Average Joes Have Their Own Recession Indicators

The numbers from the recession are startling: interest rates near zero, housing starts at a record low and new claims for unemployment benefits the highest since 1982. All the statistics project the big picture of what's happening in the economy. But there is also the micro view.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Economists measure the depth of a recession through indicators like the unemployment rate and the gross domestic product. Our Planet Money team has been measuring it through something else: people's observations. NPR's David Kestenbaum has this selection.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Robert Chappel's(ph) personal indicator is the number 50. He lives in Wisconsin, and it's his job to deliver the Wisconsin State Journal. He drives around in the predawn hours, and throws them out his car window. Chappel says the newspapers used to get delivered to him in stacks of 40, but there are fewer ads now and the paper is thinner. So, instead of 40 to a stack, they can fit in 50.

Mr. ROBERT CHAPPEL: Literally, it doesn't weigh as much. It's literally harder for me to get it to your porch.

KESTENBAUM: When the economy was better, he says, that paper was pretty satisfying to throw.

Mr. CHAPPEL: You get it rolled up, you put a rubber band around it - or a bag around it if it's raining - and you fling it to the air, and it does its little pirouettes through the air and plops on the porch. Now, it sort of goes whew-whew-whew and sort of settles on the ground.

KESTENBAUM: Here's the national statistic that goes with that. According to the Newspaper Association of America, if you compare the third quarter of 2008 with 2007, ad revenue in print and online dropped by 18 percent. One state to the south and two states over in Ohio, Terry Weiss(ph) noticed an economic indicator at work. The free packets of coffee in the office kitchen stopped being delivered. This is at a textbook company in Dayton, Ohio. She sent out a little text message to her friends, quote: My company quit paying coffee service, so they quit delivery. Brought my own coffee to brew today. That was just the beginning.

Ms. TERRY WEISS: I was literally standing in my boss's office, and we were talking about, huh, wonder if we should go buy our own coffeemaker so we can make coffee. And somebody said - ran by, did you see the email? We're like, what? She opened her email, and it said that the entire printing-services division of my company was shut down, and that was in Tennessee. And I said, well, that's horrible. Maybe that makes our division, creative services, a little safer. Bing! Then she got another email, and it said we were terminated, and that was it.

KESTENBAUM: That's when her coffee pot indicator turned into something the government does track. Ohio has an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, slightly above the national average. Terry Weiss says she's not sure what happens now.

Ms. WEISS: Well, you smile a lot, and you try to...

(Soundbite of door closing)

Ms. WEISS: I'm shutting my door so the kids can't hear me. I mean, I will probably lose my house. I will probably have to move. I sent my resume a million places. I don't know, I mean, I've gotten offers from two family members that we can come and live with them.

KESTENBAUM: Ohio last year had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, one filing for every 44 homes. Ken Rogoff, who lives in Massachusetts, is used to thinking about numbers like that because he's actually an economist at Harvard. But he saw a very concrete indicator that something is amiss with the economy: the scene at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. Rogoff was part of an expert panel discussion and normally, that would be a pretty sober affair. This time, he says, you couldn't find a seat.

Dr. KENNETH ROGOFF (Economics, Harvard University): You couldn't move. People lined up against the walls, pouring out the door. And there was one TV producer, told me she wanted to cover it, and she thought, well, I'll be very clever; I'll sneak around through the kitchen in the fire door...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ROGOFF: And we'll get in that way. She gets there, you know, with her crew, and finds 150 people waiting outside the door, you know, trying to hear what's going on. It's really - people are starved for some kind of perspective.

KESTENBAUM: The crisis will end, he says; recessions do end. But in the thick of one, it never feels like it will stop. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Our Planet Money team wants to know how you measure the recession in your own life. Add your comment to our blog at npr.org/money.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.