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Will Goodbye Economy be good-buy economy?

In 2009 we said hello to The Goodbye Economy, a year of forced farewells and involuntary partings.

Some of those adieus are permanent, while some may give way to reunions over time. Which turn out to be which will be one of the fascinating subjects to watch in 2010.

Tacoma, for example, was told “see ya later” by Russell Investments, which apparently figures it can say howdy to a better class of people than it has been employing and associating with down here.

It’s not just the company that will be hitting I-5 northbound. Also headed out of town are visions of downtown Tacoma, anchored by major employers like Russell, as a revitalized place to live, work and play, as well as the now-forlorn hope that just maybe Tacoma could nurture its own significant companies without having them move or be picked off by outsiders.

Russell and its parent aren’t likely to rethink their decision to skedaddle. Tacoma will hold out hope, however faint, that those visions haven’t said “so long” for good as well

The Puget Sound region, meanwhile, said goodbye to exclusivity for Boeing’s commercial aerospace production capacity. It’s not just building the 787 that now has to be shared with South Carolina. Also lifting off from the region’s runways and disappearing into the clouds are the long-term prospects for the entire aerospace sector in Washington state as well. Whether those prospects will return for a landing here will depend on just how serious Boeing is about its reassurances the region will continue to matter for producing the company’s jetliners.

Employees said goodbye to the notion of long-term secure employment, to work weeks without furloughs, to paychecks without freezes or cuts, to benefit programs not drained entirely or in part of actual benefits, and to the very idea of spending one’s working years in one career, never mind with one employer.

This wasn’t news to blue-collar workers, who have endured decades of layoffs, pay and benefit concessions and losses, and jobs and careers offering only fleeting security and stability. In 2009 workers of every hue of collar, in every employment category, sector and industry, got the message that there are no safe havens, no corners immune to economic pressure and no reasonable expectations of making it to retirement (an endangered concept itself) in the same occupation, never mind company, in which one started.

Government said goodbye to surpluses and reserves. It is now testing whether the usual answer to balancing budgets – squeezing the taxpayer harder – also has been told adios.

Homeowners said sayonara to the idea of residential real estate as a permanently and continuously appreciating asset. Whether the recent, harsh introduction to economic reality will last, or is just a superficial acquaintance, will depend on just how deep an impression this recession has made on Americans.

Which brings us to what we can expect for 2010.

The typical pattern for a recovery is a rapid ramp-up of activity, as businesses and consumers feel confident enough to spend again, as they pick up bargains on assets whose prices have been beaten down (transformation to the good-buy economy?), and as people say goodbye to the prudence they painfully learned during the downturn.

Will that happen this time? The Great Depression influenced not just laws, regulations and policy decisions but American attitudes and culture for decades. The fading of that influence, and the spread of behavior the Depression’s lessons counseled against, contributed to the current economic predicament.

The current economic unpleasantness should be of sufficient depth and duration to compel most Americans to permanently say goodbye and good riddance to unhealthy practices, unrealistic expectations and unsupportable illusions.

But Americans are also notorious for selective, short-term memory. In 2010 we should begin seeing signs whether The Goodbye Economy resulted in a renewed familiarity with fiscal frugality – or whether the association with common sense and realism proved to be no more than a temporary fling.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com

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