Spring Cleaning And The Dignity Of Work

With the first of the daffodil shoots foolishly poking out from the until-now frozen earth, Sofie and I have returned to the back yard for our major activities.  Clearing the sleds from under the blue spruce.  Trimming back the weaker of the branches on the pear trees.  Making a final decision on the location of that next thornless blackberry bush.  Picking up remnants of dog toys, and rescuing those still intact from the inevitable mower blade.

It is a time for spring cleaning.  Having spent the fall and winter on a creative project, I am faced with the myriad tasks that must be done — best be done now, than to be discovered in the summer in a panic.  Where is the tent?  I thought we had charcoal in this closet… somewhere.  The bicycle pump, you say?  I know we have two of them.  Try under the Christmas lights.

Not to even get into boat-prep issues.  That’s a column unto itself.

As described a few months ago, when working alone outside, podcasts like American Public Media’s Marketplace keep me company.  It has really kept me on top of business and economic issues just as they are at the forefront of public consciousness.  So it is an astounding contrast, too, the degrees to which some public officials seem to be far, far behind the curve.

There appears to be a complete unwillingness to see the current economic conditions as anything more than a departure from the norm.  Something that will “gotten over” in the matter of a few months, rather than a major correction — by that term meaning we now quickly return to the way things should have been all along.

This is not a departure down; rather the recent prosperity was a departure up.  Consumers stopped saving anything in the past decade and borrowed too much.  Optimism to spend, as recently prescribed by a sadly-misguided County Commissioner Bill Doherty, is not going to pull us out of this situation.  Toxic assets will become safer when all borrowers actually pay their debts off — first.

The sad reality is that plenty of service-based businesses were founded here and nationwide, based upon increasing affluence.  We have come to realize that much of this affluence was an illusion.  For example, buyers were willing to pay $2 million for a second home on the Cape because a) the value of their 401k was expected to only increase, b) the Cape house could always be rented seasonally at a high rate, and c) the buyer’s primary residence would fetch a high price when sold for the inevitable retirement here.

Now two of those legs have been kicked out from that three-legged stool (and the third may be just as illusory).  Optimism had brought the home price to a level as unsustainable as the rest of the economy.  As reality sets in, the price has dropped to a truer value set by that smaller pool of buyers who still possess the resources to purchase.

Yet too many of leaders in government, to varying degrees insulated from the gyrations of the private economy by the inviolate perks of public benefits, still fail to grasp three basic truths:

First, their constituents now have less money.

A mind-change needed

Second, that any money their constituents struggle to earn in these tough times should be saved.

And third, this is how it is going to be for a couple years, at least. As Olivier Blanchard, the IMF’s new Director of Research, told The Economist just last week, “We are closer to the beginning than we are to the end.”

Once this sort of mental spring cleaning — looking at what is actually around us, what we have and what we don’t, what still works and what is irreparably broken — hopefully will lead to some serious planning for the knock-on effects of what is being called our “Deprecession.”

For example, history tells us that in tough times, more shellfish permits are issued.  Yet the price of shellfish has stayed stagnant or even gone down, partly due to a lack of economic planning for increased supply.

Or with decreased household income, expect that many more local high school graduates will attending Cape Cod Community College (regardless of whether they were accepted to four-year schools off-Cape).  That means more 18 to 22 year olds here through the winter.  They will be needing jobs that provide a regular income.  Regular, as in a regular wage with regular hours, not seasonally tip-based gigs.

(Note:  They will not be needing housing.  They’ll be saving money by staying at home.)

These are but two examples, and are not the usual bad economy-homeless shelter-food pantry concerns.  The needs of middle class people who live here – yes, residents – are calling out to be addressed by our towns.  Now.

Nostalgia for the goods times won’t cut it, nor will unfounded optimism.  Spring is the time to re-assess.  And we need to get to work.

 Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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