We can’t say we’re in a recession yet, at least not formally. A committee decides these things—no, really. The government generally adopts the view that a contraction is not a recession unless economic activity has declined over two quarters. But we’re in a recession and everyone knows it. And what we’re experiencing is so much more than that: a black swan, a financial war, a plague. Maybe things feel normal where you are. Maybe things do not feel normal. Things are not normal. For weeks or months, we won’t know how much GDP has slowed down and how many people have been forced out of work. Government statistics take a while to generate. They look backwards, the latest numbers still depicting a hot economy near full employment. To quantify the present reality, we have to rely on anecdotes from businesses, surveys of workers, shreds of private data, and a few state numbers. They show an economy not in a downturn or a contraction or a soft patch, not experiencing losses or selling off or correcting. They show evaporation, disappearance on what feels like a religious scale.
What is happening is a shock to the American economy more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced. The unemployment rate climbed to its apex of 9.9 percent 23 months after the formal start of the Great Recession. Just a few weeks into the domestic coronavirus pandemic, and just days into the imposition of emergency measures to arrest it, nearly 20 percent of workers report that they have lost hours or lost their job. One payroll and scheduling processor suggests that 22 percent of work hours have evaporated for hourly employees, with three in 10 people who would normally show up for work not going as of Tuesday. Absent a strong governmental response, the unemployment rate seems certain to reach heights not seen since the Great Depression or even the miserable late 1800s. A 20 percent rate is not impossible.