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A trip to the library

Permanent Linkby Jack on Tue Sep 29, 2009 5:36 pm

Sometimes, mundane changes illuminate underlying reality in a way no collection of numbers can.

Today, I drove down to the public library with several boxes of old magazines. The library can sell them for a pittance and add a small sum to their funding, and it gets the magazines off my hands. It's been about a year since I went there last.

I noticed several men standing around outside. It's 11 AM on a Tuesday, and 6 men - three individuals, one group of three - are hanging out. One looked to by fortyish, the others younger - mid to late twenties. They were just standing, doing nothing in particular. The group was talking between themselves. They were dressed in the modern urban costume of athletic shoes, dark t-shirts, and casual pants.

They didn't have the defeated look of the homeless about them, nor was there any tell-tale cart of junk. Oddly, they weren't inside the library, which had seating and other amenities. No, they were just watching the comings and goings. I was reminded of how a coyote might look at potential prey, evaluating the risk versus the reward.

Inside, there was a bank of computers - every position was filled. All were men, mostly in the late 40's to early 50's. One of the younger ones - 30ish? - was talking to a librarian about an advertisement for a company that purported to help people find jobs. The librarian laughed and said that the company had gone bankrupt.

I got a volunteer to come out and collect the boxes. The men I mentioned earlier were still around; in the five or so minutes that passed, they had shifted their positions - but they were still there, still watching the comings and goings.

That piece of business completed, I went to my favorite Chinese restaurant - it's been a favorite on the local scene since 1939. For decades that I know of, the place has been packed at lunch, generally with a long line outside the door by 11:30. They combine generous portions of good food with low prices and fast service, which is generally a winning formula. Today? Out of three dining sections, one was completely shut down, one was nearly empty, and the other about two-thirds filled. There was no line. Even at noon - there were empty tables.

Why? Quite possibly, we're close to the end of the month and everyone is out of money. That suggests that people are running on such tight margins, with so little available money, that they cannot purchase an inexpensive lunch. And the condition applies to enough people that the business is visibly affected.

My conclusion? The economy is worse than the numbers indicate. We have a lot of formerly employed middle-class people that are looking for jobs and not finding them. And money is tight for a lot of people. No surprise, of course - but we might consider the implications. These people will not save the retail stores with extensive holiday shopping. They will not save the housing market with new acquisitions. And they will soon run out of the unemployment benefits that have kept them afloat. This is the stuff of social disorder and political discontinuity.

Speculation - we easily forget about interaction effects. We can focus on one input to a system, or another input to the same system, but we do not so easily discern the outcome of both inputs at once. Presently, we face the problems of an economic failure, peak oil, and environmental challenges. Any one would represent a grand challenge. Combined, they may well be insurmountable.

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Re: A trip to the library

Permanent Linkby HeckuvaJob on Sat Oct 03, 2009 10:16 am

I think you may very well have forgotten about interaction effects! Did you consider maybe talking to the "coyotes"?
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