The Garbage Gauge

The silver lining in the weak retail numbers

Customers are still cutting their spending, according to the April retail sales report that sent the financial indexes falling by roughly 2 percent. But while the news of sales slumps are sending stocks tumbling, there is an upside to Americans’ newly frugal ways: less garbage!

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “the amount of garbage ending up in Wisconsin landfills has dropped as the economy has turned sour. Landfill managers and regulators say the drop-off is across the board, ranging from food waste to foundry sand to packaging waste to construction debris.” And that’s hurting the waste management industry in Long Island.

Minneapolis’s CBS affiliate, WCCO, even coined a cute name for it: the garbage gauge. According to an Indiana disposal service, residential garbage production is down by 8 percent this year. And in January, the Los Angeles Times found that “operators at Puente Hills Landfill, among the nation’s largest, have noted a 30% decrease in tonnage from neighboring municipalities. The dump used to close at noon because it would reach its daily tonnage limit; now it stays open all day without hitting that mark.”

The garbage gauge and the low retail numbers are anecdotally related, since there’s no statisticians telling us explicitly the latter causes the former. But with a dash of common sense, we can agree that there is a likely link between the two, and it’s a link that typically causation-happy journalists are eager to make.

As it stands, the Wall Street beat and the garbage dump beat occupy very distant and disparate parts of the newsroom and of papers’ front pages, with the Dow and Nasdaq getting much more prominent play that the dirty and the nasty. Which is too bad, since many more Americans have daily experience with garbage than with stocks and bonds. And, what’s more, while slumping sales might be bad for Wall Street, less garbage could be good for Main Street, given that it indicates a shift to a less consumerist lifestyle.

Commentators have previously argued that the government can’t spend its way out of the recession; but the tax relief contained in the stimulus bill is designed to ask citizens help to do just that. When discussing the legislation before it passed, the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki noted, all the talk was about how to structure the payments in such a way that would entice people to spend instead of save:

If you want people to spend the money, you don’t want to give them one big check, because that makes it more likely that they’ll think of it as an increase in their wealth and save it. Instead, you want to give them small amounts over time. And you want the rebate to show up as an increase in people’s take-home pay, because an increase in steady income is more likely to translate into an increase in spending. What can accomplish both of these goals? Reducing people’s withholding payments.

But despite the fact that the Obama administration adopted the Surowiecki model, consumers are still reluctant to spend. And headlines about slumping retail sales and their effects on the stock market have a universally bad-news tone—which can almost make consumers feel guilty. “Look at what we’re doing to the stock market, Marge! Our frugal ways are hurting the economy.” Which defies common sense.

One solution to this logical disconnect in coverage might be to synthesize various social, local, regional, and economic indicators and create narratives about how Americans are living in the recession. Right now, it seems like all signs are unilaterally bad, until you consider retail and garbage, for example, in the same thought. For now, however, it seems like reporters across the beats are like blind men touching different parts of the elephant. Only until we see the whole thing can we begin to understand exactly what sort of animal we’re dealing with.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.