What Comes After the Recession: A Fun Free Recovery

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J Pat Carter / AP

The recession is nearing its end. At least, it seems to be. A generally improving trend in the economic data has forecasters saying the downturn will turn into an upturn sometime between early this summer (the optimistic view) and late next winter (the pessimistic one).

But here's my assessment: So what? A recession is defined by the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the semiofficial arbiter of such matters, as a "significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy." It's certainly better for economic activity to be increasing rather than decreasing, but the focus on whether the economy is in recession or not can miss a lot. "I don't care about what the dating committee says. I'm concerned about longer-term issues," says Yale economist Robert Shiller. "We are in for an extended period of subnormal economic growth." Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer of bond-investing giant Pimco, has popularized a catchier if less informative phrase for what we're in for: "the new normal."

Defining the parameters of this new normal is not something that can be done with pinpoint precision. I started paying attention to the news (and subscribing to TIME) during another period of economic turmoil, the late 1970s, and soon became convinced that I would never know a world in which gas was affordable, inflation wasn't in double digits and jobs were anything but scarce. Then the 1980s and '90s happened. So there is a danger in extrapolating present conditions to the future — and the U.S. economy has a wonderful penchant for surprising us all to the upside.