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Welcome to the Frozen Economy

Not since the Depression have financial difficulties so immobilized spending and credit. Listen to the talk at a diner in Maine

The polar ice cap may be melting, but the U.S. economy is frozen, starting right here in my small town. Gradually rising levels of dismay at the gas pump and in the supermarket gave way to paralytic shock last week when "lock-in" notices from the local fuel company arrived. This year's advance price for home heating oil is nearly twice what people paid last year. A collective gasp of disbelief from my tough, resourceful Maine neighbors echoed across the meadows and up the rocky coast. Many claimed they would never sign the contract. "What's your alternative?" I asked a friend.

"I don't have one," he muttered.

In the days that followed, a new quality of dread settled over the place like soot, as people weighed their options. Heat or food? Gas or electricity? Medicine or mortgage payments? What to give up? What to cut back? The conversations were everywhere. In the supermarket, I heard one man tell another: "When I was a kid, you woke up, went into the bathroom, and broke up the ice in the toilet. Now my kids will have to do the same. America is moving backward."

My neighbors are like deer caught in the headlights: frozen in fear as something sinister, implacable, and wholly unanticipated lurches toward them. A reckoning has begun to unfurl like a dark flower, slowly at first, then gathering urgency and force. This is not a short detour after all, but an untraveled road to an unknown place from which there is no return, no escape…and we are not prepared.

Spending Paralysis

The economic crisis has been triggered by what economists call "structural shifts" in the global supply and demand for commodities, coupled with the meltdown in the mortgage markets and the ensuing credit squeeze. But this crisis is now moving into a whole new gear, creating a new set of economic conditions that have yet to be named. Call it "the frozen economy."

As pain reaches deep into the daily lives of ordinary Americans—irrespective of their creditworthiness—it will trigger unforeseen consequences for every corner of the marketplace. Nearly two-thirds of Americans already say they are cutting back on nonessentials, according to a new survey by Information Resources. But what's nonessential? Heat? Asthma medication? Shoes for your kids? A new yoga mat? At the same time, 57% of Americans interviewed last month by the Survey of Consumer Confidence reported that their financial situation had worsened—the poorest response since 1946, when the survey began. More than two-thirds of gross domestic product depends on consumer spending. But when the grass roots are frozen, nothing can grow.

The statistics tell a dramatic story, but people tell it better. So I went to Moody's Diner to listen.

Comfort Food

Moody's is our sanctuary of sameness, where regulars come for the $3.89 breakfast special—two pancakes, two eggs, two links—and tourists to satisfy a hunger for something that goes beyond food. Built in the 1920s on Maine's principal north-south route, it was a haven for loggers, truckers, and rusticators in an age before cholesterol. Now it's a fold in time. The yellowed linoleum counter, green vinyl swivel seats, scarred wooden booths, and worn tabletops have welcomed countless stacks of blueberry pancakes, thousands of fragrant chicken croquettes with gravy-covered mashed potatoes, a sea of shrimp stew, and enough chocolate cream pie to feed a small country.

Moody's welcomes us back to the world of childhood, of Grandma's kitchen, when all was innocence and order. This is no postmodern nostalgic wink, just the healing comfort of a nearly complete absence of change. Only the Support Our Troops in Iraq poster, with photos of local boys, suggests a new century.

At least, that's what I thought until the other day, when I sat down at the counter. Three working men in the booth behind me wondered about alternative energy. Wind? Solar? Pellets? The very notion was mysterious, and it wasn't clear how to figure it out. "We have to do something," they said. "But what?"

Next to me, Shirley and Irene recalled how their parents coped the last time no one could afford heat, during the Great Depression. Back then, three generations moved into Grandma's farmhouse for the winter. "It was the only way they could survive. Now it looks like we may have to do that again." Irene looked dazed. "I feel sick about it. We don't know what to do."

Seventy-three-year-old Arlie Fretner sat in his usual spot, the last seat at the counter, with his back to the wall. "I don't know what to do, or what to think, or what direction to go in. It looks like those folks in Washington don't know, either. The whole system has just seized right up. There's nothing I can compare this to, except how my people talked about the Depression."

Running Scared

"What about the next President?" I asked. "Will he be able to help?" They all looked at me with a mix of tenderness and pity, as if I had just spit up on my clean shirt. "The government should assist us," Arlie said, "but we've given up on that. They want to pacify us, not help us."

Robert had been listening quietly. For decades, he taught shop at the local high school and trained many of the skilled carpenters around town. Now he runs a small power-products business and helps out his son's logging operation. Few men are more respected in this community. "People are asking themselves, 'Will things go back to the way they were, or is this a fundamental change?'" he said. "Everything hit us at once. Now we are running scared for the winter. My business is off 75%. People want the products, but they're afraid to make a move, because they have to save everything to heat their homes. We have to choose between heat, gas, food, and medicine. Most of us have never lived through a time like this, where we can't afford the basics of a decent life. It's hard to believe that this is America."

Robert is living in the frozen economy, where paralysis reigns at every level. Psychologists have long observed a curvilinear relationship between anxiety and performance. Without anxiety, there is apathy. A good dose of anxiety motivates peak performance. But more anxiety and the whole thing morphs into paralysis. The way I see it, we've blown right past anxiety into brand-new territory, where people can't make choices because there aren't any good choices to make. They are paralyzed—frozen in place.

Credit Seizure

Our public and private institutions are facing their own version of this new Big Chill. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, speaking in London earlier this month, told his audience that the financial markets had not yet adapted to new circumstances. "Working through the turmoil will take additional time, as markets and financial institutions continue to reassess risk…." They, too, are uncertain where to turn, having seen the Dow's dismal June performance, when it lost the greatest percentage of its value since June 1930.

General Motors (GM) executives, having squandered these past decades on shamelessly obstructing the development of fuel-efficient engines, now see their share price at a 50-year low. Their solution? Lay off other employees…again. No peak performance there.

The G8 leaders appear powerless and irrelevant. At the U.S. Federal Reserve, the curtain has been ripped aside, and the once omniscient wizard looks startled and uncertain. Keep rates low to support growth? Raise rates and try to stem inflation? You know the banking sector has seized up when federal funds lend at 325 basis points less than a year ago, while 30-year mortgages are two full percentage points higher. Frozen.

Squeezing Budgets

Every aspect of the economy seems to be caught between fiercely opposing forces, leaving no good choices but plenty of ice. Prices are up: Dairy products and bread have jumped 15% over last year, eggs 26.7%, and poultry 73%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gasoline is 36.7% more than a year ago, according to the Energy Information Administration. Health insurance premiums have increased 91% since 2000, according to the Commonwealth Fund. Meanwhile, real hourly earnings are falling—down 0.8% from a year ago, according to Bloomberg Economic Indicators.

There are more opposing forces: Consumer borrowing is up, while home values have fallen precipitously and mortgage delinquency rates are reaching record levels. The U.S. trade deficit continues to rise, while the cost of shipping a standard container from China has tripled since 2000, and many goods now cost more to transport and distribute than to produce. GDP is rising slightly, but the amount we can afford to buy with what we produce is growing at a pace that's even slower, by a full percentage point, than real GDP, according to the Dallas Fed. Home prices have fallen back, but the Conference Board indicates that the number of people intending to purchase a home in the next six months is at a 25-year low.

Americans are not alone in their shock and bewilderment. Demonstrations and riots over the rising cost of food and fuel are spreading from Asia and Africa across Europe.

Memories of Depression

Civilizations can prosper or decline. This is no coin flip but a consequence of how well societies perceive and adapt to economic, social, and environmental ruptures. In 1980, still in the grip of the last energy crisis, Americans signed on for "Morning in America." The promise of Ronald Reagan's candidacy, and of every President and Congress since, has been to humor our fears with a message of eternal sunshine—that everything is as it has always been. We've been lulled into escapism by opportunistic leaders. We chose to be pacified. Now decades have been lost while we've kept our heads in the sand. Most Americans alive today cannot recall the Depression—the last great shattering of our economic life—and what it felt like to be frozen. Will the economy mark the onset of our lingering decline, or will it finally rally us from denial?

As the economy ices over, the next President will confront a challenge that can be compared only to the one Franklin D. Roosevelt faced nearly 80 years ago. Discontinuous change will require a bold reexamination of our social contract and the rules of wealth creation in a global system. Thawing the frozen economy will entail reinvention of our public and private institutions, especially as they bear on health, education, finance, and energy. These are themes I plan to address in my next columns. In the meantime, here's my advice to the candidates: Start at Moody's Diner. Lose the cameras. Bring a notebook.

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