The Economy Today: Giving up the Ghostboxes

Headlines from Texas, Arizona, Michigan, and elsewhere

With the search still underway for concrete signs of widespread economic recovery, The New York Times leads today with reason for pessimism: the unprecedented volatility of oil prices, which dropped from a $145 per barrel high to $33 in December, but have since risen to $70. Rising prices are a drag on key sectors of the economy, such as the airline industry; what’s more, the extreme unpredictability makes planning almost impossible. The article cites talk that speculation may be playing a role, but no one really seems to have a good explanation for the price swings. A recent Deutsche Bank report noted, “Crude oil prices appear to have been divorced from the underlying fundamentals of weak demand, ample supply and high inventories.”

The Times also fronts an article on the disappointing track record of job retraining programs. Workers laid off from crumbling sectors like the auto industry are often steered into such programs with government assistance, but their benefits are “small or nonexistent,” according to a recent Labor Department study. (Interestingly, a Times puff piece on new Labor Secretary Hilda Solis notes her support for such programs.)

All the papers, including The Washington Post, report that a federal judge has cleared the way for General Motors’s assets to be transferred to a new government-backed company. “The only alternative to an immediate sale is liquidation,” wrote Judge Robert Gerber. Under the plan, the government will own 61 percent of the new company, though the Obama administration has said it hopes to sell its stake sometime next year.

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at a law designed to give employees notice in advance of layoffs. The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, the paper notes, requires that companies provide sixty days’ notice before a “mass layoff.” But there are many exceptions built into the law, and some companies say that in a time of economic uncertainty, two months’ notice is unrealistic. As a result, many employees are caught by surprise when employers decide to let them go.

In regional news, The Arizona Republic reports that federal stimulus money has been slow to arrive. A number of stimulus-related projects, mostly road construction, are under way. But many others, including the $199 million renovation of a border station, are still months away. The story attributes the slowness to a perpetual target–“the seemingly glacial pace of government business”–but also suggests the administration’s focus on preventing waste may play a role.

The Dallas Morning News reports on a trickle-down effect of the down economy: pet owners are skimping on care for their animals—and, in some cases, giving them up altogether. Veterinarian visits are down; “owner surrenders” of animals to shelters are up. One SPCA staffer even faces animal cruelty charges after she allegedly abandoned her puppy in her apartment, allowing it to starve. It’s an grim situation, but we’ll be a Grinch here for a moment and suggest that the “tough decision” posited by one shelter director–between “feeding their pets or feeding their children”–isn’t so tough, really.

Finally, an Associated Press story examines the proliferation of “ghostboxes”—the hulking, windowless structures left behind when a big-box retailer packs up shop. The closures of retail outlets such as Home Depot create job losses and dwindling tax revenues in communities. But they also leave behind big, empty buildings that may no longer have a natural use–especially since the original tenants sometime sign leases that prohibit competitors from occupying the site. Some creative efforts at re-use: museums, hospitals, schools, churches, even an indoor go-cart track.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.