You can take the measure of a local economy in any number of ways. The unemployment rate. Job growth. Real estate prices and housing starts. In Seattle, cruise-boat boardings. Economists weigh all kinds of statistics when they issue their ponderous periodic judgments, which you then learn about in what’s left of the news media if you haven’t tuned out.
Me, I have a much simpler procedure for determining how things are going in the here and now. In fact it consists of a single number applied on a one-time basis.
I call it the DMV Test. And by that measure, the Seattle area is still hurting. Badly.
Let me explain. In most other states DMV means Department (or Division) of Motor Vehicles, and it’s where a newcomer generally goes to get a driver’s license. Here in Washington State, it’s called the Department of Licensing, because the agency handles a lot of other permissions having nothing to do with motoring, like notaries public, morticians and, believe it or not, kick boxers. But DOL doesn’t work for me (it sounds like a raunchy text message abbreviation), so for this post I’ll stick with DMV.
Since I’m New To Seattle–hey, that’s the name of this blog!–and fresh from California, I had to get a Washington State driver’s license. Which brings me to my DMV Test for measuring any new economy in which I suddenly find myself immersed: How long does it take me from when I arrive at the licensing office to when I leave with a new driver’s license in my wallet?
Before I answer, a little perspective both professional and personal. In my experience, the longer the lines and the longer the wait at the DMV, the better the economy. That’s because people are rushing in from other places to take new jobs–hopefully better than the ones they left behind–often as part of the perception of boom times. So the DMV Test is an inverse measure: the lower the minutes count, the worst the economy.
Of course, all booms lead to a bust, but that’s a topic best left for another post.
As a journalist who has moved around a lot, I have considerable experience getting a driver’s license.
In 1980, I decamped to Houston amid an epic boom fueled by rising oil prices. A thousand people a week–every seven days!–were leaving places like Michigan and Ohio and, for me, my native New Jersey seeking a better life in the hot, humid clime of the Bayou City, where everything you’ve ever heard about three-inch-long cockroaches is true. The influx of newcomers simply overwhelmed the folks in charge of issuing driver’s licenses.
On a sweltering early September day (a redundancy, since Houston has just three seasons: summer, followed by July, followed by August), I waited patiently and sweatily as a long line snaked through the parking lot at a DMV office (technically, part of the state police) on the city’s outskirts.
It took me four-and-a-half hours to get my license. But the times were so good that no one complained, even as the temperature reached the low 90s, according to the marquee of a savings-and-loan across the street (which later failed, more proof that booms turn to busts). This was the American dream and the future seemed wide open. Also, back then in Houston, you absolutely needed a driver’s license because the place was so spread out, mass transit was dreadful, and bicyclists felt there was a bulls eye painted on their backs.
In 1982, I found myself living in Cairo. Egypt’s crowded capital–20 million people wedged into a land mass way smaller than New York City–was experiencing a boom of sorts. Causes included the outbreak of peace with Israel, the perception of great things to come (from an economic standpoint it had been downhill since construction of the pyramids) and the fact that millions of Egyptians working abroad were sending home part of their earnings.
Yes, I got an Egyptian driver’s license. Not because I drove a car there–somehow I just couldn’t get the hang of maneuvering among cars moving along sidewalks–but because I wanted to see the extent of the licensing experience.
Three hours. The economy was upbeat.
In the spring of 1984 I relocated to New York City, then in the grip of a historic rush centered on Wall Street. Everyone wanted to be in the Big Apple. Even though I didn’t have a car, I arrived one morning to get my new driver’s license at the DMV office in downtown Brooklyn. I got there before the start of business, but the line still was down the block, and it didn’t move too fast.
Two-and-a-half hours. Things felt flush.
The fates brought me back to Houston in 1987 after a five-year absence. A totally different story, leaving me feeling like Rip Van Winkle. The city was experiencing a severe collapse in oil prices (the black stuff got down to $11 an barrel) and a related real estate glut. Business was so ailing you could park in the downtown area for $1 a day.
I returned to that suburban DMV office, which was still there. The line had disappeared. Totally.
Twenty-two minutes. That’s all it took me to do the Texas two-step at the DMV. A stunning 92% quicker than it took me when oil was riding high. Times were tough.
A relocation to Albuquerque in 1992 was almost as quick, 40 minutes for me at the DMV. That wasn’t really because the New Mexico economy was sputtering so much as it was that New Mexico never had much of an economy to start with. There was little going on aside from making nuclear bombs and catering to tourists, reasons that Pizza Hut was one of the state’s 20 largest private employers. So the state more resembled the Houston of 1987 rather than 1980.
My travels brought me in 2004 to Southern California, then in the middle of its insane real estate boom, drawing
suckers newcomers from everywhere. No inference could be drawn from my visit to the DMV. That’s because in California, one could make a reservation on the Internet with the DMV, show up at the appointed hour and get served immediately. That’s what I did, so the fact I got out of a suburban Los Angeles office in less than a hour has no economic significance.
So what about my visit in late June to the DMV in Shoreline, on the outskirts of the big city like my two visits in Houston?
In on a Saturday morning at 11:35, out at 12:10 in time for lunch.
Not a good omen for the immediate future. A whole lot closer to the down-and-out Houston of 1987 than the all-cylinders 1980 version.
Now, you might say, not too much can be made about one visit by one person. But this morning, I whizzed through the pollution check for my ancient car at the testing station on Fourth Avenue South in Seattle in just 13 minutes. Later in the day, I registered not one but two cars at the Ballard auto licensing office in a mere 12 minutes.
Pretty quick all around, I would say. And pretty disconcerting, too, at least in the short run.
The silver lining in this is that busts also come to an end. The problem is that busts–essentially, the workout of booms–often last a while. To cite one extreme case, it took the Dow Jones Industrial Average 25 years to regain the heights achieved just before the 1929 stock market crash.
Should something like that happen here, by the time things really get rolling I no longer would be New To Seattle.