Good times

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Jan 18 09:27:35 MST 2001

NY Times, January 18, 2001

Many Sense the Good Times Slipping Away


JANESVILLE, Wis., Jan. 15 - When he glimpsed the stone behemoth rising out
of the prairie here in southern Wisconsin last fall, Paul Terpstra thought
it was a new grammar school, or maybe an apartment complex.

"And then I realized, `Oh my goodness, it's a single-family house,' "
recalled Mr. Terpstra, a 40-year-old engineer. "And I thought to myself,
`Can this extravagant spending go on forever?' "

But just as a glorious autumn slipped into slap-in-the-face winter, Mr.
Terpstra has sensed the economy starting to grow cold. Stocks have tumbled,
growth has slowed, and companies are cutting back. An old mill here is
moving much of its production overseas, and just across the Illinois state
line, 10 miles or so to the south, the Motorola plant announced today that
it would lay off 2,500 workers.

Add to all that the uncertainty that accompanies a changing of the guard in
the White House, and many Americans now seem to be growing skittish about
an economy that once seemed unstoppable.

"It was just too good for too long," said Mr. Terpstra, who had stopped at
the library on Main Street to check out a book. "Now you can feel there's
an edginess."

Janesville, a middle-class town of 60,000, is the home of a General Motors
plant that makes the Suburban sport utility vehicle, a prime symbol of the
fat, hard-charging economy. On a shipping lot near the plant, a sea of
shiny new vehicles reflects the nation's voracious appetite, and its
ability to foot the bills, at least for now.

After taking prosperity for granted for years, people in Janesville say
they can hear the economy's brakes starting to screech.

"We've been overdue for a pullback," said Raymond Dooley, a retired farmer
and insurance salesman here. "We've forgotten that it's natural for the
business cycle to swing both ways. Let's just hope it's not too rough."

In much of the country, people are just now seeing signs of economic
slowing, and starting to voice fears about a recession. But for workers in
the dot-com world, brutal reality hit months ago.

Richard Friedhoff, a 45-year-old technology consultant who works in Silicon
Valley, said high-flying dreams had given way to a hard- nosed pragmatism

"You used to have everyone in their third year of college flying out here
with a business plan with aspirations of becoming fabulously wealthy by age
30," Mr. Friedhoff said. "Those days are over. There is zero interest in
people without credible track records, solid ideas and management skills.
No one even wants to be caught talking to such a person in a Starbucks."

To be sure, there is scarcely a consensus that the economy is headed for
the tank.

President Clinton, who views prosperity as a gemstone of his legacy, says
the country's economic foundation remains rock solid. But President-elect
George W. Bush has been talking about the slowdown for weeks, conveying a
none-too-subtle message that he should not be blamed for any economic
distress early in his administration.

To some Americans, the reality falls somewhere between the roses and the

Jennifer Robischon, co-owner of an art gallery in Denver, said some
economic vagaries were to be expected, given the changes brought by an
election year.

"We're not running for the hills," Ms. Robischon said. "The stock market is
reflecting a political year."

She added, "They seem to get scared quicker on either coast than in the
middle of the country."

Frightened or not, plenty of people in Janesville say they are bracing for
leaner times. Jason Dowd, 30, who stays at home to care for four young
children while his wife manages a restaurant, said he and his family had
started to cut back on discretionary spending. They bought much less during
the recent Christmas season than a year ago, he said.

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Louis Proyect
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