Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Recession? What’s that?

Here’s something strange. Last weekend, I went over to Rockville, Maryland and had lunch out and dinner out. In between, I went to a popular shopping center, Congressional, which is an old strip mall that has a Whole Foods, a Harry & David, and an extravagant baby store, among other shops. After dinner, I went to an upscale shopping mall, White Flint, to a Borders bookstore. At all of these places, there were crowds. The restaurants were hopping. There was hardly a parking space to be found at either shopping mecca. And the line to pay at Borders was long, so people were buying, not merely browsing.

How to account for all this? I was visiting an affluent area, I guess. But if we believe the media reports these days, there aren’t any affluent areas left. Maybe these people hadn’t been rich enough to invest with Bernie Madoff and lose their shirts. Maybe they’d all just received tax refunds and were determined to spend them. Maybe all the holiday bills had been paid, and they had some extra money to throw around. Whatever the reason, I did not see any evidence of an economic crisis.

Nor have I back here in West Virginia, where people on average are poorer than they are in Montgomery County, Maryland. At least, not in the stores. They’re busy. So are the gas stations and the pizza restaurants. Even the karaoke bars that might actually be strip clubs. And on every return trip from Maryland, I pass by Charles Town Races and Slots, and there always are lots of cars turning in, and lots leaving. People still have enough money to gamble it away, even here in a poor state.

Where I see signs of the recession are when I do volunteer income tax preparation, and people have very little income to show for 2008. Or they have unemployment compensation. Or they tell me that they’ve been looking for work every day, and not finding any.

So, yes, the recession is real. But people still have to eat and buy other necessities, and they still do. And whether they are affluent or not, they still entertain themselves by eating out and shopping. I don’t know if this is good or bad, a sign of resilience or folly. We’ll see what the next few months bring.

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