My wife and I just got back from a month in the US (with a side excursion to Canada) and I’m still trying to process the experience. We spent most of our time in Ohio getting bombarded by election ads, so that’s why I’m kind of numb. But we also drove to Washington, New York, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa and Toronto, so we got a chance to talk to lots of people in a variety of places.
As usual, the countryside was beautiful. It was the first time I’d driven across the George Washington Bridge.
But we especially like the quaint New England towns:
Unfortunately we were a bit too early for fall foliage:
But we met many interesting people:
I was hoping to get some insights into what is going on with the economy and the political environment, but what I actually got was a lot of conflicting data—the economic and political situations are as diverse and complex as the scenery and people we saw.
One of the biggest surprises was the economy. Although we did see houses up for auction and long stretches of empty retail space, people for the most part were amazingly bullish. Cleveland seems to be going through another one of its renaissances with lots of new building and renovation. They are building fancy downtown apartments and people are filling them as fast as they can build them.
A lot of the empty retail space is being reclaimed by new businesses. Admittedly, they are often sub-Walmart retail operations and lot of them don’t bother refitting the space, so you might be in a discount book shop with an Italian restaurant décor. But at least the space isn’t empty.
Maybe it was just me, but it seemed as if there were more trucks than cars on the road—and I’ve got to believe that trucks are delivering stuff for people to buy.
Restaurants and malls seemed to be booming.
Speaking of retail, Halloween is the next holiday on the calendar and every store we visited is geared up for Halloween spending. My recollection of Halloween was a pumpkin on the front steps and a cheap or homemade costume but today it’s big business. There was even “The Halloween Store.”
On the scale of essential living expenses, I have to believe that Halloween kitsch is probably pretty low and fairly discretionary in a bad economy. But the amount of stuff on sale and the way people were snapping it up leads me to conclude that either (1) Halloween has gotten a lot more important than it used to be or (2) people are looking for stuff to spend their money on. Or maybe both.
Everyone is in on the act, with products that used to be seasonal being retrofitted for Halloween. I saw Easter delicacies such as Peeps and Cadbury Crème Eggs recast as Pumpkin Peeps and Cadbury Scremes, which are Cadbury Crème Eggs with the yellow yolk dyed green.
Someone’s making all this stuff and people are buying and deploying it with abandon. This sort of thing is all the rage:
As hard as it was to figure out the economic situation, politics was infinitely more difficult. I have to start with the caveat that I was curious to find out what was going on, so I brought up the topic more than I should have.
From these discussions I didn’t learn a lot about what’s really going on, but I did learn that it’s probably not a good idea to bring up politics. There is no such thing as a polite political conversation. No one is neutral. And no one respects anyone else’s opinion. If people agree, they talk about the irredeemable ignorance of the people who don’t agree with them. If people don’t agree, they lecture each other on why the other person is wrong.
In short, there is no meaningful discourse on the real issues. In fact, from what I can tell, there is no attempt to stratify the issues as to importance. Or even to determine if they are real. The President’s birth certificate can still get a front page headline.
I finally realized that when you condense all the arguments down to the essentials, everyone is just trying to simplify things. Making things black and white makes life less complicated and more comfortable. Even though it means that everything ends up cast as right or wrong, and worse, us and them.
The whole thing was put into perspective for me when we went into a big retail store. It was a discount place and the vast majority of the stuff was from China. What else would you expect at a discount store?
This was the sign on the door:
In any event, one of the issues in the presidential campaign is China. According to the rhetoric, they are stealing our jobs. We are letting them steal our jobs. They are fiddling with the currency markets. They are flooding the market with cheap knockoffs. They are also a major trading partner.
In other words, China is a complex issue.
And you would think that a store selling China-made goods would raise some questions. But because complex issues aren’t welcome, this sign hung proudly from the rafters:
Sure keeps things simple, doesn’t it.