Not The Only One

Michael Panzner
updated | Author's Website

I am not averse to using hard data to prove a point. But unlike many mainstream commentators, I find it useful — no, essential — to incorporate other kinds of information, including first-hand observations and anecdotal reports, when trying to figure out what is really going on.

Among other things, this approach has allowed me to realize early on that any talk of a bottom in the housing market was more fantasy than reality, dreamed up by economic Pollyanas and stock traders with more money than sense. Was it really all that hard to see, for example, that one of the warmest and driest winters on record would shine an overly positive, seasonally-adjusted light on home sales activity during what have traditionally been the slowest months of the year?

As most regular Financial Armageddon readers know, despite some statistical data suggesting that the economy is on the mend, I’ve remained steadfast in my belief that the so-called recovery is anything but. One reason, of course, is that it’s been hard for me to see evidence of the supposed turnaround with my own eyes, no matter how hard I tried. A Wall Street Journal commentary by Joe Queenan, “The Index of Silly Economic Indicators,” suggests I’m not the only one.

It is always dangerous to base assumptions about the state of the economy on anecdotal information, but in my experience, anecdotal information trumps government statistics any day of the week. I live in a typical small town, with the typical mix of businesses and a typical citizenry. My town is still reeling.

The large store that used to be a bike shop is empty. The space that used to be an optometrist’s shop is empty. The ice cream parlor down the street, the one that used to be a Carvel’s and then became a Brainfreeze, is gone. The gelato place at the foot of the hill has closed its doors. The massive gourmet shop that used to occupy the center of town has been shuttered for two years, vastly reducing traffic for other merchants. We’ve got plenty of nail salons and bars and pizza parlors, but that doesn’t really suggest a booming economy. And no, the barber shops and hair salons are not turning away customers, either.

There’s more. The commercial building where I work has five suites. Over the years, they have been occupied by psychologists and tour promoters and expert numismatists and accountants and software engineers and import-export companies and even a local newspaper. Four of them are now empty. Three of them have been empty for more than two years. The rents are not excessive; one two-room unit lists for $500 a month. Offer $450 and it’s yours! There are no takers in sight. The last thriving business in this building was a massage parlor that the cops finally padlocked. Now I’m the only one here. This is one spooky building. This is one spooky economy.

As for jobs, forget it. Lots of my friends’ kids are going to law school, because there’s no work out there. Others are going to grad school to get an even more useless degree than the one they already have. Everyone is waiting tables, or parking cars, or pinch-hitting as a substitute teacher, or on the prowl for a nonpaying internship. When you hear that a kid with a college degree actually got a job earning more than the minimum wage, it feels like someone just won the Stanley Cup or the Nobel Prize.

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