Robert Reich
Robert Reich - 
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Kai Ryssdal: We're marking the unofficial end of summer these next few weeks by asking some of our economist friends a simple question. With all the thinking you do on the job about economics, what do you think about when you have a little spare time? Today, one-time economic policymaker Robert Reich. He is just back from vacation. Took a coast-to-coast drive with his son, during which he spent some time pondering how different the view can be from behind the windshield.

ROBERT REICH: My road trip across America a few weeks ago with elder son Adam and his big dog, Herb, was one of the highlights of the summer. Not only was it great being with Adam -- and Herb -- but I learned more about America by seeing it from the ground than reading dozens of reports.

One surprise was how jammed our Interstates are. Not because of more traffic than usual -- in fact, the economic doldrums have actually reduced traffic -- but because of all the highway construction and repair. The Interstates are among the first targets of government stimulus money.

Small comfort when we're moving 15 miles an hour on a road designed for 75, but at least good to know the money is getting out there, and our Interstates will be all the better for it.

Another surprise was how big a toll the recession is taking on Main Streets and malls across the country. I've never seen as much vacant retail and office space. Commercial real estate may be in bigger trouble than I imagined -- the next shoe to drop in an economy that's otherwise showing a few signs of life.

And it was easy to find rooms for the night. Even hotels and motels that normally wouldn't take in dogs as large as Herb were eager for the business.

No surprise there, but I was surprised by the number of foreign visitors -- mostly European and Asian -- on the roads, taking advantage of the bargain rates.

How could they afford it when most of their economies have been as battered by recession as ours?

Then the answer came to me: Their countries have far more generous social safety nets. With unemployment benefits covering a big portion of their prior salaries and extending up to a year, they had the money to spend seeing America.

All told, the view from the ground was sobering. I have to tell you, I didn't see many green shoots.

Ryssdal: Robert Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley.