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The Crypt Keeper state economist Tom Stinson

State economist Tom Stinson

The armchair economists over at the Lakes Café roundtable would have been wise to take to the day off Jan. 21. They were wasting their breath.

The local coffee klatch efforts to confront the world's economic malaise were hopelessly upstaged that day.

Perham had a real economist in town. He wore a tie and everything. His name was Tom Stinson, and he was the keynote speaker at the Jan. 21 annual economic development meeting, hosted at the Perham Lakeside Golf Course banquet room,

The guy looked like an economist. He talked like an economist.

He also looked and talked like an undertaker; but with one crucial difference: Funeral home directors have an obligation to comfort the bereaved. Economists, it seems, are on a mission to afflict the comforted.

And in Perham, we're fairly comfortable, relative to other parts of the state. Barrel O' Fun snack foods and Tuffy's pet foods are expanding; unemployment is comparatively low; and the housing market isn't decimated like other communities.

For Perhamites, Stinson's gloomy presentation and his sardonic grin were, well, kind of spooky.

Economists deliver important facts that are true-but you would prefer not to hear.

In good times, like, say...1998...economists bored people to death.

In bad times, like, scare people to death.

Death by economist is a brain-numbing, slow-motion demise. If your mind wandered off during Stinson's presentation, one of his horrible statistics would jar you back to reality.

...2008 experienced the lowest housing starts since World War II...

...the job recovery rate is the worst since the 1980 recession. Actually, the number of jobs lost was higher in 1980, but we climbed out of it faster than we will during this recession. It is estimated it will take five years to return to levels of 2006...

It's not that Stinson is a bad guy. He just deals with depressing material.

His dry, deadpan sense of humor drew smiles and chuckles from the nearly 100 in attendance at the economic development meeting.

At one point, he made a reference to "smoke and mirrors" at the legislature.

"Well," he said wryly, "we've about used up our supply of smoke and mirrors."

...Losses in household wealth are enormous; estimated at $15 trillion nationally...

...Most of the losses in wealth were experienced by retired and nearly-retired households. Because this economically huge demographic is nervous about the decline in their investments and savings, they are less likely to engage in consumer spending-choosing instead to rebuild their retirement money. "Release of pent-up demand," as the economists describe it, has been always been a major factor in recovery after recessions. But instead of post-recession spending, Baby Boomers will be engaging in "post-recovery saving"-rather than "releasing pent-up demand" with a shopping spree...

As he neared the end of his presentation, he commented, "I've probably given you about as much grim news as you can take."

...This recession has permanently reduced the base for future state revenues...

...Health care expenses are growing at a rate of 8.5 percent per this rate, within 25 years, there will be no money remaining to provide state aid to schools. There will be no additional dollars for anything-except health care...

"We are getting better at treating fatal conditions," said Stinson. "People are getting a second shot in the last years of their life...we are better at prolonging life."

The health care outlook was especially distressing for Perham councilmember Harriet Mattfeld. With the size of Minnesota's aging population rising dramatically, and revenues declining at a similar rate, how will there ever be enough money to take care of the elderly?

"Don't worry," said the economic undertaker, assuring the audience that in order to save expenses, "we won't euthanize anybody."

About the closest he came to "good news" were the following observations.

...The bright spot in employment was in the southeast, where unemployment is running only about 3.3 percent. Why? Because of Rochester, the Mayo Clinic and all the money going to, what else, health care...

...Minnesota's unemployment rate statewide was only 7.4 percent, compared to 10 percent nationally over a smilar period...

Stinson, in an interview, said he once spoke at a legislative retreat. Astonishingly, they actually asked him back the following year. But they placed on him some very specific conditions: He could only speak for one hour...and needed some new jokes.

When asked what he did back during brighter economic days, Stinson responded:

"You know, when times were better, nobody really wanted to hear from me."

Well, Tom, we wouldn't mind having you back.

But next time-could you come up with some better material?