Where the Economy Still Stinks

A small scene from a small town in Michigan, where they're rationing Christmas lights and hope.

The diner smelled like bacon and wet socks. I sat at one table, scrolling through Twitter as news broke from Washington that the economy is on an upswing. At four other tables sat five regular customers sharing a single conversation.

"I leave my Christmas lights on for two hours—tops," said the waitress, flitting between regulars with a pot of off-brand coffee.

"An hour for me," said the local cop. The farmer at the next table nodded his head, "That's about all I can afford, too."

This is where I spent most of December—off work and on book leave in northern Michigan. The diner sits hard against a two-lane highway cut into the Huron National Forest. No bigger than a K Street conference room, it couldn't be any further removed from Washington.

Twitter brought good news from the nation's capital: The U.S. economy grew at its fastest rate in more than a decade between from July through September, hitting an annualized rate of 5 percent. The Washington Post declared that "a once-sluggish recovery is now running at full speed."

I didn't share the news with the regulars. They're already skeptical about the bald guy from Washington who comes around every couple of months. Except for gas prices, which had plunged for the holidays, they don't believe happy talk about a new economy that has left them behind.

Northern Michigan's economy depends on working-class tourists driving from metro Detroit to spend money camping, canoeing, hunting, and snowmobiling. A tradition for generations of blue-collar families, "going Up North" has become a luxury that many can no longer afford.

And so it is with Christmas lights.

"I will say I'm keeping them on longer than last year," said the guy who works at the hardware store. "Things are a bit better."