In 1957, when I was young and thought I knew everything, I was just about to go to graduate school in economics. Then I read Paul Baran’s The Political Economy of Growth. I immediately sent him an eight-page, single-spaced review of his book. I said that I liked it very much, but had some questions about it. Paul wrote back asking me to become his research assistant and study at Stanford. Unfortunately he could pay so little that it covered only half the tuition. I could not afford it.… [But] I did visit Paul about once every two weeks. He welcomed me because his colleagues had isolated him due to their fears of the witch hunt. The reason he had offered me so little was that Stanford would not give him more money for any purpose. Paul had tenure, but the alumni were angry that he was not fired for his outspoken opposition to U.S. imperialist aggression against Cuba.
The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) decides the peak and trough dates of the business cycle. Most economists, including the government economists, accept their dates as the bible of research. Their dates do accomplish what they set out to do: they reflect the highest and lowest levels of business activity. This was the definition set by the founder of the NBER and it is very useful for many purposes. Certainly, there is a major gain if all economists use the same dates. Nevertheless, it is useful to ask a different question and use different dates for some purposes. Suppose we do not want to know the peaks and troughs of business activity, but instead we ask: How much human misery is caused by the cycle? There are many ways to answer that question, but the easiest is just to examine the duration of recessions in terms of human misery.