Monday, March 9, 2009

Remembering the old days (good, bad or indifferent)

A year's tuition at Harvard University cost $600 back then. The average rent was $70 a month, a postage stamp cost 3 cents and the average new house sold for $7,450.

No. I'm not talking about 1929, the year of the Great Crash and an oft-mentioned reference point to the economic tailispin we're in. I'm talking 20 years later, the year of my birth, 1949. Which means on March 17, in approximately seven days, 11 hours and 24 minutes (who is counting?), there will be no denying I am officially old.

Ah, the good old days. Or were they? I have to confess I can't recall much -- well, actually, anything -- about 1949. At this point I'm not sure I know much about 1959 either. It was a long time ago. But, compliments of brother, Dennis, Seek Publishing's, "1949, Remember When" is bringing me up to speed.

This was the year the first VW Beetle was sold in the United States, a big deal to me since it was the college car of choice for my generation. "Give 'em Hell" Harry Truman was still president. Lousi "Satchmo" Armstrong was the toast of Paris. And, along with me, out popped Bruce Springsteen, Meryl Streep, Billy Joel and Jessica Lange. Let it be noted that I came first.

It's true. This was the year that Ronald Reagan co-started in Warner Bros, "The Girl from Jones Beach," a real place on Long Island where we'd do more cruising for sand crabs than babes as kids. But no one said 1949 was perfect

It was, in fact, like every year, a mix of some good and some bad. Harvard Law School enrolled its first woman students. The first African American, William Hastie, was appointed to a judgeship on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Geneva Conventions, among other things, set standards of humane treatment for prisoners of war.

But Soviet A-bomb tests heated up the Cold War. And the New York Yankees won the World Series (forgive me, I'm from Boston now).

The biggest downer: average lifespan. Back then it was 62.9 years, which gives me just 2.9 to get deep into my Bucket List. But that was then. Now, every one keeps telling me, 60 is the new 40

I'm not sure I believe them, but then, we've got little choice. Who can afford to retire these days anyway?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Smallish signs of a really big recession

We Americans are hunkering down.

Sort of.

Cars no longer spill onto the adjacent street from the parking lot at my Lexington, Mass., farm stand each weekend. Business seems to have slowed sharply. A few weeks ago, Kathy and I walked without reservation into a popular Waltham restaurant on Saturday night and had our choice of tables. And this weekend, the news over dinner at the home of friends was uneasy if not downright scary. He works for a well-known Silicon Valley high-tech company. It's frozen all travel in favor of teleconferencing. Recently it announced it was eliminating the annual bonuses that traditionally make up a fifth of his income. And the worst may lie ahead. He's bracing for increasingly likely company layoffs in April. The problem: Business customers are putting off technology upgrades that used to be standard.

The signs that Americans, individuals and businesses, are spending less and staying home more ripple through the news, the stories of friends and scenes of daily life. Television viewership is up. Air travel is down. National Public Radio tells the story of a shoemaker who can't keep up with demand for new heels, soles and zippers. The venerable Rocky Mountain News, a Denver daily, shut its doors days short of its 150th birthday.

But a closer look around suggests that many if not most of us have yet to fully come to terms with the rapid unraveling of the American economic engine. On Friday night, we headed to the chain restaurant Chili's, not known for its gourmet delicacies, to cash in a gift card. The place was packed and by 7 p.m., the hostess was stacking up the names on a waiting list like air traffic controllers used to line up planes on busy big city runways. Across the street, at The Burlington Mall, cars stretched across the acres of parking lot as they have every weekend when we drive by. It could be, of course, that window-shopping-til-you-drop has replaced actual buying on the vapors of diminishing credit. But if wanna-be-shoppers weren't able to at least delude themselves into believing that things will soon get better why would they torture themselves by looking at what they clearly can't afford to buy? Then, this morning, my Sunday New York Times told me that Americans are flocking to the movies again. ("The movie industry has been startled by a box-office surge that has little precedent in the modern era," The Times intoned.).

OK, so much for the theory we're all huddling in front of the TV at home.

That Americans still are spending money isn't something to be outraged about in an economy that relies on consumer spending for more than 70 percent of its gross domestic product. Put another way, if we all got really frugal at the same time, this 15-month downturn could only get worse.

Yet there is a flipside, notes James Grant, editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, in one of a page full of short essays in Sunday's Times under the headline "When will this recession be over?"

"Hope," he writes, "sustains life, but misplaced hope prolongs recessions."

Maybe if we all admit just how bad things are, we can all roll up our sleeves, eat the spinach of sacrifice so few politicians are afraid to ask for and volunteer in ways that begin to make all of us better and richer as a community. The movie industry may not like it. But in the end, there may be better ways to spend our money and our time than in what what one Times source described as that very dark place of escapism.