There aren't enough jobs in the economy, not enough cars moving off the lot, not enough credit in the marketplace, not enough homes being sold, not enough profits being made. We know all that. The only thing we have too much of is gloom.
And there is ample reason for the gloom. Reread the first sentence above. Then consider the human cost of the recession, whether it is measured in workers not being paid, investments not being made, assembly lines not being operated, inventories not being replenished, college tuitions not being paid, opportunities not being taken.
It may take years for the cost of this recession to be paid back — and if you are young, the scars from this recession will be with you always. You'll be leery of the stock market, careful about buying a house, afraid to spend — all good things, I hasten to add, as long as they are adopted in moderation. (A little moderation a few years ago might have prevented this whole mess. But this morning we're looking forward, not backward.)
Yet for all the gloom, there are some bright spots — not enough to think that 2009 will be a bright harvest of prosperity, to be sure, but enough to think that this downturn, in our economy and in our outlook, won't last forever. Just as the prosperity of the last decade sowed the seeds for this recession, this recession is sowing the seeds for the recovery.
The most important national story of the past week may have been a poll. That's a sentence I never thought I'd type, but the New York Times/CBS News poll showed rises in two very important cultural and economic markers. There is a dramatic increase in the rate of Americans who say that things are going in the right direction. And the gap between those who think the economy is getting worse (still the preponderant view) and those who think it is getting better is narrowing substantially, especially when measured against the soundings taken only six months ago.
Economists talk in a peculiar dialect — they put the jumbo in mumbo jumbo — but a lot of the dismal science can be distilled down to three syllables: confidence.
Confidence is the oxygen of the stock market and of the pedestrian marketplace. If you feel good at the mall, you might actually buy something. If they feel good on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, your portfolio may actually look pretty good, or at least better, at month's end. (Check yours for this month and you will see what I mean. It may not yet be safe to open that envelope, but if you take a deep breath and break the seal, the horror may not be as terrible as it would have been two months ago.)
I'm not arguing that the recession is over. I'm merely arguing that it will be over, and if you agree that the ultimate measure of the American marketplace is the motorcar industry, you may agree, too, that prosperity may not be just around the corner but that it is not too many blocks away.
The reason is simple. Lots of people bought cars in the past decade. In fact, the average American car is nearly a decade old. Many of those cars need to be replaced now, or needed to be replaced two years ago. Soon it won't be possible to put off the inevitable anymore. And when that happens on a mass scale, there will be a recovery in the automobile sector. You thought economics was complex and forbidding? Maybe it's as simple as looking at the nation's odometers, or your own.
All of that is not even considering the potential market of greener cars. The manufacturer who comes up with the greenest one will be producing a lot of green of its own. There may be no profits in the auto industry in 2009, but there may be big ones in years to come.
Let's look for a moment at some of those poll results that prompted this discussion in the first place. The number of Americans who thought the country was going in the right direction has more than doubled since mid-January. The number of Americans who thought the economy was getting worse has dropped by about a third.
These are big changes. They both reflect the national psychology and create a new national psychology. From the start it was clear that in this recession, the warfare was psychological and that the most we had to fear was a fearful, and fearsome, sense of despair.
Not that the sun has broken through the gloom just yet. This recession has been horribly resistant to the usual remedies, and horribly resilient. It began, after all, in December 2007 — 16 months ago. Modern recessions last about 11 months, give or take a month or two. This one roars on, five months past its life expectancy. Meanwhile, Americans' average net worth is down by more than a fifth. Investment portfolios are still in the doldrums, or worse.
Right now we're responding to the recession. We're doing it in our private lives, where we are hunkering down and spending very little, and we're doing it in our civic lives, where we are opening wide the purse strings and spending like drunken sailors.
But once we get into port — once we find the harbor from our horrors — we will need to reverse the roles and the sailors in the capital are going to have to sober up. Rather than responding to the recession, we will need to react to the recovery.
That's a bit away, to be sure. But it is not too soon to start thinking about how we, as individuals and as a nation, will use the recovery. It's now commonplace to say that a crisis is too important a thing to waste. Let me add a corollary: A recovery is too important a thing to waste.
David M. Shribman, a Swampscott native and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.