The Tuesday: An Economy of Mystery

Welcome to "The Tuesday," a weekly newsletter about politics, language, culture, and suchlike. To subscribe to "The Tuesday" and receive it in its pristine email form, follow this link ...

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BY KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON February 23, 2021
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WITH KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON February 23, 2021
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An Economy of Mystery

Welcome to "The Tuesday," a weekly newsletter about politics, language, culture, and suchlike. To subscribe to "The Tuesday" and receive it in its pristine email form, follow this link.

The Now Economy

I hate most airlines, but ask me on any given day which one I absolutely hate the most, and I will always give you the same answer: The one I'm on today.

I feel the same way about FedEx vs. UPS: They are both unreliable at times and maddeningly opaque, but the one I dislike most intensely is the one that has disappointed me most recently.

(That's you this week, UPS.)

That's a variation of "present bias," as the behavioral economists call it. Present bias is your preference for getting paid less today rather than getting paid more tomorrow — accepting a smaller reward in the here and now rather than holding out for a larger one in the future. It's also what pushes us toward consumption over savings.

Present bias isn't necessarily irrational: As the famous economist Rooster Cogburn put it, "I don't believe in fairy tales, sermons, or stories about money." Sometimes, tomorrow's payday doesn't come, or it takes a lot longer to get here than you expected.

(Especially if it's being sent by UPS.)

Just as we tend to add a modest multiplier to benefits had in the present, freshly inflicted wounds are the most sensitive — scars can, eventually, become a good story. And what is true of deep wounds also is true of minor irritations.

To be clear, this is not going to be a column about parcel services, and I don't much fault UPS for this week's delays, although it could be a lot better about transparency and such. I can live with three days late — it's indefinite delays that rankle, or three-day delays that become nine-day delays. My disposition is such that I'm willing to be pretty flexible about things like delivery dates and other details, but, once something has been agreed to, I expect people (and companies, and governments) to stick to the agreement. If Instacart needs an extra three hours to deliver my groceries and says so up front, then I'm the picture of equanimity until T-plus 2:59, at which point I start to turn into the Tasmanian Devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. I hate having my time wasted, not because I am so busy but because wasting someone's time is an expression of contempt for them. And that is especially galling in relationships where my direction of cashflow is outward.

(Like most people, I am a lot easier to get along with if you are paying me than if I am paying you.)

While trying to figure out when UPS might return to its more or less usual predictable mediocrity after the winter storm in Texas (where UPS operates many facilities, including a regional air hub), I inevitably fell into the rabbit hole of customer horror stories, a genre that thrives on the Internet and one to which I have made too many enraged and petty contributions of my own. The complaints offer a snapshot of the U.S. economy in this waning winter of discontent: Blue-collar small-business owners complain about being sidelined, their businesses effectively suspended because critical parts and supplies have not been delivered to them on time, costing them thousands of dollars in lost business; at the other end of the market, customers of Louis Vuitton are reporting a high degree of frustration with delayed deliveries, and one poor fellow who had paid good money to get a pair of highly desirable new sneakers delivered to him pre-release won't even have his kicks on release day, much less beforehand. One sympathizes.

This is a weird time for our economy. We've been through some truly terrible stuff, a long ugly chaotic run from the subprime meltdown and the Great Recession to dysfunctional health-care markets, a fruitless and destructive trade war with China that suplex-slammed many American farmers, the COVID-19 mess that saw U.S. GDP plunging at a rate of 32 percent while unemployment spiked to 15 percent, and goodness only knows what next.

And what came of all that? It was very hard on those who already were unemployed or marginally employed, who had little savings and little room for error, including something on the order of 12 million renting households who collectively owe back rent that may add up to more than $70 billion, by one estimate. Moody's Analytics calculates that the typical distressed-renter household owes about $6,000 in back rent and fees, or between three and four months' rent. There isn't any good outcome likely there: Many of them will end up being evicted and put into even worse circumstances than ...   READ MORE

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