The Economy Is Bad, but 1982 Was Worse

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The recession of the early 1980s doesn’t have a catchy name, and almost half of Americans are too young to have any real memory of it. But it was terrible — qualitatively different from the mild recessions of 1990-91 and 2001.

The first big blow to the economy was the 1979 revolution in Iran, which sent oil prices skyrocketing. The bigger blow was a series of sharp interest-rate increases by the Federal Reserve, meant to snap inflation. Home sales plummeted. At their worst, they were 30 percent lower than they are even now (again, adjusted for population size). The industrial Midwest was hardest hit, and the term “Rust Belt” became ubiquitous. Many families fled south and west, helping to create the modern Sun Belt.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate rose above 10 percent in 1982, compared with 7.2 percent last month. But that rate has a couple of basic flaws, as I’ve discussed in previous columns. It counts people who have been forced to work part time, even though they want to work full time, as fully employed. It also considers people who have given up looking for work — so-called discouraged workers — to be no different from retirees or stay-at-home parents. They simply aren’t counted.

Years ago, the Labor Department responded to criticism about these issues by creating several broader measures of joblessness. Unfortunately, they don’t exist prior to 1994. But the department was doing similar work in earlier years, which allows the economists who work there to make estimates about how to compare the various survey categories over time. I took these estimates — and they are estimates, not official statistics — and created a measure of unemployment that goes back to 1970.

Including discouraged workers, the measure shows that the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent last month. Another 5.2 percent of the labor force was involuntarily working part time. These two groups bring the combined rate to 12.8 percent.

Even this is an understatement, because the Labor Department’s definition of discouraged workers is a little narrow. To be counted, somebody must have looked for a job in the last year. And there appear to be several hundred thousand people — mostly men — who stopped looking for work more than a year ago but would gladly take a good-paying job if one came along. They would lift the rate above 13 percent.

As bad as the number is, it is still not that close to its 1982 peak of 16.3 percent (or anywhere near its Depression levels, which were probably above 30 percent). The early ’80s really were that bad.

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