Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Lessons from Mary

NOTE: this post is based in politics but is not political. Please continue to read without fear of partisanship. As well, no animals were harmed in the production of this post!

Question: what is more entertaining than Mary Matalin? Well, Mary Matalin when she appears with her husband, James Carville. But this past weekend on “This Week” it was just Mary. Being the Republican talking head that she is, she was sharing the many reasons why she believes that President Obama will lose and the public will choose the yet undetermined alternative, whoever he might be.

But one of her arguments was a very clear articulation of the concern I have been expressing for the last three years during our post-Lehman Brothers collapse economy. Her point: the voter in the election booth this fall won’t care about the employment rate, the participation rate in the national labor force, the stock market, or the growth of the GDP over the last three quarters. They will care about what is in their checking account, whether there’s money leftover at the end of the month, and their anxiety over every bill that arrives in the mail.

Her visual: the mom at the gas pump with the SUV watching the pump and the price escalate and escalate. As she talked about this mom, the admissions professional in me saw car seats in the back and lacrosse equipment in the cargo area. She maybe had one of those round, white stickers on her back window and she could be on her way to the meeting of the volunteer parent auction committee. She’s not voting on 8.8% versus 8.3% unemployment. She’s voting on the fact that the pump now reads $84 to fill her SUV’s tank and she knows it won’t be her only visit to the gas station this week.

And those are our parents and our worries. As inflation goes up around 1% and our tuition rates go up 3-6%, we have to worry about those prospective families with their SUVs. They aren’t choosing an independent school because the market recently closed up over 13,000 points or because unemployment has come down slightly. Whether or not they can comfortably afford our schools is determined by what’s in the bank, what’s in the checkbook, and what bills show up near the end of the month. It’s determined by what it costs to fill the SUV and what it costs at the grocery store to fill the family at dinner.

Until any recovery trickles down into the bank accounts of the individual citizen, we are going to have to factor in their daily reality and not the national trends. After all, they pay their tuition from their checkbook, not from the 12 month trailing average of national import/export ratios.

It’s a great and comforting thing to see the economy slowly—oh so very slowly—recovering but it’s not trickling down into the checkbooks. Not yet. Like it or not, like her or not, there’s a few things Mary can teach us about consumer behavior and consumer reality. We should listen.

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