sincerely and promised that she would only check out a couple things and return them promptly. She was just happy to be able to get some books to read again, now that I had cleared her record. I hung up the phone and wept.