Breaking out of economic doldrums - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Breaking out of economic doldrums

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Posted: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 6:05 pm | Updated: 9:53 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

 Hey, did you hear? Santa Claus is laying off Rudolph after the big night. Like other employers, Claus has to, ah, rein in costs. He can’t afford to keep and feed nine reindeer, even if they are tiny, for another whole year.

Rudolph has been a valued employee, but in these tough times, the team will have to pull the sleigh without his red nose.

Nah, that’s not happening. Rudolph has golden job security.

But, the way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the rumor.

Everywhere, amid the mistletoe and eggnog, the talk is economic woe and misery. The conversation over canapés inevitably turns to dwindling 401(k) accounts, layoffs and Bernie Madoff.

Here’s a thought: Could we all get along for a couple of weeks without talk of economic gloom and doom? After all, ’tis the season to be jolly, not melancholy.

It won’t be easy. Pollsters tell us the national mood is dark as people fret about their jobs and the deepening recession.

Munching a Christmas cookie, my friend Louise lamented her investment losses, toyed with the fear she might have to buy a new car and capped her rant with, “I don’t know the value of anything anymore.”

Louise’s car is running fine; it’s her worrying that’s out of control. But she’s onto something. Oscar Wilde’s famous line comes to mind: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

These days, nobody can be sure of the proper price or value of anything. It’s a frustrating and frightening predicament.

Prices, incredibly, can fall. We’ve seen declines in everything from houses to gas to food. A gallon of gas may go for $5 or less than $1.50. Desperate retailers slash pre-Christmas prices, and car dealers offer two trucks for the price of one.

The Consumer Price Index was 3 percent lower last month than three months ago. Meat, poultry, fish and eggs — a veritable South Beach Diet bonanza — are all down in price. That sounds like good news. Who doesn’t want to pay less?

But economists lose sleep thinking that consumers will hold off spending, waiting for even lower prices. It’s curious that after all the advice to be careful, comparison shoppers, many Americans have adopted cautious behavior — only to be told it’s a potential hazard to our consumer-driven economy.

People worried about their next paycheck are not inclined to go on shopping sprees. They hunker down and pay off their credit cards, if they can.

The value of something — whether it’s real estate or a dress — is what a buyer is willing to pay. When the cost of houses was rising, people got a warm glow writing their mortgage checks. But when the real estate bubble burst and foreclosures started dominating the news, people began to feel poor — even if they can afford the payment and don’t need to sell.

Nobody is happy with the way the country is going, but we exacerbate the problem by harping on all that’s wrong all the time.

Instead, we could focus on the future and the hope of a turnaround. A Zogby poll reported this week that three-fourths of Americans believe the economy will be better next year this time. That reflects high expectations people have of Barack Obama.

Obama plans to sign a massive stimulus package soon after he takes office next month. The price tag — originally estimated at a hefty $700 billion over two years — now is said to be nudging $1 trillion. Is that too much or what’s necessary? Nobody knows.

Obama is taking a page from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s job-creation playbook during the Great Depression. Obama plans to create 2.5 million jobs over two years, putting people to work rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and developing alternative energy sources. Recent news reports say Obama may need to create 3.2 million jobs by end of the first quarter of 2011.

Maybe Obama can point some of his stimulus package toward Santa Claus. I’d hate to see layoffs at the North Pole.

Marsha Mercer (mmercer@mediageneral.com) is Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service.

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