My Engine Is Idling

Great Depression

The economic pundits seemed convinced that this economic crisis will go on for a while – a year or two or longer. And we all know that cutting back will actually making the situation worse for others – after all, we are each other’s economic engine, but mine seems to be idling.

Always ahead of the curve, we felt fortunate to sell our home at a 25% discount before Hank Paulson made that practice the standard. We got out of the market when the Dow was in the low eights the last time. The seldom used second car was sold. Eating out anytime became eating out every now and then until it became reserved for a special occasion. As did travel. Gift giving turned into craft projects. Subscriptions weren’t renewed. Books traded. Software upgrades skipped. Insurance shopped. Coupons clipped, organized and used. Generics and store brands became preferred. Ironing and mending replaced the dry cleaner and the trash bin. Our hair got longer between visits. Prescriptions were second guessed or dispensed with. Routine doctor visits were no longer routine. Our light bulbs were replaced and turned off. HBO became a distant memory. With our thermostat turned down, I’m sitting here in my long johns and flannel pants, two pairs of socks, two shirts and sweater, eating my dinner out of a bowl for the uptenthed time… I apologize. I’ve tried to write that line where it will come across light or funny and can’t.

As an abashed baby boomer who occasionally ate breakfast out of a bowl, but never dinner, I am struck with how often, recently, we have done so. Made use of what’s in the pantry for a hearty soup or bowl of beans (in addition to being great at so many things, my wife is also an inspired, creative, resourceful and wonderful cook – if you are interested in some recipes, leave a comment and maybe she’ll post ways to make chicken soup out of chicken, well, you know). There is certainly nothing wrong with eating dinner in a bowl. In fact, it is very good for me, but… eating dinner in a bowl is a symbol of the great depression (so far our depression has not, yet, been deemed, “great”). I suspect we will all be eating out of bowls often for the next while and I wonder where cutbacks and downsizing will lead. No, I know where they will lead. The choices will become more like Sophie’s.

Mourning or whining about cutting back must be a terrible insult to those who defined their luxuries as a second helping of rice (and, perhaps, tedious to those who still benefit from Bush’s tax cuts). Despicable really, but tens of millions of heretofore well-to-do Americans are facing the fear that they may have waited too late. The stakes are high and it is not the only fear to fear.

I know, I know, Iknow that Obama and the new Congress are going to act decisively and quickly on an $825 billion stimulus, but have you seen the details? They are gut wrenching. The devil in the details:

  • $550 billion for new schools, even more highways, (infrastructure spending will create some precious jobs, but will take time) unemployment and health benefits for out-of-work Americans (this will help a lot people, but assumes you had a job to lose – I’m self-employeed, but not allowed to fire myself even for cause). Sounds okay, but look at what it really is:
    • $41 billion for special education, school construction and other elementary and high school programs;
    • $16 billion to retrofit public housing for energy efficiency;
    • $6 billion for mass transit;
    • $1 billion to renovate and build new public health centers;
    • $1.5 billion for worker retraining programs;
    • $1.5 billion for services and shelters for the homeless;
    • A temporary $25 a week (wow) increase in unemployment checks and welfare support for needy families;
    • Workers who have lost their jobs would get temporary health subsidies and extended COBRA coverage (why not just address universal healthcare?);
    • Low income elderly and disabled would receive a one-time additional monthly payment;
    • $3.8 billion for new military and VA hospitals;
    • $650 million for coupons so you can buy a gadget to get digital television (this is important, because most of us won’t have cable anymore and won’t be able to watch tv);
    • $350 million to refurbish the National Mall (not a shopping mall), the Jefferson Memorial and the Smithsonian (oh, boy);
    • $16 billion in extra college financial aid with increased student loan limits and a $500 Pell grants increase (good, but a stimulus?);
    • $32 billion in direct spending and loan guarantees for new electricity transmission and grid improvements that, at least theoretically, will eventually help get wind, solar and other renewable energy (for what Al Gore says we need $400 billion to do);
    • $4 billion for government and housing agencies (not consumers) deal with foreclose and abandoned homes;
    • $1 billion for Head Start, preschools;
    • $3 billion for airport construction;
  • $275 billion in tax cuts including:
    • a whopping $500 cut for each of us that make below $75,000 a year (I get chills thinking about what I could do with $500 spread out over a year, what about you?);
    • but no fix to the AMT or tax credit for new hires.

That’s it. Really. Is this a joke? There’s some talk that some of the second $350 billion Wall Street Bailout will go to help consumers with foreclosure, but that it. That’s all the help you are going to get. Enjoy your soup.

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