The mail carrier index: How many pink envelopes?

The mail carrier knows: when the envelopes from the local utilities start changing color, it's bad news. Most gas and power companies use yellow for warning, pink for impending shut-off. In an NPR interview, Andrea the mail carrier (who is not yet a figure in John McCain's campaign) talked about what she knew about the economy from her mail route. She knew, for instance, that there were many residents on her Seattle route who were constantly flirting with shut-off notices.

Today's Wall Street Journal has more solid proof, citing reports that localities such as Memphis and Pennsylvania had increased utilities shut-offs between 38% and 78% so far this year, with a New Jersey utility company making the chilling observation that it has been "diligent in our shutoff activities" in 2008.

But you hardly need independent verification; all you have to do is walk around your neighborhood and look for the door knob notices in bright colors, the closer to red, the worse off your neighbors are. Utilities are responding to the situation without remorse, considering reducing the past-due amount that will require shut-off and installing new wireless, digital meters that can be shut off remotely without extra cost for sending out a crew. (Brilliant! Power to the ... oh wait ...)

Have you seen many pink envelopes in your neighborhood? I've seen a few in mine, but it's the same houses all the time, so it hardly feels connected to the economic crisis. But with prices up everywhere, this winter could prove to be full of bright colors.

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