Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Time to Make More Than Just Donuts

I have good economic news! A national chain has built a brand new facility just north of my local “economic warzone” (an area near me devastated by the Great Recession and now regressing after making a modest recovery).

Yes, a state-of-the-art donut store will soon open on a corner lot, near a relatively new exit off the interstate.  It does seem like an odd location for a donut shop.  The interchange is between two nearby exits.  It was constructed to alleviate future congestion at the airport exit to the north, provided the airport experiences significant growth.  The new exit has created some retail activity, but traffic along the corridor is still modest. Other than the expressway, there just isn’t much there.  I will assume the company completed a valid traffic study and the business is viable.

While some of the sales will come from existing local donut and coffee vendors, to be successful it will have to sell more donuts.  But do we really need more donuts?  Look at the obesity and health data; heck, just look around at people.  We do not need any more donuts.  And there also is the issue with selling scalding hot coffee to people just before they enter a jammed expressway on their morning commute.

Now this donut shop will create jobs, there is a huge sign out in front advertising the big recruitment/interview dates.  It may be difficult to recruit workers during the Christmas shopping season since retail sales are still strong in the region, and with statistical unemployment near the national average.

These, however, are low-wage jobs.  The types of jobs that politicians rail against because they do not pay a living wage.  But no one is forcing people to take the jobs, and the people working them will be happy to get them.  You could pay a minimum wage of $15/hour for these jobs; however, it should be noted that the skills necessary to bake small cakes and sell them are possessed by numerous merchants in Central Africa.  Fortunately, fresh donuts cannot be imported and neither can the workers, since our eastern border is much less porous than the southern one.

Even then, it appears this could just be another job tradeoff.  A local metal working factory is closing, reportedly due to increased competition from Mexico.  This is emblematic of the economic recovery after the Great Recession, high-end manufacturing and professional jobs, being replaced by retail and service jobs.  On paper, it looks like an even swap.  To a guy who just lost his 30-year factory job, however, it looks like it’s time to make the donuts.  

The donut shop also highlights the issues with income distribution.  Our society is having problems responding to cultural changes regarding the wage gap.  The recovery has been good for people who have jobs, but stubbornly terrible for those who don’t. Well-to-do suburbanites will now be spending some of their disposable income on pleasure food and expensive coffee, prepared by people making minimum wage, some of whom need better, full-time jobs if they could find one. And then there are people just ten miles away who don’t have basic food to eat.  I’m not making a judgement, I do like donuts, but the big picture isn’t that pretty.

Such is life in the Donut Recovery. This economic recovery has been soft and doughy, with a large hole right in the middle.  Yes, at times it is sweet, but it is loaded with many empty calories.  Too many donuts in this “Donut Recovery” have resulted in us becoming fat, dumb, and happy…or bloated, disinterested, and content with the status quo.

Alas, things remain distressed in that “economic war zone.” “For Lease” signs still line the roads, and no one is moving in.  That brand-new office building, about which I previously wrote, still does not have even one tenant. Unless something happens soon, the owner will have gone “zero-for-2016.”  Too bad, office workers there could have bought some coffee and donuts at the new shop.

In this mega game of “Dollars to Donuts,” the donuts keep winning.

 This post first appeared on the FTR website.  FTR is the leader in analyzing and forecasting the commercial transportation industry.  For more information on FTR reports and services, please click here.)

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