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.

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