Saturday, July 9, 2022

"The Price of Quality"

"The Price of Quality"
And the rising cost of basic goods in America... 
when you can get them.
by Joel Bowman

Houston, Texas - "We’re back in the land of milk and honey, dear reader, the capitalist cornucopia in which we can cheerfully saunter into any grocery store and avail ourselves of near any item on a mere whim... hot sauce, baby formula, potatoes, cream cheese, champagne, chlorine, maple syrup... Actually... scratch those items. They’ll be returning to shelves near you soon (see absentee reports filed here, here, here, here, here, here and here*) Well, whatever... we didn’t want them anyway! (Ok... maybe the hot sauce.)

But seriously... America, what happened to your grocery stores? Those grand Meccas of unashamed superabundance? Those fountainheads of consumerist indulgence? We used to delight in strolling your broad aisles, basking in your ridiculous array of salad dressing choices (who knew mango and habanero were so darned tasty together?!), ogling the myriad deodorant sticks on display, wondering how we had ever got by without purple carrots and orange broccoli...

Our American brethren may not know this... but other parts of the world are not so blessed as here. Why, in our sometimes home of Argentina, they don’t measure missing items in units of empty “shelves”... they refer to whole aisles gone AWOL! We’ll have more about Argentina’s woes in tomorrow’s Sunday Session. For now, we focus on the good ol’ U.S. of A., which we are celebrating this weekend with a “time warp” 4th of July cookout. As the token Australian, your editor will be manning the barbecue. (Go on... have your “throw another shrimp on the barbie” joke. We’ll wait.)

Follow the Money: Meanwhile, since our beat here is money, let’s check in on the prices. Oh look, our helpful friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics have already done the math/tortured the figures for us. The itemized cost of your Independence Day fete this year was officially up by...

Pork +3.1%
Wine +5.8%
Ice cream +6%
Hot dogs +6.3%
Fruit and vegetables +7%
Shrimp +8.2% (For the record, Australians call them “prawns.” Just sayin’.)
Hot dog and hamburger buns +10%
Ground beef 11.8%
Sodas +13%
Chicken breast +24%
Beer +25%
Wings +38%

All in, you’re looking at an 11% year on year increase since 2021’s celebrations. At least, that’s according to the BLS. Our in-laws here in Texas reckon it’s closer to 30%… but then, supposedly everything’s bigger in the Lone Star State.

Now, far be it from us to gripe without offering solutions. And so, in the spirit of the spooky statistician, we humbly suggest those eating chicken do as the National Pork Board advised back in the summer of ‘87 and try “the other white meat”... those swilling beer are encouraged to find their excess calories through too much ice-cream... and for the kids, it’s time for you to switch from sodas to wine (except for those of you old enough to assume the role of designated driver).

We jest, of course. Kids are terrible drivers... and even worse drunks! Besides, astute readers will no doubt realize that’s not the way substitution works. But it is – sort of – the way economists sometimes fudge the figures. The magic of hedonics, for example, is the practice of discounting rising prices by assuming an increase in “quality.” But how is that measured?

The Devil in the Details: Say it’s the year 2000. Not wanting to be left out, you buy a middle of the road phone for $100. Fast-forward to futuristic-sounding 2022, and the average cost of a new phone is now $500. Ok, you think, so the price has gone up by 500% over 20 years. “Ah,” says the economist, “but now your phone is ‘smart’. It’s actually 1000x more powerful than that old Nokia 3210... so in ‘real’ terms, your phone has actually gone down in price… by half!”

And he’s right... as far as that line of thinking goes. But is your life really that much better now because you can waste countless hours checking Twitter and ordering things you don’t need from Amazon? Would you have bothered with all those extra, “smart” features anyway? And hey, aren’t you still out of pocket $500, 5x more than you were back when the game “snake” stood guard at the limit of the gadget’s entertainment capabilities?

“But, but, but...” argues our imagined economist, “what about maps (never getting lost), access to email (constant work) and ‘staying connected’ to friends and family (social media)?” Even there, one is left to wonder if we’re really better off. Maybe learning to read an actual map, or even getting lost sometimes, is not such a bad thing... perhaps leaving work when you leave the office is – gulp! – good for the brain... and maybe, just maybe, spending meaningful, physical time with friends and family, at a time warp 4th of July barbecue, say... instead of digitally “liking” their latest post or “commenting” on a picture of their hot dog, is a good thing after all. And on that note, it’s cookout time!"

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