Sunday, December 6, 2009

Driving in the Snow

I was a little surprised yesterday to see heavy traffic still on the roads several hours into a well-publicized heavy snowstorm that would last well into the night. So many people were out, I imagined, because they were determined to finish their holiday shopping, before parties and other seasonal obligations started to take over their weekends. And many were too pressed for time to slow down for the snow on the roads.

This fits with everything else I’ve seen that suggests that people are busier than ever. This is not, of course, what economic theory predicts. In a recession, we expect the pace of activity to slow down, not to continue to speed up. That slowdown does not seem to be happening in very many places in this recession, though. In an economically rational world, the slight risk of smashing up your car in the snow would lead you to drive with a great deal of caution or save the trip for another day — but many people don’t have time for that, and for every thousand cars I saw on the road yesterday, I saw one driven into a wall or a tree.

If people are pushing their schedules this close to the breaking point at the low point of a recession, how will it be after the economy starts to improve? There is, you could say, an activity bubble that has not yet been dented by the economic slowdown, but it cannot simply continue to expand year after year. Something will have to give. My hope is that people will be able to cut back on much of the trivia of life while keeping most of the activities that really matter — but the time pressure people feel is almost certain to lead to institutional changes in addition to personal changes.