Toil and Trouble

05/27/2020

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.

Throughout the great stay-at-home of March and April, I couldn’t get that line from “Macbeth” out of my head. The days just stretched out, behind and ahead, all running together in one long slog. Weekends were no different from weekdays, holidays barely noted.

Coincidentally, many scholars believe that Shakespeare may have written that play, along with “King Lear” and several lesser works, while he was home under quarantine from the plague. Well, I think I can speak for all my fellow hack writers when I say, “Good for him.” At least I managed to sort out my sock drawer.

I am writing this column while that slog is still proceeding. I don’t know for sure that we will publish it, or that our readers will still be there to read it should we do so. If you can answer those two questions in the affirmative, things are looking up.

Since we pulled the emergency brake, the economy has come crashing to a halt. As I’ve had little else to do for the past month, I have watched a ridiculous number of cable news programs, and their coverage of the economy has bordered on comical. They always seem shocked that there are so many people out of work, and that so many companies are in dire straits.

I’m not sure what they expected would happen when you shut down most of the businesses in the United States. I was actually a little surprised that it wasn’t worse. Car sales, for example, only dropped 50 percent in the first month, when I would have expected it to be close to 100. Who goes out and buys a new car right now, especially when the dealerships aren’t even open?

Of course some businesses are doing fine. Netflix is downloading so much stuff it has had to use lower resolution images in some areas. Amazon will hire just about anyone who walks by. Procter & Gamble, the maker of Charmin, is not feeling the squeeze.

In our part of town, though, the neighborhoods are a little bit rougher. Print publishers were down about 45 percent in early April, while retailers such as bookstores and hobby stores were down 25 percent, but I suspect your experience was considerably worse.

Speaking of Charmin, by the way, I think that Hollywood owes us all an apology. I’ve seen an awful lot of post-apocalypse movies over the years, and I don’t remember any of them predicting that the most precious commodity would be toilet paper. It seems as though shotgun shells were usually much more prized, especially when there were zombies involved.

In some of them, the whole experience was a lot of fun. I remember one film I saw when I was a kid, in which Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens were the only two survivors in an otherwise conveniently deserted New York City. What were the chances that two beautiful young people from opposite genders would be thrown together in such circumstances?

At any rate, I hope your own experience during the national “pause” was not all bad. Mine certainly was not, and although I wouldn’t care to repeat the process, it may have been worthwhile.

I won’t say that it gave me time to think, because I always have that, but it did cause me to think about things differently. One of those things was what being apart taught us about being together.

A stock market analyst on CNN said that the economy lost $2.7 trillion during the spring of 2020, but where did it go? Most Americans were still receiving either paychecks or pensions or unemployment insurance or Social Security, but all that money failed to generate our accustomed prosperity because we stopped buying things from each other.

Over the years I have told prospective advertisers that advertising doesn’t cost them money, it makes them money. I believe that, but I had never considered it in the broader context, that all the money we all spend on everything comes back to us indirectly. If we stop buying things, the alchemy stops working.

More specifically, at this critical and bizarre moment, we all need each other in a manner I had never envisioned in my 36 years as an entrepreneur. I had always thought of small business owners like you and me as independent and self-reliant, the bedrock of American capitalism. We paid our employees, paid our bills, and paid our taxes.

With the advent of the Payroll Protection Program, many of us were forced to acknowledge that without public assistance our businesses could not survive. As much as I want your business and mine to make it, I will admit to having mixed feelings about accepting help from the government.

On one hand, I am grateful that America seems to care, collectively, about small business, and I understand that nowadays we often compensate the victims of forces beyond their control. The families of those killed on 9/11, for example, received large cash settlements.

On the other, it always makes me uncomfortable when the government starts handing out benefits that are available to some people and not others. The criteria usually seem arbitrary at best, and unintended consequences are inevitable.

The second round of PPP, for instance, ran much slower than the first because many small businesses were not able to hire back their employees. Thanks to enhanced unemployment benefits, those erstwhile employees could often make more money by staying home.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, by contrast, the government did very little to fight the disease, let alone help businesses to survive the storm. If you owned a company that got hurt by the flu, that was your problem.

I’m not suggesting that the system was better a century ago than it is now, but I will say one thing for the 1918 approach. It was fair.

Nonetheless, here we are. As an industry made up almost entirely of small businesses, many of which were highly stressed even before there was a deadly virus on the loose, we certainly needed the help.

It brings to mind one of my favorite lines from “The Wizard of Oz.” The wizard is explaining how he wound up in Oz, having taken off in a hot air balloon from a state fair and getting lost. When he landed in Oz, the people there declared him the “the first wizard deluxe.”

“Times being what they were,” he said, “I accepted the job.”

Those cable news programs love to compare our current situation to the Great Depression, I think because it sounds so terrifying. I know our unemployment numbers this summer will be very bad, but I often wonder if those reporters realize that the Depression lasted for 10 years.

I don’t think we’ll be down for that long. If we are, well, we might see some great movies.


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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