Millions lost their jobs. The market fell more than 50%. Thousands of businesses disappeared. National debt skyrocketed. Bailouts torched public trust in government.

But the most surprising thing about the past four years? That it wasn't worse.

Selling the counterfactual isn't easy. Hard-working people don't take solace in the line, "Be grateful. It could have been worse." But looking back at the history of financial panics, particularly the Great Depression, that line is probably more important than many realize. As controversial as the bailouts of banks like Citigroup (NYSE: C) and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM) were, they very likely prevented a terrible recession from becoming a full-blown depression.

I recently sat down with Mesirow Financial chief economist Diane Swonk. She explained that as bad as the economy is now, it could have been dramatically worse. Have a look: