Friendly wage-r

A sign of desperation, out in front of Friendly's, an ice cream and sandwich chain, in suburban Boston:


Anyone who's been shopping or pulled up to a table at a restaurant has seen much the same. Virtually every business cries out for more help. At a Chili's restaurant in Connecticut, my wife and I recently had to wait 20 minutes for a table - even though there were plenty empty. We, and about a dozen others, were kept waiting because the restaurant lacked the staff to service all its tables.

Here's another one: At an antiques show in Wilton, Conn., earlier this month, people were buying whatever wasn't nailed down. We know a dealer who had bought a beat up, wrought-iron table a week earlier to use for display. He paid $150, and a customer walked off with it for $650.

It's anecdotal, but it's telling - it means this economy is straining at the harness. If a high-school kid can scoop up 10 bucks an hour; if a restaurant can't satisfy its customers' appetite to spend; if consumers are lining up to spend too much on used furniture ... Then it's a safe bet that inflation is probably ready to reappear.

The key is the consumer. If wages, then prices, start rising - the definition of increasing inflation - will the consumer keep spending, opening the way to more increases? That's the question the Federal Reserve Board takes up tomorrow when it decides whether to raise interest rates.

The curious thing is that it probably doesn't make much difference. The stock market might trip a bit, but this is a triple-dip economy, and if a little bit melts onto the ground, there's still plenty of sweet stuff left.

* E-mail: work@csps.comM

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