Commentary: Where's the recession?

Recession? What recession? That's what I wondered on Christmas Day around dusk as my son and I drove past the packed 30 acres of parking outside the WinStar World Casino, just north of the Red River on Interstate 35.

Consumers aren't spending? Are you joking? That's what I wondered more than once during December while snarled in traffic in southwest Fort Worth's Cityview area, a bustling corridor where commerce looked pink-cheeked and glowing.

Money crunch? Are you sure? That's what I wondered while joining thousands of other shoppers the day after Christmas at the Columbia Mall Target, a short drive from the University of Missouri.

The only lonely place I found the Saturday morning after Christmas was a Wal-Mart in a new Columbia shopping center, where Keith in the automotive department cheerfully replaced my windshield wipers a mere two minutes before a chilling rainstorm hit.

Over the holidays, I attended college football bowl games in Fort Worth (attendance 41,127) and San Antonio (55,986), and there seemed no shortage of fans willing to plunk down $4, $5, $6 or more for each food and drink item. (Through Monday, official attendance at 32 bowl games was 1,659,370.)

Is it that people don't realize the ailing national economy needs a transfusion? Or are they simply determined to go about their normal business until they simply can't anymore?

Despite the evidence that there are plenty of folks behaving as though they aren't hurting so much, it's impossible to ignore the barrage of bad financial news.

Consumer bankruptcy filings jumped to more than 1 million last year, up 33 percent from 2007.

Reuters reported that the Labor Department expects job losses for 2008 to total 2.5 million when the latest employment figures are released Friday. (But unlike most states, Texas gained 221,000 jobs from November 2007 to November 2008, according to the Texas comptroller's office.)

In the third quarter, 1 in 10 American homeowners was behind on mortgage payments or in foreclosure, according to bloomberg.com.

Nationwide, consumers bought 2.9 million fewer vehicles in the U.S. in 2008 than the year before, though the drop in December business wasn't nearly as bad in Tarrant County as elsewhere, the Star-Telegram reported Tuesday.

I finally opened the third-quarter report on the mutual funds that are supposed to help pay for college tuition starting in 2010, and the bottom line made my heart sink.

I'm anxious to hear more about President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus plan, which he's supposed to elaborate on today.

He says that he and Congress must act quickly and boldly.

But is the solution tax changes that add a few more dollars to each paycheck? Every little bit helps, but will the economy notice whether that money gets spent on groceries or on car payments?

Can tax incentives for businesses reduce temptations to outsource; can they help small firms grow? What kinds of safeguards will prevent manipulation, such as by companies that made extensive layoffs last year and might hire back some replacements and call it job creation?

And just because Republicans like House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio are flat-out hypocritical in suddenly fretting about burying future generations under mountains of debt, that doesn't mean Congress should lightly commit as much as $775 billion over two years without carefully weighing the risks and rewards — or without looking for other places to curtail government waste.

Watching official Washington search for the right solutions can be as unsettling as looking for stability in the stock market these days. We’re chancing that a new administration and Congress can provide rationality and reassurance.

I'm thinking the odds are better than those at WinStar.

I couldn't get figures for Christmas attendance at the casino.

But a spokeswoman told me that the New Year’s Eve crowd broke the 2007 record. A laid-off Bell Helicopter secretary won a million dollars at the casino to ring in 2009.

The rest of us can't just gamble on good luck. We need Congress and the new president to get it right.

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