Blogs > Cliopatria > Recessional

Jul 3, 2009 3:44 pm


Fireworks and bad economic news make for an odd—though hardly unprecedented—combination. “Don't Mistake the Economy's Sparklers for Fireworks,” a Steven Pearlstein op ed in the Washington Post, is a perfectly reasonable headline under the circumstances.

I find more interesting a Wall Street Journal article on the decline in Rest Areas. This is a case of budget woes accelerating a trend already in place. I particularly liked the insight that there are no poets or historians of rest areas like there are for Route 66 or other icons of our automotive past. Google for Route 66, and the site just linked comes up first. Search for Rest areas and you get a list of rest areas. (I am amazed that a Wikipedia entry did not come first in either case.)

Later this summer, we will be taking a trip down to Texas and Oklahoma to visit relatives and old friends, so perhaps it’s natural for rest areas to be on my mind. It’s actually been several years since we took an extended car trip. It’s something we used to enjoy, and I will be curious to see how much we still do.

Perhaps we will also get a sense of the mood around the country, or at least along our route. There’s a lot of pain out there, and governmental stimulus, to the extent that it can help, is, at best, just beginning to arrive. The old rule of thumb that it takes at least 9 months for government spending to impact the economy seems not to have been superseded by the Obama administration’s attempt to move faster. (Or perhaps it has moved faster, and the situation would have been much worse without it. That’s a truly scary thought.)

Bad times are pruning winds. Closures like this one, a skating rink in Rice Lake, might have happened anyway, what with changes in taste and demographics. Still that it happened now is due to the recession, and it’s a community loss, as the comments below the story suggest. Multiply that by hundreds and thousands, and you have these times.

The theory is that, despite the mess, the pruning creates new opportunities. To continue the image, the sun hits the ground through the broken limbs, and new things can grow. But this wind is looking more like a series of hurricanes, breaking the good as well as the bad. There is no rule that the market will lead us to a better life. It has not taste, no morals, no sense of justice. In good times, the wealth that following the market creates makes these flaws acceptable, and people love the Invisible Hand. In bad times that acceptance changes. That’s why people support government intervention in bad times, even though they know that government is far from perfect either.

There is still much good here, in this country. This cover story about two upcoming fireworks displays in Rice Lake is a reminder of the joy that most of us share in this country. Standing out in the night air (hoping that the mosquitoes are not too bad) and watching and sharing is free. And the fireworks are about more than light and noise. They are also, always, about hope.

The hard grind of the present, and the growing sense that hard work won’t be rewarded isn’t going away. There are no guarantees that the belief in work rewarded won’t go away for good; hence the title of this piece. It refers to Rudyard Kipling’s poem that balances his love of country with his understanding that its time could pass. I reject many of the values that Kipling celebrated, but I share his sense that even at our height, some modesty is in order. We are learning about modesty these days.

Still, the 4th is about exuberance. And wherever you are and however you do it, celebrate what is good in this country, whatever you perceive that good to be. Take care, and have fun.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 7/16/2009

I have not seen a whole line of them, the way you have. But along I 35 in Texas, there are sure a lot scattered along the way.

My impression was that when approaching a significant metro area or tourist stop, all but a few billboards were in use. But leaving these areas, a lot were vacant.

That makes sense. Services for drivers really require advertising; the ones on the approach to a business's location would have the most bang per buck.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/13/2009


Archives and archivists are suffering similar and sometimes greater pains than academics. The same is true for many public history institutions such as museums that are funded in part by state and local governments. The trend in many places had already been toward reducing public support. With private donations and the value of endowments declining, many are in precarious shape.

It's a mess, and while I know a number of historians who are cognizant of this, the temptation is to focus on ones' own self interest and forget the larger interests of our related professions.

Maarja Krusten - 7/11/2009

As regards furloughs and cutbacks, see also this entry from an archivist's blog:

Posting this in hopes that historians will have some empathy for those engaged in genealogical research who are facing the results of "pruning." (When I was an archivist 20-30 years ago, I tried to treat all researchers who came in to the U.S. National Archives with respect, from the big names such as Bob Woodward and Steve Ambrose to the genealogists who sat beside me in the microfilm research room.)



Maarja Krusten - 7/10/2009

Another thing to look out for if you're doing research at state or private repositories is the cutback in hours of archival institutions. I'm not affected by such cutbacks because I'm federal, retirement eligible, and in a historian position rather than an archivist position. But having once been an archivist, I still keep up with what is being posted in various web 1.0 and 2.0 archivists' forums.

There's lots of angst out there among young archivists holding grant funded positions and recent graduates of programs in history, archives and library and information science. (There are various combinations out there, such as the Master's in Archives and Public History.) The jobs that they once were assured would be available due to demographic factors aren't there for the most part. That's because some older employees aren't retiring yet after all and because budget cuts are leading many institutions not to fill vacancies as they do occur. Or, in the worst cases, to institute rounds of layoffs. Public libraries also are being affected by proposed budget cutbacks. (See )

Jonathan Dresner - 7/6/2009

You have to check out their mapping features: unemployment by county is one of my favorites. Then there's the unemployment by state showing CA and a huge swath from the Great Lakes down to the Southeast coast over 10%, and the metropolitan statistics showing which urban areas are above or below the US average.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/6/2009

The Bureau of Labor Statistics seems like a good first stop for data. Looking at them, for example, I see that Kansas' unemployment has been rising, but so have its labor force numbers, suggesting some in-migration. Hawai'i, on the other hand, is shedding workers rapidly, but unemployment is rising faster, suggesting deeper trouble.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/6/2009

Part of the reason I found the Arkansas billboards so striking is that the Southeast Kansas/Southwest Missouri area we live in seems to be pretty healthy, by the billboard metric though we've lost some major employers, and our agricultural base has constant globalization pains. (Though the corn spike last year was nice)

You can get regional unemployment and business data, but you have to dig for it; there are definitely areas that have (and will) suffered more and some that seems hearty enough under the circumstances.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/6/2009

Jon, I've thought more about your post.

In March 2006, I drove a rental truck from Phoenix up to Wisconsin. On a trucker's recommendation, I cut up US 54 from Tucumcari to Wichita, Kansas. There were stretches across the panhandles in which billboard advertising seemed destitute. The only "prosperity" was around the huge meat packing operations in Oklahoma and just into Kansas, where there was clearly a large Spanish-speaking market.

On that trip the collapse was confined to that region. How many more regional collapses are happening now that we don't even hear of?

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/5/2009

You can see that in Wisconsin, too. At least here, I think this began to happen in the 2006 and 2007, as the number of billboards in my region jumped even faster than the economy then could employ. The number of empties has grown since then.

If that's the case generally, then it's an interesting example of overbuilding.

They also scar up some otherwise lovely vistas, but unlike many things in our culture, the new ones are built to last. Darn it.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/4/2009

We just finished a quick trip through Arkansas (and a drive through Oklahoma on the way back to Kansas), and I was very surprised by the number of empty billboards. Advertising budgets, at least, have been obliterated.

One or two isn't unusual. We saw places where a half-dozen billboards all together were blank, whole stretches of road with no commercial communication.