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Depression or recession: What's in a name?

A recession road sign.

Kai Ryssdal: This is going to sound flip, but it's honestly not meant to. There is the not-small matter of what to call what the economy's going through. Debt Deflation? The Lost Decade? The tired old standby, the Great Recession? Because how we refer to something does reflect how we react to it.

Sasha Strauss is managing director and chief strategist at Innovation Protocol, a brand development firm. Thanks for being here.

Sasha Strauss: Great to be with you.

Ryssdal: Why does it matter what we call something?

Strauss: I think that you have to respect that the general consuming mind is not synchronous -- we're all thinking different things everyday. And so we often to be told what to call things. We need a common reference point, and since we're all not working together seamlessly, we need an adviser to suggest what we should call this so that we have common vernacular.

Ryssdal: So if Ben Bernanke and the president and Timothy Geithner call you and they say, "Listen, Sasha..."

Strauss: Yeah.

Ryssdal: "...give me the elevator page -- what do we call this thing that we're in?" How do you go about that?

Strauss: This economy has leveled the playing field for everyone. The races and cultures that used to be independent have finally integrated. And so, if I was taking a call with the president, I would describe this as the "Great Integration." We need a positive turn -- we can't keep calling this negative things.

Ryssdal: But it's a negative thing!

Strauss: It is a negative thing, but there's a negative term for everything, and if we keep focusing on negative energy, honestly, the consumer mind will never turn around.

Ryssdal: All right, so the president's out today on this magical mystery bus tour in the greater Midwest. Can he just start using the Sasha Strauss branding techniques, and that's going to stick?

Strauss: For a nominal fee, he can. The answer to your question is that it takes pop culture leadership to create common vernacular. I would say that you, Kai, could absolutely propagate a definition. And as long as you rationalize it emotionally with the citizenship -- explained why you came up with this term and what it implies, as long as they have that foundational definition, it can become the term.

Ryssdal: Is it different now in the era where I can go out on Twitter and talk to however many people follow me than it was in Herbert Hoover's day when he had to get on a radio in front of a couple million...

Strauss: Correct. So incredibly different. The power of social media has changed the way that cultures are influenced and vernacular is used. And so it simply takes someone with a mass audience of appeal to say something that sounds rational, and that's the trigger for it to become the way people describe things.

Ryssdal: Give me some tried-and-true branding methodology techniques that you can use to name this thing.

Strauss: Right. So, the traditional mechanism in brand development is to do research amongst the citizens, the consumers of the brand. So any time you talk about Pepsi, or Corona or automobiles -- it doesn't matter what the brand is, what matters most is they didn't fabricate the brand out of nothing. I believe that we owe the same responsibility to the citizens if we're going to name this. That way, when we do ultimately create the name, it's not a Don Draper, hypothetical moment, it's an aggregation of insights from the citizenship and then we hand them the simplified term that helps create clarity.

Ryssdal: It strikes me that there will be people listening to this who will accuse us of horrible, horrible cynicism, trying to wrap a brand around this cataclysm in our economy.

Strauss: Yeah, and I do think that brand is often attributed with negativity. It's almost an attempt to influence the mind of a market by sort of connecting with what it is that they desire. But, please! Obama, a brand -- the United States of America, a brand -- Ford Motor Company, a brand, not just an economic stalwart. Every religion is actively managing its brand. So it's here, why don't we orchestrate what we need to call this so we all can synchronize our communication, focus on the destination at hand, rather than worrying about all of the negative energy that's being distributed all the time.

Ryssdal: I'm almost ready to stand up and salute... and go marching on, man.

Strauss: Let's do this, brother.

Ryssdal: Sasha Strauss is the managing director and chief strategist at Innovation Protocol, that's a brand development firm, in case you hadn't been able to tell. Sasha, thanks a lot.

Strauss: My honor, thank you for the time, Kai.


Ryssdal: So to pick up on that idea that first you've got to find out what people are thinking, we did.

Janet Romo: Doomed. That's perfect.

Laurel Duncan: Panic for no reason.

Rick Prince: It's almost like an economic shock.

Joy Hamilton: Depressive recession?

Richard Kahn: Depression, no doubt.

Morgan Mallsmith: A mental recession.

Trevor Fisher: Bummer.

Travis Henderson: Slow and uncertain.

Matthew Mandell: What we call it doesn't really matter -- it's a mess.

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I think we should call it "Mini-D", as in a small depression era. Nobody wants to use the "D" word and most "experts" say we are not in one, but many Americans would disagree. "Mini-D" sounds kind of cute, like "Mini Me".

Research has shown that the words we use have the power to impact us on a physiologic and emotional level. It was a major adjustment to the economy, to our lives and lifestyles. but at this point we need to look forward.

It is recovery, even if it is not at the pace we would hope for, and even if it is a bumpy road. Sometimes you just have to fake it till you make it.

I could only hope Mr. Strauss is being cynical, but I think he's honest in his assertion, and it's pathetic. The problem with our current circumstances is simply this: we have not come to grips with our circumstances. If we had actually put a more descriptive term on it, perhaps Great Depression Light(er), maybe that would have fostered more creative thinking and better examination of the causes and effects of the events that have led to this economic debacle. However, we have instead opted for benign terms like "Recession" to give the glimmer of hope to those with 401k plans whose life's savings that have been ground to dust that, like the phoenix, their retirement will still yet rise from the ashes. This false optimism has led to a sort of paralysis because people are under the delusion that they still have something to lose.

The problem with optimism is that nothing gets done with a bunch of people saying "everything is going to be alright." Quite the contrary, once you say, "Everything is awful," then you can get to "and this is WHY", which then leads to "and this is what we can do about it." Right now, the United States needs a bit more cynicism for its salvation, not more analgesic optimism via Sasha Strauss.

We love your show. Naming the situation we are in is a great idea, and something probably a great many people are trying to do as they struggle with what is happening to our plans and expectations. How about The Great Reckoning? Or as Therese Day is calling it, "The Great Wreckoning"...?
There is no desire to go back to a consumer society, that is not sustainable in any way, never was, and we have educated the young to understand that, and the politicians seem to have forgotten that kids matter = future economic goals will involve happiness not based on
material accumulation..

Here's my favorite line of utter brilliance: "[T]he general consuming mind is not synchronous -- we're all thinking different things everyday."

Nah... Really?

But it gets better in terms of fearless gobbledygook: "This economy has leveled the playing field for everyone. The races and cultures that used to be independent have finally integrated."

Anyone want to take a credible stab at the "message" behind THAT one?

At least our host Rysdall has picked up on the proper cultural context for this sort of stooge piece: "I'm almost ready to stand up and salute... and go marching on..."

That just about pegs it.

Kai, while Sasha Strauss' idea of finding or, more properly, creating a positive label for the current economic has some merit from a psychological perspective, I think he'd be hard-pressed to get the "buy-in" to use any such term widely. Inspired by your selected quote from J. M. Keynes, I'd like to offer that we find ourselves in a "Remuddlery." This is an aspiring recovery that is hampered by poor, weak, failed and confused policies by economists and politicians. In other words, we keep "muddling" and "re-muddling" our economy, producing, at best, anemic, unequal and often retrograde growth. I think it may last a while. Giving it a common reference would be helpful.

Whether he is cynical or not, Strauss is certifiable. He's also flashing his credentials as a mandarin of the ruling elite. "We owe...the citizens" shows that "we" are different from citizens (read "rabble", "the mob", and etc). As mentioned in another comment, his world view is absolutely Orwellian: "...an aggregation of insights from the citizenship [sic] and then we hand them the simplified term that helps create clarity." This clarity is the opposite of Chaplin's vagrant when, at the end of "City Lights", he observes: you can see now.

My suggestion for naming the current state or condition of the economy, or the forces that are reshaping the economy is DIGRESSION � not recession, not depression � DIGRESSION. The American form of democratic capitalism (small d), was engendered by the industrial revolution and shaped by enlightened regulation with a view to building and protecting a consuming middle class through equitable distribution of the newly created wealth. Forces in finance, banking, real estate and government have manipulated the system to enrich the economic elite at the expense of the middle and lower classes by over extending credit and devaluing the equity base. This has resulted in a new form of capitalism � FEUDAL CAPITALISM, in which the economic elites hold fealty in the form of debt and underwater mortgages over a now impoverished middle and lower class. As far as the suggestions of the optimistic Mr. Strauss; they sound like political or marketing spin � dare one say; propaganda? Thank you for your time and consideration.

A rebranding exercise to make Americans feel good about the recession? I am first reminded of Socialist Realism. Then I think of the TV ads for a fictional product called Soylent Green in the film of the same name.

But the late Debra Goldman put it best when she wrote:
“One man's ludicrous and tasteless parody marketing ploy is another man's business plan. The bad news is that reality threatens to put the satirists out of business. The good news is they can always get jobs as trend spotters in think tanks."

(To the moderator: the Goldman quote can be found at
http://www.adweek.com/news/debra-goldmans-consumer-republic-48069).

The idea that this recession has leveled the playing field is absurd. It has only resulted in more extreme inequality in the US and around the world. Trying to make all the negatives go away by pretending they aren't there and "focusing on the positives" will only make things worse. Our economy has serious systemic problems and any attempt to brand them into something positive only enables those who have destroyed the economy to continue doing so to their profit and our expense. It's time to focus on real solutions. Maybe ask your guest from the previous report, he seemed to have some ideas.

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