Reading Comprehension and the WSJ


The Wall Street Journal opinion section publishes some truly odd material, but rarely have I seen anything as odd as this op-ed from Allan Meltzer which appears to be primarily founded on an inability to comprehend the meaning of the term “since”:

Day after day, economists, politicians and journalists repeat the trope that the current recession is the worst since the Great Depression. Repetition may reinforce belief, but the comparison is greatly overstated and highly misleading. Anyone who knows even a bit about the Great Depression knows that this is false.

The facts we face today are very different than the grim reality Americans confronted between 1929 and 1932. True, this recession is not over. But it would have to get improbably worse before it came close to the 42-month duration of the Great Depression, or the 25% unemployment rate in 1932. Then, the only safety net was the soup line.

To say that the current recession is the worst since the Great Depression just doesn’t mean that the current recession is as bad as the Great Depression. It means that the current recession is worse than all the recessions that came after the Great Depression. And Meltzer’s own chart clearly shows that this is correct. The other bad post-Depression recessions were 1973-75 and 1981-82. We’ve already exceeded both in terms of duration and decline in industrial production, and the unemployment rate seems likely to eventually peak above 81-82 levels. The only way to introduce ambiguity into this claim is to pretend not to understand that “Great Depression” refers to the entire period from the beginning of the crisis in 1929 all the way until the war-induced recovery in the 1940s. Everyone uses the term this way.

If you pretend not to understand this, you can hive off the recession-within-the-depression of 1937-38 as a very bad “post-Depression” recession. But what’s the point? I don’t even really understand how throwing smoke in readers’ eyes about this is supposed to advance the WSJ’s political agenda. It’s just nonsense.