JUST PLAIN TALK: Has nation recovered from Great Recession?

Buz Livingston
Buz Livingston

Long before Americana music officially existed, Lefty Frizell recorded “Long Black Veil,” a mournful ballad later covered by The Band and Johnny Cash in 1968, but at different locations. The song’s opening lyrics, “Ten years ago,” are appropriate today. In the fall of 2008, our financial system almost imploded. Some lessons we learned, some we’ve unfortunately forgotten. For the next few weeks, you will get my take on what happened then and where we are today.

Something I know now is everything we measure doesn’t count. Statistically, the Great Recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009 when the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) turned positive. But home foreclosure rates, already well above historical rates, continued rising the following year. As late as 2017 foreclosure rates were still over 2005 levels. For many, the recession lasted much longer, and the GDP growth didn’t help them.

An easy way to view GDP is to add a nation’s consumption, investment, government spending, and net exports together. Since 2008, America’s GDP has grown 20 percent. For the bottom 90 percent of Americans, income growth falls short of GDP growth. The point of statistics is to define reality, but currently, GDP numbers obscure reality. To accurately measure the economy, GDP numbers should separate the flow of income to high, middle and low earners.

From January 2009 through December 2017, stock investors saw double-digit annual returns. Just 10 percent of Americans own over 80 percent of stocks. For the majority of Americans, their key to wealth is their home. Inflation-adjusted household net worth is lower than it was in 2000. The angst Americans feel is justified. The Federal Reserve could tweak spreadsheets and more precisely report income by including economic class distribution.

As a Massachusetts politician, Carroll Wright oversaw the state’s labor statistics. After the Panic of 1873, he believed unemployment reports were inaccurate. In response, he required only those counted who “really wanted employment.” When Wright became the first person to lead the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, he brought his bias. Ignoring those too discouraged to seek employment paints a rosier picture. Over a century we haven’t changed. A more accurate portrayal of the country’s workforce should include the overall share of working adults and their pay along different points of income distribution.

Statistics are important but can be meaningless. Jacob deGrom should win the Cy Young Award as the best National League pitcher. Because of a modest win/loss record he may not, but anyone voting against him is looking at the wrong numbers.

Changes in how we view GDP, unemployment and household net worth would give a better understanding of Americans’ financial health. Bobby Kennedy noted during his presidential campaign GDP measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”

You can’t always get what you want, but Buz Livingston, CFP can help figure out what you need. For specific recommendations, visit or come by the office in Redfish Village, 2050 Scenic 30A, M-1 Suite 230.