James Leroy Wilson's blog

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hidden Inflation

It is hard to determine the "cost of living" or "consumer price index" when goods and services change over time. So much information is at our fingertips that could once stump a reference librarian - if you had the time to go to library in the first place. How does one asseess the value of that?

On the other hand, it was clear by real estate and energy prices in 2005-06 that the cost of living was far above the government-determined Consumer Price Index. And despite our technological gains, not all things are getting better. I came across an article from December '05 at Mason Gaffney's website that suggests counter-examples - largely in the form of quality-dilution. In other words, things are "cheaper" in quality but not in price, which is evidence of inflation. Here is Gaffney's list:
  • 2x4 dimensional lumber is no longer 2x4, but 15-20% smaller in cross-section, and of lower grade stock
  • salmon is no longer wild, but farm raised in unsanitary conditions, and dyed pink (ugh)
  • "wooden" furniture is now mostly particle-board
  • "wooden" doors are now mostly hollow
  • new houses have remote locations, far from desired destinations
  • ice cream is now filled out with seaweed products
  • the steel in autos is eked out with fiberglass, plastic, and other ersatz that crumbles in minor collisions
  • airline travel is no longer a delight but a series of insults and abuses
  • gasoline used to come with free services: pumping the gas, checking tire pressure and supplying free air, checking oil and water, cleaning glass, free maps, rest rooms (often clean), mechanic on duty, friendly attitudes and travel directions. They served you before you paid. Stations were easy to find, to enter and exit. Competing firms wanted your business: now most of them have merged.
  • cold fresh milk was delivered to your door
  • clerks in grocery and other stores brought your orders to the counter; now, many clerks, if you can find one, can hardly direct you to the right aisle
  • suits came with two pairs of pants and they fitted the cuffs free. Waists came in half-sizes
  • socks came in a full range of sizes
  • shoes came in a full range of widths; the clerk patiently fitted the fussiest of customers
  • the post office delivered mail and parcels to your door or RFD, often twice a day
  • public telephones were everywhere, not just in airport lobbies. Information was free; live operators actually conversed with you, and might give you street addresses
  • public transit service was frequent, and served many routes now abandoned
  • live people used to answer commercial telephones, and tell you what you actually wanted to know
  • autos used to buy "freedom of the road"; now they buy long commutes at low speeds and rage-inducing delays. One must now travel farther and buck more traffic to reach the same number of destinations. Boskin et al. dwell on higher performance of cars, and the bells and whistles, but take no note of the cost-push of urban sprawl.
  • classes keep getting larger, with less access to teachers and top professors, and more use of mind-numbing "scantron" testing.
  • before world war II, an Ivy-league college student lodged in a roomy dorm with maid service and dined in a student union with table service, and a nutritionist planning healthy meals. All that, plus tuition and incidentals, cost under $1,000 a year. Now, to maintain your children's place and status in the rat race, you'd put out $40,000 a year for a claustrophobic dorm and junk food. But a B.A. no longer has the former value and cachet. Now you need time in graduate and professional schools to achieve the same status. Many students emerge with huge student loan balances to pay off over life.
  • warranties on major appliances cost extra, aren't promptly honored, and expire too soon. Repair services and fix-it shops used to abound to maintain smaller appliances. Now, most of them are throwaway.
  • replacement parts for autos are hard to find, exploitatively overpriced, and are often ersatz or recycled aftermarket parts
  • musical instruments are mass-produced and tinny instead of hand-crafted and signed
  • piano keys were ivory; now plastic
  • many new "wonder drugs", if you can afford them, have bad side-effects, while old aspirin still gets the highest marks
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