It’s the same phenomenon each year. As Christmas draws near, cardboard boxes begin appearing on our front porch. The kids have been warned that these are “nunyers,” as in “none of your business,” so they stifle their normal curiosity and leave them for my wife or me to gather up. This year is a bit different, however, at least in the number of boxes. We’ve never been much on spending a lot of money on Christmas — we prefer to give away more — but even we’re cutting back, as I suspect most folks are. So, as a result, fewer boxes.
Hold that thought for a minute.
Having grown up without much, cutting back seems pretty normal to me. Don’t get me wrong — we weren’t impoverished. My father did pretty well for country boy with no education beyond his small high school. But it wasn’t exactly bountiful, and I think my sister and I both grew up having learned, at the very least, not to covet what others had.
But we also grew up in a company town, or an industry town anyway. My father was one of a generation of young men from the south who made their way up Route 23 through Kentucky to jobs in the then-booming steel belt, and as his employer began to sputter and gasp, things got pretty tight. I remember when foreign cars, and the foreign steel from which they were made, were seen as a real threat to every family I knew. One popular bumper sticker summed it the sentiment held by many: Like your Japanese car? Go park it in Tokyo!
There’s a kind of we’re -all-in-this-together mentality in such places, largely because the effects of national trends — in this case, the rise in popularity (and affordability) of imported cars — wasn’t just a national news headline. It was a trend which meant nearly every family on my block, in my town, in the region was looking at the possibility of layoffs, plant closings, and less and less bounty for all.
Now, back to the boxes. I heard a report on NPR yesterday about the timber business in the Pacific Northwest and the troubles they’re facing. These troubles stem from a slowdown in the housing market. That much is obvious. But there’s more to it than that. They’re also suffering because of a general slowdown in the consumer market. Why? Because when more and more folks cut back on consumer spending, fewer goods are being packed and shipped. And when fewer and fewer goods are being packed and shipped, less and less cardboard is being used. And when less and less cardboard is being used, demand for the raw materials that comprise it drops. And where does the raw material for that cardboard come from? Well, some it comes from small timber towns in the Pacific Northwest, and they’re getting pinched.
Am I suggesting we all do our part by making more Amazon orders so we get more and more of those smiley boxes on our front stoops? Well, no, not really. But as I’ve written about before, it’s worthwhile to remember that while much of this economic news may remain on the fringes of our day to day lives, it’s having a profound effect on hundreds of thousands of people in ways that are pretty hard to imagine. Unless, of course, you work in the timber business … or the construction business … or the auto business … or the retail business … or … well, you get the idea. The list is growing.
And it’s not too much of a stretch to see that we’re all on it in one way or another.