We read every day about the hardships, but a road trip serves up different ways to experience what happens when an economy is contracting.

In Southern California this past few days, we found hotel room rates less than what they were three years ago – and reservations were never a problem. Most restaurants seem to have more empty tables. Some stores are shuttered, and many of the rest seem to be having sales. In some stores, sales people offer instant discounts.

Meanwhile, old friends worry about family members who have lost their jobs and may lose their houses.

For what it’s worth, gasoline is cheap now, compared to the $4 a gallon price tag last summer. But the wild fluctuations in price only remind us of the nation’s failure to develop a rational energy policy before the economy tanked.