Once again, the Great Recession explains why today’s economy is so bad

GDP grew at 2.5 percent in the third quarter – and that seems to be about the growth rate to expect for the next year (which will be an improvement from the 1.6 percent growth that has characterized the most recent 12 months). This is, as we’ve noted, insufficient to drive down the 9.1 percent unemployment rate.

It is, however, worth remembering just why there are so many unemployed workers in the country: the depth and length of the Great Recession, caused by the bursting housing bubble (and perhaps amplified by the corresponding financial crisis). The unemployment rate is slightly down and employment growth since the recession ended in the middle of 2009 is actually roughly in-line with the recoveries we’ve seen in the past two decades (following the 1990 and 2001 recessions). Further, to the degree that the current recovery is slightly under-performing these previous two, it’s in the hemorrhaging of public sector jobs.

So why is unemployment so much higher today compared to nine quarters after these two other recessions ended? Because the output losses (and hence corresponding job-losses) suffered during the Great Recession were so much larger – meaning that we have a much larger overhang of economic slack (both unemployed workers and idle factories) to put back to work.

The figure below shows GDP declines during the Great Recession compared to these previous two recessions, as well as GDP gains nine quarters into recovery for the Great Recession and the previous recessions.

Click to enlarge

As we’ve also observed before, recoveries from recessions happened much more quickly in the years prior to 1990, reflecting in part that monetary policy was much more effective in driving recoveries pre-1990 (since it was generally monetary policy tightness that caused these recessions, monetary loosening could hence lead to rapid recovery).

So, focusing for a second on just those recessions that have happened in the two decades (give or take a year), we see something clear – this recovery lags the average by 1.1 percent of GDP, but the hole left by the recession was larger by an average of 4.5 percent of GDP, meaning roughly that it was the difference in the losses caused by the recession that explain 80 percent of why unemployment is so high relative to its pre-recession level.

So while it’s true that we slightly lag the pace of post-1990s’ recoveries, it is clear that what really explains why so many more workers and so much more capital remains idle today compared to recoveries past is just how ferocious the preceding recession was.

Does this leave today’s policymakers off the hook? No – they should do more. The past is the past and just because a problem is inherited doesn’t mean it shouldn’t or can’t be solved. Clearly in retrospect not enough was done to boost the economy following the 1990 and 2001 recessions (some speculative reasons why are here). And clearly there is more we can do now to boost the sluggish demand growth that is the main cause of today’s economy operating below potential.

But, it is worth remembering where the problem came from. As we get further and further from the Great Recession, the temptation is great to act as if citing it as the root cause of today’s problems is just unseemly dwelling on the past and dodging blame. But, really, it does matter how it all started.