How hypocritical have observers been about the definition of 'recession'?

How hypocritical have observers been about the definition of ‘recession’?


A years-old tweet from CNN White House correspondent John Harwood has gotten new life this week — always a sign that someone, somewhere is hoping to score some points.

The tweet at issue was this one.

If you’re proximally attuned to the current political conversation, you’ll recognize the trigger for calling it out. The White House has been very deliberate and very vocal about recalibrating expectations about what constitutes a “recession,” including downplaying the simple equation that Harwood used in 2019.

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As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted, the definition is, in fact, more nuanced than the one Harwood presented. Consecutive quarters of declines in the gross domestic product (as the United States has just experienced) is one indicator and one that generally overlaps with recessions. But the declaration of a recession has political repercussions that the White House hopes to avoid — and its critics hope to elevate.

Hence the focus on Harwood, who in recent days has similarly noted that the definition of “recession” isn’t hard and fast. It’s an opportunity for President Biden’s critics and the political right to draw attention to a perceived bit of hypocrisy — to use an allegation of attempted point-scoring to score points.

One of the challenges with Twitter is that, by design, it elides context from an assertion. You have only so many characters even as you’re encouraged to riff on what’s happening in the moment. The result is that stand-alone statements quickly lose the context in which they were offered.

Here, Harwood was responding to comments President Donald Trump made during a meeting with the president of Romania. Trump had been asked whether his trade war with China might push China into a recession and take the United States with it.

“We have to solve the problem with China because they’re taking out $500 billion a year, plus — and that doesn’t include intellectual property theft and other things,” Trump replied. “And also, national security. So, I am doing this whether it’s good or bad for your — your statement about, ‘Oh, will we fall into a recession for two months?’ OK? The fact is, somebody had to take China on.”

Harwood soon after noted on Twitter that recessions were generally measured over longer periods than that.

As it turns out, this argument itself would be undercut after the novel coronavirus emerged. The shutdown of economic activity at the outset of the pandemic lasted only two months, according to the US Business Cycle Dating Committee — proving short recessions possible. That recession did, however, overlap with a two-quarter decline in the GDP.

Much of this debate centers on the distinction between a rule of thumb and a rule. It’s the difference between walking off the size of a room and measuring it accurately. When right-wing critics make declarations like “two quarters of contraction, that’s what we have always said for decades is a recession,” they are blending the two, probably intentionally.

Politico’s Ben White, another of those elevated by right-wing critics for purportedly changing his tune on the definition of “recession,” actually understands the distinction.

“Wall Street analysts, economists and even some in the Biden administration itself expect a report on Thursday to show the economy shrank for a second straight quarter, meeting a classic — though by no means the only — definition of a recession,” White wrote, later adding that “[m]any economists agree that this post-pandemic moment doesn’t meet many criteria for recession.”

His tweet promoting the article, declaring that the White House was “pretty obviously right” in noting that two quarters of slowdown didn’t necessarily mark a recession, was contrasted with a March 2020 tweet. At that point, he pointed to GDP declines as an indication that “we are in a recession right now” — which we were. But since he used two quarters of decline and nothing else as his trigger for that announcement, he was portrayed as hypocritical.

On Twitter, he’d obliquely referenced the rule of thumb. And since it’s easier to search and skim Twitter than White’s catalog of reporting — and easier still to present tweets as distinct, context-free assertions — someone searched his tweets for “recession.” A hypocrisy was born.

Clearly part of the problem is reporters offering quick responses to things on Twitter. Part of it, too, is the effort to cast reporters as necessarily biased by elevating shaky examples of their willingness to agree with the administration. So we get viral tweets and write-ups of those tweets that gleefully toss context.

Recognizing that defending Harwood and White would prompt people to dig up occasions on which I might have described a recession as being necessarily tied to two quarters of economic slowdown, I went ahead and did the search. The only example I can find was in a story from 2015, in which I wrote that when GDP growth was “below zero for two quarters in a row, that’s usually used as the marker of a recession.” Usually!

The trigger for that article, incidentally, was Trump’s campaign launch, during which he disappeared a GDP decline as something remarkable.

“Who ever heard of this?” he said. “It’s never below zero.”

Let’s just call that a rule of thumb.

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