Will we have a recession in the next year or so? I don’t know. As an old joke has it—one that I’ve seen several times in the last week or so—many were those smart enough to have predicted seven of the last three recessions. My question, moral rather than strictly predictive, is whether we may actually root on a recession.
The cries of the mainstream and largely left-wing press have ceased their Jan Brady-like cry of “Russia! Russia! Russia!” Mueller Time came and while the memes were great, the hangover was not so pleasant. But for those who’ve been trying to remove President Trump apart from the electoral process, there have been two new strategies announced. The first, leaked to the press, was announced by Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times. The Times, he announced, basically spent two years focusing on the Russia story. Now it will pivot to “Racism! Racism! Racism!” The second strategy is “Recession! Recession! Recession!”
Personally, I’d rather see more coverage of Marcia Brady.
But it’s that second strategy of playing up the possibility of recession that has me interested. The attempt to claim that the Trump presidency was the beginning of an economic apocalypse began in the 2016 campaign season and reached its high with erstwhile Nobel Prize winning economist and current partisan New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s rather famous response to the election in a blog post in which he said, “If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never.” In the middle of the night when Dr. Krugman was writing, the global markets had indeed dropped, but the very next day the Dow soared 257 points and hit an all-time high on Thursday of 18,873.6. As I write this column almost three years later, the ticker says it’s a little more than 26,000. Dr. Krugman’s prediction reminds me of the old joke about how the skill of an economist is in telling you tomorrow why the prediction he made yesterday didn’t come true today.
The recession talk today is probably overblown. While two consecutive quarters of a contracting economy is the textbook definition of recession, this year has only seen one. Though the second quarter of 2019 showed a slight contraction, the third quarter is tracking slightly higher than the second according to the Atlanta Fed GDPNow. Other signs, such as the spike in home sales, indicate that a recession in the immediate future is unlikely.
A near future recession is not, however, unthinkable. And many are predicting that the tariffs the President has levied on other countries, especially China, may end up triggering the event. While many conservatives defend the tariffs as an attempt to deal with China’s refusal to trade fairly with the U.S. and other nations, David Goldman, who is both a supporter of Donald Trump and predicted Mr. Trump’s victory, has warned that the President’s attempts to influence China by a series of tariffs (some of which he has delayed in implementing) are too little too late. While the U.S. thinks in quarterly revenue, the Chinese think in centuries. Though the tariffs have inflicted some pain, China has a large enough internal market to make up for any lack of exports to the U.S.; the effect of the tariffs, meanwhile, may end up hitting American manufacturing harder than the Chinese. And besides, President Xi doesn’t face an election in 2020. Goldman predicts a long-term “debilitating” fight. Trade wars with China may be slightly harder to win than has been predicted.
So will we have one in the next year or so? I don’t know. As an old joke has it—one that I’ve seen several times in the last week or so—many were those smart enough to have predicted seven of the last three recessions. My question, moral rather than strictly predictive, is whether we may actually root on a recession.
While the cries of the media about recession may well simply be chasing the next big story, it doesn’t strike most people as implausible that too many politicians and media are not just predicting but hoping for a recession. Democratic Presidential hopeful John Delaney (if you’re asking yourself, “Who is this?” remember Chesterton’s observation that “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all”) observed that “it feels like some Democrats are cheering on a recession because they want to stick it to Trump.” And that does include some in the media. Bill Maher was the most blunt about it, observing on his show Real Time With Bill Maher: “I feel like the bottom has to fall out at some point. By the way, I’m hoping for it because one way you get rid of Trump is a crashing economy. So please, bring on the recession.”
Is this really ok? A number of people have pointed out that Maher, who is worth $100 million will probably be able to weather a recession. Ordinary people have it a bit harder. But if we look at Mr. Maher’s commentary, he added that he is “sorry if it hurts people but it’s either root for a recession or lose your democracy.”
This, it strikes me makes a bit of sense. Note “a bit.” If I believed that under President Trump we were “losing our democracy” or that a truly fascist totalitarian state were being implemented, it might be morally acceptable to root against the U.S. economy. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn chided American businessmen in the 1970s for their continuing to do business with the Soviets, thus propping up a corrupt totalitarian state by keeping its economy going. Solzhenitsyn was, it seems, rooting for more than recession. He would have been happy with a collapse of the economy. But that’s because the Soviet economy already was what was known as a “Potemkin village”—a hollow shell that might have looked good on the outside.
But while we have a multitude of problems in America, we are neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany—despite the fact that every conservative figure is “literally Hitler” in a certain percentage of our public’s minds. To root on economic contraction in order to win an election is a dishonorable act. Television personality Piers Morgan said of Bill Maher’s comments that they were “treason.” If that’s too strong, Mr. Morgan is certainly correct that they were wrong. Mr. Maher might think that a Democratic president can do better than President Trump, but that doesn’t justify hoping for a downward economic spiral.
My worry is that the constant media and political pressure to see the dark cloud in all our silver linings might work and that it might be a case of a prophecy designed to cause its own fulfillment. A new Quinnipiac poll shows that for the first time in his presidency the percentage of voters saying the economy is getting worse tops those getting better (37-31). If the continued success of our economy involves consumer confidence, destroying that confidence might be the way to make our economy contract. That will definitely hurt people.
Many people have expressed surprise at Samuel Johnson’s observation, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” Whether one agrees with it or not, I think we can all agree that it is more innocent than hoping that other people lose money for our political gain.
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 Krugman, Paul. “The Economic Fallout.” The New York Times, November 9, 2016.
 Trugman, Jonathan. “Recession ‘Red Flag’ May be Misleading.” New York Post, August 24, 2019.
 Strauss, Daniel. “US Existing-Home Sale Spike to a 5-Month High, Bucking Signs of an Impending Recession.” Market Insider, August 21, 2019.
 Goldman, David P. “Trade Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.” PJ Media, August 23, 2019.
 Musadiq Bidar, Twitter post, August 21, 2019, 9:23 a.m.
 Concha, Joe. “Bill Maher: ‘Bring On the Recession’ if it Means Getting Rid of Trump.” The Hill, June 11, 2018.
 n.a. “All Top Dems Beat Trump As Voters’ Economic Outlook Dims Quinnipiac University Poll Finds; Dem Primary Stays Stable With Biden Holding The Lead.” Quinnipiac University, August 28, 2019.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Parting Cheer” (1861) by Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-1880), and is in the public domain.