Field Notes: Collapse at the Periphery

Posted on 05/04/2011 by


Due to a session of dietary indiscretion on Saturday evening, on Sunday morning I decided to take a ten kilometre walk. This is not particularly strenuous for me, but it was definitely necessary to compensate for the yummies I had eaten the night before.

My destination was a coffee shop at the far edge of town, beyond the asteroid belt and into the Forbidden Zone of suburbia, where sidewalks are narrow and lorries careen past uncomfortably close at ten-plus over the speed limit. There are no side-streets here, of course, just a particularly odious highway which sees too little maintenance and too many speeders. It wasn’t quite risking life and limb, but it is not the most fun of walking experiences. Even so, it was the only coffee shop sufficiently far away to be a proper walk.

I had seen this coffee shop only a few months prior, whilst being driven by a friend on his shopping errand. It was in a modern stand-alone building, a square in the open space of a similarly-modern L-shaped strip mall. The entire complex was meant to look quaintly rustic, but only succeeded in appearing cheap; nevertheless, the coffee shop seemed agreeable enough from the road.

Arriving there, at around 10.00, I found a badly handwritten sign taped in the drive-through window: closed. The windows were very clean, and gave me an excellent view of a former coffee shop stripped of all its furnishings. Indeed, all that was left inside was the bar, and that was probably still there only because it was bolted to the concrete.

That cute little coffee shop had opened, sickened, and died, all within the space of about six months. Post-mortem, the place had been dismantled lock, stock, and two smoking barrels. Quite a marvellous turn over, but the story gets better from here.

The entire strip mall had space for about ten stores, with two large anchors: one at the corner of the L, and the stand-alone building where the expired coffee shop had once been a home to very lonely baristas, waiting for the customers who never came. As memory serves, there were only two stores remaining in this very new construction: a tanning salon, and an US Army Recruiting Station.

Wincing yet?

There was a Quiznos advertised on the sign facing the road, and indeed there was Quiznos, all alone on one leg of the L. At least, it was once there: there were three paper signs in the window, which I decided to inspect. One was a boilerplate “This Quiznos location is now closed. We were happy to have served our loyal customers”, which seems a contradiction given that the Quiznos was closed.

The better ones were the other two signs in the window, both of which said in red lettering “The locks to this store have been changed. Please contact these people for access”. In other words, the Quiznos staff got locked out of their location; the franchise operator has stopped paying the rent.

Looking into the former Quiznos location, there were leaves scattered across the floor, seemingly all the equipment was still in place, and the jars of pickles were sitting on their display case, looking nasty. Other than all the food probably being spoilt, it looked as though one might have been able to open up the place and start selling subs to the customers which weren’t there.

I didn’t bother looking at the tanning salon, because there were cars parked outside, and the lights were on. I really didn’t even take a second glance at the recruiting station, because seriously, those places will only close when the US government has completely lost the ability to pretend to pay people to pretend to work.

Collapse begins at the peripheries; which is to say, the most marginal economic activities are the first to show the signs of economic contraction. This is for the simple reason that complex systems are always weakest at their farthest-flung points of activity: there, the system is ‘thinnest’, like the edges of a fried egg, and therefore most susceptible to deproving circumstances.

So what this entails, the closed Quiznos and coffee shop, is economic collapse at the peripheries of cities. Where I live is not anything special; indeed, in a manner of speaking is a modern Middletown. The price of real property is about at the national average, and incomes are a little lower than the national average. If businesses which are supposedly doing good, like coffee and subs, are closing down — in some cases drastically — then there is something very wrong at the peripheries of the economy.

This is not any big news prima facie, because it is common knowledge “the recovery is slow”. What this really means, is that there is indeed no recovery; the economic recession/depression which began in 2008 is still ongoing, and is now chewing away at ‘the average’ of the USA. This implies the below-average is already suffering a great deal, and it is only through ignorance or purposeful manipulation we are not reading about it.

My abortive coffee shop and its neighbouring Quiznos are just microcosms, of course, of much greater problems. For example, the tax receipts of the Federal and state governments will be incoming shortly, sometime in April. Given recent trends in taxation, I have a suspicion that the ‘take’ of government will not be at all pretty. Indeed, it might be a deficit which no amount of Enron-style accounting can cover up.

Such a collapse in government tax receipts would be good cause for alarm, and will be evidence for the peripheral economic collapse of which I speak. After all, since companies like GE and rich individuals like John Travolta pay no taxes, and indeed get tax refunds, someone has to pay for everything. That ‘someone’ is not just the little people like yours truly, but also those corporations which aren’t so lucky as to own their share of the government. It seems Quiznos, for example, has yet to sponsor a Senator or two.

Speaking of governments and running out of money, I saw something very, very strange on my walk back. The local Homeland Security knuckle-dragger parade decided a few months ago that they simply couldn’t properly terrorise a city of 20,000 souls with a measly ten agents. Plans were made to build a brand-spanking new facility with plenty of room for temporary indefinite detainment and fifty agents to protect my Freedoms(tm).

For the location, DHS decided to purchase the lodge of a certain fellowship society, and as far as has been reported, as of last September, the purchase agreement was signed and ready to close October 1. DHS had several millions to throw at this project, so I have every faith they had sufficient cash to bribe their way into getting whatever they wanted.

Strangely enough, the lodge is still for sale: signs are still out front, and the local listing is still up. Several millions could buy up a not insignificant chunk of my city, so no one on the receiving end (including local governments) would have held up the deal. This raises the question of why on earth DHS couldn’t close the deal, and the possibility that Federal government finances are in such shambles, that the local DHS party brigade doesn’t have $1.7 million (the purchase price) to rub together. This is pure supposition on my part, of course, but stick with me. If DHS doesn’t have money, no one in the Federal government has money: this is because national security takes precedent over all other considerations, including the Constitution.

If the police state apparatus doesn’t have money, then this would explain why the US pulled out so rapidly from operations in Libya. The government might be so cash-strapped that it can’t even keep its present stock of plates spinning, much less adding a new one. Additionally, consider the vitriolic debate over the government shut-down, and how desperate both parties are to avert it. This seems to be more urgent, to me, than the usual posturing for the cameras: the Party does not want the government to shut down.

If I am correct about the Federal government being completely out of cold hard cash, then the reason is simple: the government needs to keep up the appearance of being able to meet its obligations (eg paying the knucle-draggers, buying the latest missiles, et cetera.) All money is already gone, but so long as the apparent ability to pay is maintained, then the can, as they say, has been kicked.

One final reason why I think this is the case: the US government is addicted to perception management, in all sectors of its activities. It’s not that the budget needs to be balanced, or that the economy is in a tailspin; all that is really needed, in its collective mad world, is to engineer the perceptions necessary to not see these issues as being anything worthy of consideration. If only people wouldn’t think about these things, then they won’t be problems!

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Posted in: Field Notes