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Auf wiedersehen

Top 10 things I'll miss about the recession



Americans continue to feel economic hunger pangs even though the recession, as a cold statistical anomaly, ended a while ago. Indisputable evidence in key sectors tells us that the economy is expanding at accelerating rates. Even the single-family housing market—the industry that seemed as still as a stuffed bobcat just a year ago—started showing signs of life late last year. Soon nobody will doubt that the recession is over.

But before the collective celebration leads to the collective forgetting of lessons learned and the collective resumption of human nature, let’s remember the recession briefly for its faint silver linings. Some things about the recession proved rather nice.

10. Terrible boutiques closed. I ran the newsroom for an alt weekly in Montana when the recession hit. Entire towns went unemployed when lumber mills began closing across the Mountain West. School districts perpetually struggle with budget balancing, but just try to imagine half a district’s tax base vanishing overnight. It happened.

And then, in the midst of all this, I would get a call from someone pitching me a story about the recession threatening her downtown candle shop.

Small businesses fail for all sorts of reasons, but sometimes the entrepreneur just came up with a bad idea. Prosperity acts like a hallucinogen, making us think we can sustain all sorts of novelty commercial activity. Pet spas and bakeries. Single-item gourmet eateries. Ideology-specific bookstores. Soon they will all return, for a time.

9. Tourism lull. The vernal equinox has passed and the warming coastal air promises the coming of a new migration. Soon locals will abandon Pismo Beach to boisterous swarms of Central Valley residents. Then, after depositing their money in local merchants, the valley swarm will return to Bakersfield and spend the winter smoking cloves and listening to Macklemore.

We grit our teeth and suffer this invasion because Pismo and other county tourist traps provide a critical revenue source. The Pismo rush seemed subdued from 2008-2012, while growth in Paso Robles felt less caustic than one would expect. Prepare for a dramatic uptick in annoyance.

8. Fewer attorneys. The early years of the recession saw law school enrollment surge, but legal jobs remain difficult to come by. Eventually, the scales will begin to tip. When that happens, lawyers will be cheaper than before, but there will be a lot of them.

This comes as good news for those of us with law degrees. Even though I don’t practice law in a conventional sense, the unemployed corporate sharks are swimming in my talent pool. The lawyer in me couldn’t wait for the recession to end. Yet, the part of me that’s still human can’t help but lament that soon tens of thousands more licensed attorneys will soon roam the streets.

7. Motivated sellers. What can I say? I like nicer things than I can afford. For several years now, I’ve noticed people posting high-end cycling equipment on Craigslist at bargain prices just so they can make rent. Yes, I benefited from desperation on numerous occasions, but none of my quarry ever made me truly happy. I want a Colnago frame.

I tell myself the recession will end and I’ll be able to afford one. But that’s the catch—so will everyone else. It’s a lot like the housing market and the low interest rates dangling like a succulent burrito in front of our swollen bellies and salivating maws. But more on that later.

6. Defense cuts possible. Part of the federal sequester plans included cuts to discretionary defense spending (my favorite oxymoron ever). Yes, Congress actually agreed to cut military spending on things like new weapons, base expansion, and civilian support personnel. Sure lawmakers came back with another $10 billion to soften the blow for defense workers, and no other government sector. Still, the United States Congress actually cut defense, and I think that’s pretty special.

5. Pet fads faded. A recent New Times cover story discussed teacup pigs—swine you starve in order to stunt their growth. Although horrible in its own right, it reminds me of the late 1990s fennic fox fad, the pot-bellied pig fad before that, and the alligator fad before that. The last big economic upswing marked an era of Americans making, even by our typically inane standards, unusually stupid choices regarding house pets. The popular 1990 film Kindergarten Cop even featured our future governor toting around a ferret, an animal banned in California due to its effect on indigenous bird species.

4. Hummers gone. Hummer coming back from the grave that it mercifully slipped into in 2010 would be a deal-breaker, at least for me. That seems unlikely, but I cringe at what other hawkish rolling phallic extension might spring from the minds of American automakers once gas prices seem a little less prohibitive to senseless consumption. I cringe.

3. Quiet forests. I don’t much care for how rural conservatives insist on running roughshod over our federal lands. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in freedoms, but 300 million Americans own that land.

Before the recession caused motor sport sales to tank, I thought at least one species of raptor went extinct in the Bitterroot Mountains. Turns out I just couldn’t hear it. The construction slump also triggered a lull in federal timber sales, or at least those worth pushing through environmental review. Whatever the cause, the silence is golden.

2. Cheap housing stock. Interest rates should stay low for a while yet, but the days of dirt cheap single family homes may be numbered. News reports talk about runaway foreclosure rates, but does anyone else wonder where all that housing stock went?

Housing remains relatively cheap in part because everyday people still lack financing options. Short sales and trustee sales dispense property at bargain rates, but the buyer still needs cash on hand to strike while the proverbial iron is hot. Some might respond that issuing loans willy-nilly got us into this recession in the first place. However, I blame an unregulated mortgage securities market that allowed banks to sell bad debt to unscrupulous speculators.

1. Funemployment. I can just imagine the reminiscing now. “Remember when it was OK for someone with a graduate degree to work as an adventure tour guide in southeast Alaska?” we’ll say, twitching a frosted brow. “Remember surfing in the morning and rolling into a part-time job around noon? Remember eating off food stamps while living in a tree in your friend’s backyard?”

Yes, I do.

Funemployment is what young middle class folk do to avoid reality. Sure, you could join the Peace Corps, but they don’t have triple black IPAs in Uganda. Of course, try explaining that to family members who wonder why you seem hellbent on frittering away the education and opportunity generously afforded you. “Come on, Mom,” you respond. “I’m looking for a job. It’s just the recession.”

No, seriously Mom, I’m looking for a job. It’s just the recession.

Contact Staff Writer Patrick M. Klemz at pklemz@newtimesslo.com.

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