The prime indicator of whether the economy is in a recession is if people complain about Walmart – if more people are complaining, we are in a recovery, if people stop complaining we are in a recession. WalMart related angst is a luxury good.
If the military spends untold billions developing fighter aircraft that are too expensive to actually use (we’ve had air superiority for generations now, no one else is close, and missiles have huge advantages of human piloted craft) then America faces no real threats in the world, and the power that be feel free to reward constituents and districts with interesting graft instead of focusing on saving the country. Similarly, (while Peter Thiel is right, mass NSA surveillance is not a sign of competence, rather the opposite) the fact that the NSA devotes a lot of time and energy to spying on Americans by solving interesting technical puzzles instead of their legal job is a sign that there is no looming terrorist threat.
One universal truth I now recently recognize is the importance of projects to the middle aged – I’ve got my cnc machine and prediction tracking site, others have universal democracy and government health insurance, but at a certain age the projects become pillars of your worldview. I need to flesh that idea out a bit more.