In the days since the death of former President Ronald Reagan, many media outlets have falsely credited him with presiding over "the longest economic expansion in history"; in fact, Reagan should be credited with presiding over only the third-longest expansion in American history.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the longest economic expansions in U.S. history are:
March 1991 -- March 2001: 120 months
February 1961 -- December 1969: 106 months
November 1982 -- July 1990: 92 months
The expansion Reagan presided over is therefore the third-longest in history. Even at the time of the expansion Reagan presided over -- before the expansion that began in 1991 -- it wasn't the longest in history; it was the second-longest.
But that's not what many media outlets have been reporting:
The New York Times (6/6/04): "After the 1981-82 recession, Mr. Reagan presided over the longest economic expansion in history, one that saw the creation of 16 million jobs."
New York Daily News (6/6/04): "Throughout much of the Reagan presidency, the country enjoyed what was then the longest economic expansion in U.S. history."
The Philadelphia Inquirer (6/6/04): "In 1983, the United States entered its longest economic expansion since World War II."
The Washington Post (6/6/04): "When Reagan took office in 1981 after the inflation-ravaged years of Jimmy Carter, his advisers warned of a looming 'economic Dunkirk.' When he left the presidency eight years later, inflation and unemployment had fallen sharply and the country was in the midst of what was then the longest economic expansion in history."
CNNfn anchor Kathleen Hays repeated The Washington Post's mistake, verbatim (6/7/04): "When Reagan took office in 1981, high inflation forced his advisors to warn of an coming economic Dunkirk. When he finished his term, inflation and unemployment had fallen sharply and the country was in the midst of what was then the longest economic expansion in history."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial (6/7/04): "He presided over the longest economic expansion in history with the creation of 16 million jobs, yet cutbacks in social programs left millions of Americans more vulnerable than ever."
Jack Wheeler column, The Washington Times (6/8/04): "Five years ago, in February 1999, I wrote the following tribute to this extraordinary man. 'He crushed inflation along with left-wing Keynesian economics and launched the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. Starting in 1982, the Reagan Boom is now in its 18th year - with only a short eight-month shallow interregnum caused by the oil-price spike following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.'"
On June 9, The Washington Post changed its wording:
"Reaganomics" failed to reduce the deficit, but the combined policies of the administration and the Federal Reserve Board helped usher in the longest peacetime economic expansion since the end of World War II -- a nearly eight-year boom that made many people rich and left a pleasant "morning in America" memory in the minds of millions of voters.
It is true that, at the time, the expansion that began during Reagan's presidency was the "longest peacetime" expansion "since the end of World War II." (It has since been surpassed by the expansion that began in 1991.) But how meaningful is it to write of the "longest peacetime economic expansion since the end of World War II" (and before 1991)?
Between the end of World War II and the end of the expansion Reagan presided over, there were only two periods of "peacetime" that lasted five or more years: one of roughly eleven years from the end of the Korean War to the beginning of the Vietnam War and one of roughly 17 years from the end of the Vietnam War through the end of the expansion in 1990.
"Since the end of World War II" sounds impressive -- nearly 60 years! -- but the "peacetime" qualifier (and the omission of the 1990s expansion) cuts the timeframe in question roughly in half.