You have all been very patient, waiting for me to join the serious pundits in prescribing a remedy for the ailing economy. I have not been holding back. It was not until last weekend that I learned what needs to be done to end the recession. It is blessedly simple: send the Cabinet, Congress and the senior White House staff out shopping.
Nobody of importance in Washington ever goes shopping. Even reporters -- who are not important -- pretend they are too busy to shop. I had not shopped for years, until last Saturday, when my wife, familiarly known as The Management, said, "You may have noticed the children have grown up and gone."
"I thought it seemed quiet around here," I said.
"Michael -- the youngest, you remember? -- graduated from high school two years ago," she said.
"As long ago as that," I exclaimed. "Imagine."
"Do you know what that means?" she asked.
"It means we can fix up the downstairs."
The downstairs is where the four boys lived. As I looked around it, what I saw were sagging sofas, broken beds, a swaybacked Ping-Pong table, a water-soaked bathroom with rusting fixtures -- the residue of four typical teen-agers.
"We could rehabilitate it and reclaim it for ourselves," said The Management. So early on a Saturday afternoon, we went shopping.
We started at a neighborhood discount store, buying bedding from an excellent salesman who knew his merchandise. We should have quit right there.
At the plumbing supply store, around the corner, the Ohio State-Michigan game was on television, and it was impossible to divert the three salesmen's gaze from the game.
"We need a new wash basin, 21 by 33," I bellowed over the screams of the Ohio State crowd. "Third and three," the salesman muttered, if I heard him right, and pointed off down the aisle.
Suitably abashed, we went hunting through the merchandise, finally finding something that looked like it would fit.
Twice I was sent back to recheck the model number. On the second try we helped the salesman find a matching number in the catalog. Then the 15 percent problem arose. The sign in the window said bathroom fixtures were on sale for 15 percent off list price. But the salesman and his partner were in disagreement on how to calculate the discount. It took quite a while -- about three series of downs, actually -- to resolve the issue.
By then, we had been out for about two hours, and the will to spend was flagging. But the dream of a restored home kept us going -- to a merchandising giant I will call, for the sake of disguise, Sears.
There were acres of goods on display and, somewhere in those endless rows of video games, refrigerators, micro-wave ovens and marked-down recliners, there may have been a carefully camouflaged salesperson or two. The game for us and the hundreds of others lured by the budget-day super-sale was to find and trap one.
From some dim recess of the brain, the memory of an old, long-forgotten shopping tactic returned. "You stand here," I said to The Management, pointing at the Ping-Pong table we had found, "and I'll hunt up somebody to write up the order."
The quest was, in time, successful, and I returned with my prize, a competent-looking saleswoman who was only mildly upset that I had spotted her in her blue jeans and T-shirt disguise. But there was a problem. On the floor- sample Ping-Pong table we had spotted, there were signs advertising two grades of table -- one of them Sears' Pride and the other Sears' Joy, as I recall -- at two different prices. "Which table are we leaning on?" asked The Management, inquisitively.
"Just a minute and I'll find out," the saleswoman said -- and bolted. "Now look what you've done," I wailed. "She'll never come back. Somebody else will capture her."
But in time she returned, informed us it was The Pride or The Joy (we would have taken either, at any price, by this time) and accepted our credit card.
If the 15 percent discount had been a barrier at the plumbing store, the concept of home delivery was a mountainous obstacle at Sears. "You can tell I've never written up a home delivery order before," she said, after 15 minutes or so. We agreed we could tell.
The sun was down and the street lights on when we headed back to our car, the day's shopping done.
"It's not easy to stimulate the economy," The Management said.
And she is right. Two days later, I was in a group of reporters interviewing Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige. He explained, at length, that with the savings rate up, personal debt down and real income rising, there is every reason to think the consumers will lead the country out of the recession--just as soon as they start to spend.
I asked him my new question: Have you personally tried shopping recently? Baldrige gave me a strange look, and said, "No, of course not."
"Try it," I said. "And then you'll know what's prolonging the recession."