Message to Peggy Noonan: Open your eyes!

The former Reagan speechwriter and WSJ opinion columnist can't see the recession. Is she even looking?

Published December 2, 2008 3:43PM (EST)

What does a recession look like?

On Tuesday morning, Mark Thoma hosted a rant by fellow economist Tim Duy taking apart a silly column in the Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan. For the full point-by-point analysis, I refer you to Duy. But after reading the following two paragraphs from Noonan, I can't contain my own response.

I am thankful for something we're not seeing. One of the weirdest, most perceptually jarring things about the economic crisis is that everything looks the same. We are told every day and in every news venue that we are in Great Depression II, that we are in a crisis, a cataclysm, a meltdown, the credit crunch from hell, that we will lose millions of jobs, and that the great abundance is over and may never return. Three great investment banks have fallen while a fourth totters, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen 31% in six months. And yet when you free yourself from media and go outside for a walk, everything looks . . . the same.

Everyone is dressed the same. Everyone looks as comfortable as they did three years ago, at the height of prosperity. The mall is still there, and people are still walking into the stores and daydreaming with half-full carts in aisle 3. Everyone's still overweight. (An evolutionary biologist will someday write a paper positing that the reason for the obesity epidemic of the past decade is that we were storing up food like squirrels and bears, driven by an unconscious anthropomorphic knowledge that a time of great want was coming. Yes, I know it will be idiotic.) But the point is: Nothing looks different.

Really? On Saturday, Nov. 22nd, I arrived at the Oakland International Airport around midday. I had allowed plenty of time, because I've been flying out of the Bay Area to New York for Thanksgiving for 20 years, and the airports are always big, congested messes.

Not this time. No traffic coming into the airport. No line to check bags. No line at security. I mean this literally: there were no lines at a major airport on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. I remarked to the woman checking us in that I'd never seen the airport that empty. She gestured down a line of empty counters beside her. Five airlines had pulled out of the Oakland airport this year, she told me (among them, ATA, Aloha, Skybus, and American Airlines). JetBlue, she said, had cut its daily flights out of Oakland from 22 to 9.

As we turned away from the check-in counter, my daughter muttered, "well, that's a reality check."

Indeed.  Yes, airlines have been hit particularly hard by the downturn, since the oil price surge forced them to sharply raise prices just when Americans found themselves least able to afford to fly. But the empty Oakland airport is just one example. Sorry Peggy, but you really don't have to look very hard to see an economy in sharp decline. And if you use your imagination you might even be able to envision how things could look a year from now, if our circumstances continue to deteriorate.

It's amazing Republicans kept power as long as they did.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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