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EYE ON THE PIE: How I spent my summer vacation

August 4, 2008

Helen Heavybreath is one of the most intrusive persons in my life. She always wants to know, "Where have you been? What have you been doing? Whom did you see?" At least the woman's grammar is good.

Before she accosts me again, I will report my vacation activities. What do you think an economist would do this summer, given current circumstances? Quite naturally, high gasoline prices induced me to take a 3,000-mile driving vacation from Indiana into Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

Insane, you might say, but how else to see Americans adjusting to the combination of high gas prices, reduced air services and fallen purchasing power abroad? I can tell you without hesitation that as many obnoxious people are on the roads as ever. There may be fewer nice, polite people traveling, but the boors are as numerous as ever.

These include drivers who have not learned to respect the boundaries of parking spaces and fail to understand the purpose of highway lane markings. Another set of evildoers are the variable-speed drivers. These dangers to the established social order inhabit the left-hand lane of interstate highways, accelerating and decelerating in a persistent effort to force those of us on cruise control to lose our high-efficiency cool.

I found that most motels I called were filled by 5 p.m. That observation is of no earthly use. I saw no cars beyond the Mississippi River bearing Indiana license plates. Does this indicate that Hoosiers are staying home, enjoying the blessings of familiar settings? Or is it that Hoosier vacationers are drawn to exotic eastern sites, like Dayton, Erie and Pottstown? I trust that the Indiana Department of Tourism and Hucksterism is collecting the appropriate data and planning another blockbuster advertising campaign.

Perhaps the high point of the trip was when a receptionist at a newspaper in Amarillo, Texas, (there was a bit of business conducted on this tour), presented me to the editor, reading from my card, that I was an e-co'-nom-ist. How wonderful! My profession may be unknown in the Texas panhandle. We knew that it was little-respected in the White House; who has use for a person who names eco-things?

Among the travelers I met, mostly older people like me, the main concern was the falling stock market. They studied the Money section of USA Today, provided "free" with the "complimentary" "continental" breakfast. (On which continent this breakfast originated was never made clear.)

Imagine us, the tens of thousands of traveling aged Americans waking to find our 401(k) plans had declined in value in the past 24 hours. We start the day with a sense of shrinkage in our wallets, an awareness of liver spots on our credit cards. Together, we plan our activities to minimize driving, time our meals so senior discounts can be realized, and patronize attractions with reduced admission fees for older visitors.

At the gas pumps, economic distress is expressed without hesitation by all demographic groups. The gentleman from California, on his way to a wedding in Indianapolis, laughingly fills the tank of his bus-sized motor home. He claims to get eight miles to the gallon, but his listeners take this as boasting.

The agitated parent in Kansas City tells her charges they'll not get ice cream because, "I'm not driving myself to the poorhouse going all over town to get whatever a bunch of spoiled brats want." The tow-truck driver in Santa Fe calculates the fee he'll charge, using his new cost-per-mile based on this afternoon's diesel prices.

Where once homes were being built until dusk on the open fields north of Dallas, now the hammers are silent by midafternoon. Colorado auto salesmen chat quietly in crowded showrooms about the Rockies and the Broncos while, on overflowing lots, neither the Explorers, Trailblazers nor Tundras are moving.

That's what I learned on my summer vacation, dear Miss Helen Heavybreath. Do I have to write an essay about it? Or will this do?



Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.
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