America's Economic "Spread-ession"
Times are hard.
How hard, you ask? Well, you'll be glad to know that professional economists have now reached a conclusion: America is technically in a recession. Of course, millions of Americans have known this for months, since they've lost jobs, businesses, homes — and faith in economists.
While the professors pored over their reams of data, plenty of real-life indicators were shouting that, yes indeedy, the economy sure enough is in a heap of hurt. Start with this indicator: abandoned boats.
Thousands of vessels have been turning up in harbors, on beaches and on other waterfronts around the country — minus any owners. They've been ditched. These are not junkers. They are fully functioning pleasure boats that have become money-sucking burdens to would-be mariners who find themselves sinking in today's economic whirlpool. They are also commercial craft (trawlers, shrimp boats and such) that can no longer earn their keep because of the disastrous decline in America's fishing market.
Why not just sell them? No market. As one marina owner notes: "You can just forget trying to sell a power boat right now. No one is buying."
Most boats also have very little scrap value, and it's expensive to haul them to a proper dump. So many owners are slipping their rigs into a marina or river, removing the ID numbers, maybe even sinking them and scooting away.
For another sign of the times, look to the world of pro sports. Even Tiger Woods just got dumped by Buick, which cancelled a $7.5 million sponsorship deal for 2009. The carmaker, which is in line for a Washington bailout, explained that bailing out on Tiger "sure frees up a lot of money for us."
OK, it's hard to feel the pain of a gabillionaire golfer, but canceling on Woods is a clue that this is no ordinary recession. It's a "spread-ession," reaching far beyond the working class that usually bears the full blow of downturns.
Then there's NASCAR, the racing competition that literally wears corporate wealth on its sleeve.
Corporate dollars are the fuel line for NASCAR, accounting for 80 percent of the typical racing team's total budget. These days, however, many of the usual sponsors are rolling over into the financial ditch and cutting out of the racing game. This has left even some of the top NASCAR teams, once flush with money, scrambling for cash.
Ironically, to stay on the track, seven-time champion Richard Petty has "gone Wall Street," selling a controlling interest in his family's team to venture capital speculators.
Tracking on up to the tippy top of America's financial pyramid, the haute culture social scene in Manhattan got a jolt in November when Marc Jacobs signaled that the party is over. For the last 18 years, this flashy fashion designer has thrown a lavish holiday bash for several hundred of his closest friends.
His annual party is a celebration of excess. Last year, he had an "Arabian Nights" theme, and 800 swells came in costume to the gala, held in the posh Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. It was beyond fab, featuring bare-breasted women adorned with gold necklaces, a group of contortionists to amuse delighted attendees, five open bars, bare-chested men balancing candelabras atop their heads and, at a climatic moment, a shower of gold glitter falling from the ceiling.
Those were the days. This year, however, instead of an invitation, the guest list received a terse email reading, "Due to the financial climate, I had to make the decision to cancel the 2008 holiday party." The glitter is gone from our modern Gilded Age.
Folks at the bottom are used to hearing hard times knock on their doors, but when the gates of opulence also get a knock, you know that this downturn is something different. As one marketer of luxury goods observed: We're just seeing the beginning of this."
To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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