Thursday, June 27, 2019
Day 4 on the road: running around Dayton, Ohio
Wednesday was a business day for Miss D. and her family. They had to deal with various issues, none of which directly involved me, so I was a bit of a spare part for most of the discussions. I spent the morning with them, then went back to our hotel for an afternoon nap while they continued their work. We met up again for supper at a Chinese buffet (good food, BTW, and very tasty).
While running around town, I was struck by the "two Daytons" feel of this city. There's a fair amount of gentrification in some areas, with older buildings being restored and upgraded, and a feel of returning urban hope. On the other hand, there's a lot of old "Rust Belt Dayton" still there; run-down residential areas where houses still sell for very low prices ($15K-$25K will buy a smaller house, and $50K will buy a two-story, four-bedroom, two-bathroom place in fair to good condition). A lot of small-scale property investors have jumped into the latter market, buying low-cost properties, renovating them to the extent necessary to make them habitable (but no more), and then renting them out to college and university students and other low-income residents. That's a good thing for the investors, but it also reduces the stock of low-cost housing available to people wanting to "get their feet on the property ladder" as owners. Long-term, I'm not sure how it will work out for all concerned.
The same goes for commerce and business in Dayton. There are lots of restaurants and eateries, and numerous small businesses in the arts-and-crafts line, but there don't appear to be any major employers other than city, state and federal government agencies and branches, plus the health care industry. That's a big danger sign, right there. Governments consume income; they don't generate it. They can only spend what they take in by taxation or borrowing. For an urban area to be dependent for its survival on the salaries and wages paid by government entities is therefore risky, because if tax income decreases or is reallocated, those salaries and wages go away - with nothing to replace them. A business generates profit (otherwise it goes out of business), and buys and sells goods and services, thereby generating more economic activity. An urban environment without major businesses to provide that economic energy doesn't have much to keep it going in the longer term.
(Dayton's far from alone in facing that conundrum, of course. It just happens to be the city staring me in the face right now.)
That, of course, brings up another challenge of the "new economy". In my opinion, far too much economic activity right now consists of services that are not essential. Take restaurants, for example. There are dozens of them, all over the place, and all chasing the same consumer dollar; yet none of them are necessary for people to survive. If money is tight, people can and will prepare their own food at home, at a much lower cost than eating out. The same applies to garden services, pressure-washing houses, etc. - all commonly seen advertised around big cities. When that happens, those who depend for their income on such discretionary spending are going to be S.O.L., because people will do it themselves (or do without) rather than pay for a service they can no longer afford.
Another aspect of the same issue is the number of businesses who produce nothing themselves, but skim 20% to 30% off the top of other people's businesses. Examples include food delivery services, aggregation services for travel, hotels, etc., and the like. They all offer "hubs"; web sites where you can compare prices, select what you want, and order it through them, for which service they take a piece of the purchase price as "commission". However, again, they offer nothing essential in and of themselves. You can get the same deals (and often better ones) by going direct to the service provider and cutting out the middleman. (We did that with our hotels for this trip; looked up what we wanted in various locations, then went direct to their Web sites to make our bookings.). When money is tight, that happens a lot; and at that point, those who provide or work for such "middleman businesses" are going to find their revenue drying up.
Cities such as Dayton appear to be full of businesses and services of those types. Just driving around the streets, and looking at storefronts, there appears to be little genuine entrepreneurship. Small business appears to be dominated by service industries (e.g. restaurants) and "middleman" type operations. To be fair, much of the "old economy" businesses such as repair shops, etc. are no longer viable, because so many modern goods are made in such a way that it's cheaper to throw them away when they break, and replace them with a new unit, rather than repair them. Many of them can't be repaired at all, because you can't buy spare parts for them - only complete units.
People are chasing the same low-dollar jobs, sometimes working two or three of them at once to make ends meet. Few jobs offer benefits like in the old days; Obamacare's mandates on employers have severely restricted the number of hours they're prepared to offer employees, and in many cases they don't employ full-timers at all, preferring part-timers. The "gig economy" is rampant. Others are trying to make a living by selling things at flea markets and garage sales (there's a whole buy-and-sell industry built up around garage sales, buying other people's junk for pennies and hoping to sell it for dollars). There are a whole lot of people chasing jobs with poor income and prospects, and no prospects to move up the employment ladder in due course, because there are few if any better jobs available.
There's not much one can do about this as an individual, of course. One has to play the hand one's dealt, and that means adjusting to one's economic opportunities as best one can. Even so, knowledge is power, as the saying goes. The better one understands the economic forces at work, the better one can adjust to take advantage of them whenever possible, and the better one can position oneself to be insulated against their vagaries. Certainly, one should not be living day-to-day in this sort of economy without having a weather eye out for changes on the horizon, and being ready to "jump ship" to another way of making a living when the need and/or the opportunity arises. Multiple income streams are also a good idea; if one falters, the other(s) may help to tide one over until one can replace it.
Well, enough about the economy for now. Those are perhaps gloomy thoughts, inspired by looking at Dayton and seeing how the city is struggling to find a place for itself in the "new economy". Nevertheless, they're important considerations.
Tomorrow, Thursday, Miss D. and I will head south for North Carolina. We're looking forward to a few days to relax, catch up with friends, and recharge our batteries before heading home next week. I'll put up blog posts as and when I can.