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If I were looking for a way to move a customer’s eyes off the final price tag, I’d come up with something called a product/service protection plan.

Keep your eye on what we tell you to.

Then, at every transaction, I’d tell the customer the cost of the product with the plan factored in. Most customers will reject the cost and enjoy the vicarious thrill of having haggled to a lower price. Best of all, they’ll walk away thinking they’ve saved money–even if the original product is overpriced.

This works especially well on products whose pricing already is fairly inscrutable. Yes, eyeglass shops–I’m looking at you, albeit with your help.

You start off with some great-sounding deal. But somehow, the final price ends up being about twice as high as the advertised price (two frames for $99!!!!), but still half what the frames would have cost without all the alleged sweeteners.

To wit: the consumer walks into the store with a two-for-$99 ad, walks out with a receipt for $200, but learns an important lesson: the two frames would have cost $400. After all, you wanted lenses that let you see at night, right?

So now I’m curious:

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I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

It takes an economist to move me to write. I’m listening to NPR this morning after dropping the kids with their grandparents and on comes a Bank of America economist. He begins to bemoan the largest deficits this country has ever run in peacetime.

Get it? Peacetime. 

Last I checked, the US military was active in two countries that, while few people prefer to use the term “at war,” can not be described as peaceful: Iraq and Afghanistan.

I guess they fed the kool-aid to the “economists” as well as the risk managers at BofA. Maybe they should check back into the reality-based community once in a while.

But what’s equally maddening is that the NPR reporter seemed to let the “peacetime” comment pass without, uh, comment. Journos love to bring on the experts when they need perspective, but they don’t always like to ask the experts tough questions. That would just complicate things.

So I’m waiting for someone to come up wth a convincing reason for me to care that not one House Republican voted for the economic stimulus bill this week.

Given the circumstances, it was practically a free vote and serves mostly as a Clinton-like refrain circa 1994: We’re still relevant. Take us seriously

The Senate is going to work its magic on the bill. It probably will look very little like the one that passed the House. So House members will have another chance to squawk — and another few weeks of doom-and-gloom economic news to condition them.

Barack Obama is  most likely not quaking in his boots over the power of the House GOP to stifle his agenda. They obviously can’t. It’s big of him to make nice, but I’m sure he or his advisers understand the politics driving House members. It’s the Senate they have to worry about.

They may even have anticipated a party-line “no.” I haven’ t heard anyone in the White House complaining (not that I have an ear anywhere near that hallowed ground).

How can we forget the many token “no”votes cast against the bank bailout? It died, then it came back to life so we could beat it up again over how ineffective it’s been. If you wanted to conjure up fresh proof that government spending doesn’t seem to work, you would have done the same.

If Circuit City can’t make it, what hope is there for the rest of us? Well, at least I might get a good deal on a wireless mouse and a new wristpad for my keyboard. The old one is coming unglued (as you can see below, it looks like a blue mystery-meat hoagie).

pad

What’s good for the consumer these days might not be so good tomorrow. I keep hearing about how bad this economy is (the worst since the Great Depression?) , and it’s a cliche that a recession is when a neighbor is out of work and you have to write about it, a depression is when you are out of work. But I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

Maybe it’s because I work from home and have no one to talk to to stoke my fears. Or maybe it’s because people in general err to the positive or the negative, and the muddlesome truth is impossible to tease out.

All I know is a lot of people are losing their jobs with little prospect of getting a new one. I doubt their bank accounts will carry them through whatever’s coming. They can sell off assets, but the more people go that route, the less they’ll earn. More supply, lower prices. At least newspapers might see a small uptick in classified sales. Good luck collecting payment.

Someone should study winning bids on ebay to see if the average is up, down or unchanged. Yes, it’s a lot of apples to oranges, but still. There must be some method that could cut through the madness. Reading this makes me wonder what other statistical nuggets ebay might be able to cough up, if pressed.

Thus, the question. Do I buy a new wristpad or wrap duct tape around what I have? Or should I spare the duct tape to repair a more valuable asset down the road before posting it on ebay?

So I’ve been reading a lot lately about the pain of independent gas stations and how they’re struggling with falling fuel prices.  It seems they haven’t been buying gas often enough to mark down their prices as quickly as their chain competitors.

Funny, but I don’t recall independent gas stations raising their prices more slowly than their chain counterparts. In fact, I remember them following rising prices lockstep.

Seems to me, if independents were buying gas as often then as they are now (i.e,, not as often as their bigger rivals) they would have been stuck with lower-priced gas. Thus, they could have raised their prices more slowly and undercut the competition, albeit at the expense of higher profits.

If you recall that happening, let me know. I could be wrong, as most mom-and-pop gas stations in York County, PA are gone — I can think of only two).

It’s easy to work up sympathy, but the effort shouldn’t cloud logic. If they were smart, independent-station owners have some extra cash left over from the days of skyrocketing prices (credit-card fees notwithstanding).

Or, like Wall Street titans, they thought “up” was the only direction prices could go.

If zero-percent financing were a panacea, Detroit would be booming. Free money hasn’t helped the automakers. But maybe, just maybe it’ll save the economy.

My favorite quotes these days are from economists crowing about how the Fed is using every weapon at its disposal to prop up the economy. Trouble is, the Fed is kind of like Poland’s cavalry going up against Nazi tanks in September 1939.

last_cav

We know how well that turned out for the Poles. Not so good for the Nazis in the long run, either. But they managed to do a hell of a lot of damage in a few short years before anyone figured out how to overpower them.

If you can survive the Bush Boom, you shouldn’t be overly concerned about the coming Obama Crash