Sunday, June 26, 2011

Drugged and Constipated: A Tale of Middle Age and a Muddle Through Economy

Our view of Canandaigua Lake
My wife, Suzanne, and I just returned from a two week vacation at our second home in Canandaigua, NY – the name translates to the Chosen Spot in Iroquois. I am sure you can see why. We drive up and back, a trip of 1400 miles one way – which strikes most people as crazy. But, we love to hang out at the lake and we love to hang out with our dog; so, we drive the dog to the lake. After two and half days of sleeping pills and fast food, we arrive drugged and constipated.

It gives us the opportunity to experience a little slice of America that we would miss if we flew. I am an amateur economist so I always view these little slices through that lens.

We always talk about selling the place on the way up. Our financial planner would approve. We bought it during the run-up in real estate as an investment which, of course, hasn’t worked out as we planned. But, once we get there, those thoughts always evaporate.

Vacation when you own the place isn’t the same as renting a room at a four star resort. Ours are more like rehearsing for retirement than true R&R. What do we do? We go on hikes, visit family, read, and have friends over for dinner. And, we shop. Oh, when I say shop I don’t mean going to the nearest Gucci outlet. We go to TJ Maxx to replenish the linens and to the local furniture store to buy a new mattress. (Mostly Suzanne does this while I hang out with the dog and read.)

Yours truly hanging out with Parker
 I managed to polish off two eBooks. The Big Short, Michael Lewis’ story of the mortgage crisis, and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, a 673 page tome cataloging the emergence and development of human civilization since the Ice Age. I recommend them both.

I also quit my job half-way through. That was a weird thing to do on vacation. There is a new opportunity waiting for me this week. Yes, folks, there are jobs out there but it helps to have one when you are looking. In my role at Tatum, I have met 10’s or maybe 100’s of unemployed executives with great qualifications who can’t find meaningful work. It’s a national problem not just a Florida problem.

Most economists would agree.

Our niece, Renee, and her husband, Bob, dropped by. Their son just received his commission in the US Army and is on his way to Kuwait. Bob owns an electrical contracting business. His take on the economy is that things will be like this for years. Why? Because people lack confidence. No one is quite sure what will happen next. He is not talking about the EU debt crisis, the budget deficit or the prospective failure of the Medicare system. He is talking about people who build things and buy things. “It might not be so bad,” he says, “if ‘they’ wouldn’t talk things down so much.”

Most economists would agree.

On the drive home, we checked in at the Residence Inn in Waynesboro, VA and got a takeout dinner at the Outback next door. Chicken strips for the dog. We like stopping in Virginia since we are focused on it as a prospective place to retire. We keep saying we should spend more time there. We need to go back soon. (Without the dog.) The girl who took my money at Outback was a local resident who grew up in Danville, NY a few miles from Canandaigua. She told me that she moved back for a few months last year to be closer to family but returned as soon as she could. “Couldn’t handle the weather?” I asked. “No,” she said. “It’s too expensive there.” Taxes, rent and almost everything else are cheaper in VA. Good place to retire, right?

Most economists would agree.

The next day, we stumbled onto the Island Grill in Port Wentworth, GA. What a great place to eat (Exit 109 off I-95, in case you are interested). The parking lot contained more pickups than SUV’s. So, when we found a little spot in the corner of the patio under an umbrella, the conversation wasn’t Wall Street or Washington. It was about Harleys, fishing and felling trees. These are the people who pick up and move to where the work is. They live from paycheck to paycheck and the paychecks aren’t as big as they used to be. Like most Americans, they are working harder and making less these days.

Most economists would agree.

Our last day on the road, I woke up and checked out the NY Times on my iPad. I read David Brooks' column describing the way in which key executives at Fannie Mae spent the better part of the 1990’s currying favor in Congress so they could increase home ownership in America, all the while taking big bonuses for themselves. We all know how that worked out. If you want the details, read The Big Short.

I flipped on CNBC to listen to John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil, complain about the anti-oil bias of the Obama administration. It’s a fair criticism. I think we should take advantage of America’s natural resources without government interference. Perhaps the interviewer should have asked him if he would give up federal subsidies for oil drilling in exchange for an improved regulatory environment. I would have. By the way, guess what Mr. Hofmeister is doing now. He’s a lobbyist, of course.

While Washington dithers, Fannie Mae is doing what it has always done and Big Oil (and every other big money interest) is having its way with Congress. Meanwhile, from Williamsport to Waynesboro to Port Wentworth, Americans are muddling through as best they can. We are addicted to a media that feeds us a steady stream of immaterial stories -- the President’s birth certificate or (dare I say it) Wiener’s wiener.

We are indeed drugged and constipated.

Most economists would agree.



  1. Nicely stated...what will restore confidence? The individual who takes a stab at answering that question may ultimately lead the rest of us out of this malaise.

  2. Nicely written piece. i do have one question though, specifically, what are the poil subsidies to which you refer?

    John Wauson

  3. That book "Guns, Germs, and Steel", sounds interesting. I'm going to check it out. That photo of the lake from your place is really beautiful. I would say our economy needs a change of diet (less debt)and more exercise (less restrictions and control by government) if our economy is going to be less drugged and constipated!