Three years later, with the economy still in tatters, that line has formed the core of the case against the Obama administration’s economic policies. That line lets Republicans talk about “the failed stimulus.” That line that has discredited the White House’s economic policy.
But the other line — “Without recovery plan” — is more instructive. It shows unemployment peaking at 9 percent in 2010 and falling below 7 percent by the end of this year. That’s the line the administration used to scare Congress into passing the single largest economic recovery package in American history. That line is the nightmare scenario.
And yet this is the cold, hard fact of the past three years: The reality has been worse than the administration’s nightmare scenario. Even with the stimulus, unemployment shot past 10 percent in 2009.
To understand how the administration got it so wrong, we need to look at the data it was looking at.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the agency charged with measuring the size and growth of the U.S. economy, initially projected that the economy shrank at an annual rate of 3.8 percent in the last quarter of 2008. Months later, the bureau almost doubled that estimate, saying the number was 6.2 percent. Then it was revised to 6.3 percent. But it wasn’t until this year that the actual number was revealed: 8.9 percent. That makes it one of the worst quarters in American history. Bernstein and Romer knew in 2008 that the economy had sustained a tough blow; t hey didn’t know that it had been run over by a truck.
There were certainly economists who argued that the recession was going to be worse than the forecasts. Nobel laureates Krugman and Joe Stiglitz were among the most vocal, but they were by no means alone. In December 2008, Bernstein, who had been named Biden’s chief economist, told the Times, “We’ll be lucky if the unemployment rate is below double digits by the end of next year.”
The Cassandras who look, in retrospect, the most prophetic are Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff. In 2008, the two economists were about to publish “This Time Is Different,” their fantastically well-timed study of nine centuries of financial crises. In their view, the administration wasn’t being just a bit optimistic. It was being wildly, tragically optimistic.
That was the dark joke of the book’s title. Everyone always thinks this time will be different: The bubble won’t burst because this time, tulips won’t lose their value, or housing is a unique asset, or sophisticated derivatives really do eliminate risk. Once it bursts, they think their economy will quickly clamber out of the ditch because their workers are smarter and tougher, and their policymakers are wiser and more experienced. But it almost never does.