NPR logo Arguing Semantics: How Can Economists Say The Economic Recession Is Over?


Arguing Semantics: How Can Economists Say The Economic Recession Is Over?

Job seekers wait in line to talk with representatives from an employment agency at a job fair in Los Angeles on Sept. 20. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, "seventy-four percent of Americans believe the economy is still in a recession."

Only 25 percent think the downturn is over. One-third of Americans say the recession is serious, while another 29 percent characterize it as moderate.

Catherine Rampell, economics editor at, asks these pertinent follow-ups, in light of what the National Bureau of Economic Research reported last week:

So what’s the deal? How can economists be so out of touch with the suffering of "regular" people? Or how can non-economists be so ignorant about what’s really going on in the world around them?

"One possible reason for the disconnect between popular views and the official economists' view of the country's 'recession' status is semantic," she argues.

Economists and laypeople mean different things when they use the word “recession”: To most people, it refers to the level of economic activity. To economists, it refers to the change in economic activity.

That is, most people associate a poor economy — that is, low levels of spending, high levels of unemployment — with the word “recession.” They use the word to refer to times when the country just feels lousy.