The I-90 West winds towards Erie, Penn., with two sinuous ribbons of asphalt, two lanes on each side, a wide belt of trees in the median.
At night, the headlights of opposing traffic peek-a-boo through the trunks and brush, big trees, oaks and black walnuts and maples that arch up into the sky and out over the road so that you feel that you’re running in a great long, two-laned tunnel.
It’s a working highway, the road heavy with practical drivers working their way from A to B.
It’s US$3.15 in tolls from just outside Buffalo (Lackawanna, N.Y. to be precise) to Erie, and you realize fast that the night is full of trucks. Actually, stuffed with trucks: heavy haulers with orange roof lights and reefer rigs, elephant-parades of taillights filling up one whole lane of the rainy interstate, sometimes rigs passing each other like match-
racing beetles so you come up upon their big rectangular trailers filling up the entire road like a wall in your headlights.
In the daylight, coming back, it’s obvious among the transports streaming south that many are packed tight with new cars. It’s hard to imagine the double-dip of a new recession even exists when so much conspicuous consumption is winging its way south into the heart of the United States.
Trucks filled tight with material for dollar stores, for tire shops, for grocery chains. Someone has to be buying it all — someone has to be consuming it.
You pass an incongruous billboard that reads “Fireworks — hundreds of knives and swords. Pepper spray and Stun guns. Just Ahead.”
At a New York state rest stop, there’s a woman in a caution vest, emptying the trash cans. It’s picnic tables, vending machines, washrooms, tidily-cut grass and a parking lot away from the road so you can stop and stretch your legs. Two kinds of parking — one for cars, and a longer, wider lot for the trucks.
A truck driver comes out of the rest stop as you climb out of the car.
He’s driving a fat-back chemical tanker, the kind with a high-
pressure turret on top that makes it look like it could burst at any second. A yellow cab-over tractor, the lights all left on, the truck running while he makes his way back from the rest station. He walks slowly, lifting one foot higher than the other, as if he has an old injury or maybe just because his back hurts.
It’s been windy, and there are acorns strewn all over the parking lot, a metal smell of recent rain in the air.
The driver hitches up his black jeans crossing the lot; the entire seat of his jeans is worn away, his underwear sticking out through, but he doesn’t seem to care, doesn’t seem to notice.
He stiff-legs his way into the cab and pulls the door shut, and for a few minutes, the rig just sits there, as if the driver can’t decide if it’s even worth getting back on the road.
Despite the pace at which everything’s moving, it’s clear the U.S. economy is changing — and for those at the bottom of the scale, it’s changing dramatically. Houses are still staying on the market for months, and realtors are suggesting it might be better to wait until after the next presidential election to list properties, just in case the election provides some kind of unexplainable lift in real estate spirits.
Strange, then, that at the top, the wages and bonuses have almost recovered to pre-crash levels.
But the top can only buy so many of those new cars.
The bottom’s where the market for products truly is. And here’s a thought: companies like GM are saying that new workers, and workers on new products, should make roughly half what longer-term employees make. Pay that used to be in the US$28 per hour range is dropping to US$14.50 per hour. And perhaps wages were unrealistic — perhaps, at the top of the scale, they still are, and ridiculously so. It’s hard to deny one thing, though — pay someone half as much and they can only buy half as much.
But the money’s still going out right now.
It’s like watching someone who’s clearly sick try to treat the symptoms but not the illness; someone who hasn’t realized just how critically bad it is yet.
We’re talking about the U.S. need for new power and, worse, we’re talking about the need to take on huge new deficits to supply a market that’s about to undergo profound change.
They’re reaching the end of their credit line, folks — it’s like the last night out on the town before the auditor comes in to look at the books.
Because, if you spend even a few days in the States, you realize there are a lot of people who are barely getting by.
Getting by, by the seat of your pants.
If you still have one.
We’re building a new kind of deficit, a cash deficit in the pockets of workers whose efforts turn the economy’s engines.
We just haven’t realized it yet.
There are big, big changes coming south of the border. And we’d better be factoring that into our own big, big plans.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.