Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Burrito Index: Consumer Prices Have Soared 160% Since 2001

Our real-world experience tells us the official inflation rate doesn't reflect the actual cost increases of everything from burritos to healthcare.
In our household, we measure inflation with the Burrito IndexHow much has the cost of a regular burrito at our favorite taco truck gone up?
Since we keep detailed records of expenses (a necessity if you’re a self-employed free-lance writer), I can track the real-world inflation of the Burrito Index with great accuracy: the cost of a regular burrito from our local taco truck has gone up from $2.50 in 2001 to $5 in 2010 to $6.50 in 2016.
That’s a $160% increase since 2001; 15 years in which the official inflation rate reports that what $1 bought in 2001 can supposedly be bought with $1.35 today.
If the Burrito Index had tracked official inflation, the burrito at our truck should cost $3.38—up only 35% from 2001. Compare that to today's actual cost of $6.50—almost double what it “should cost” according to official inflation calculations.
Since 2001, the real-world burrito index is 4.5 times greater than the official rate of inflation—not a trivial difference.
Between 2010 and now, the Burrito Index has logged a 30% increase, more than triple the officially registered 10% drop in purchasing power over the same time.
Those interested can check the official inflation rate (going back to 1913) with the BLS Inflation calculator by clicking here.
My Burrito Index is a rough-and-ready index of real-world inflation. To insure its measure isn’t an outlying aberration, we also need to track the real-world costs of big-ticket items such as college tuition and healthcare insurance, as well as local government-provided services. When we do, we observe results of similar magnitude.
The takeaway? Our money is losing its purchasing power much faster than the government would like us to believe.
Comparing Burritos to Burritos: A Staggering Divergence of Reality and Official Inflation
According to official statistics, inflation has reduced the purchasing power of the dollar by a mere 6% since 2011: barely above 1% a year. We’ve supposedly seen our purchasing power decline by 27% in the 12 years since 2004—an average rate of 2.25% per year.
But our real-world experience tells us the official inflation rate doesn’t reflect the actual cost increases of everything from burritos to healthcare.
The cost of a regular taco was $1.25 in 2010. By official standards, it should cost a dime more. Oops—it’s now $2 each, a 60% increase, six times the official rate.
The cost of a Vietnamese-style sandwich (banh mi) at our favorite Chinatown deli has jumped from $1.50 in 2001 to $2 in 2004 to $3.50 in 2016.  That $1.50 increase since 2004 is a 75% jump, roughly triple the official 27% reduction in purchasing power.
So let’s play Devil’s Advocate and suggest that these extraordinary increases are limited to “food purchased away from home,” to use the official jargon for meals purchased at fast-food joints, delis, cafes, microbreweries and restaurants.
Well, how about public university tuition? That’s not something you buy every week like a burrito. Getting out our calculator, we find that the cost for four years of tuition and fees at a public university will set you back about 8,600 burritos. Throw in books (assume the student lives at home, so no on-campus dorm room or food expenses) and other college expenses and you’re up to 10,000 burritos, or $65,000 for the four years at a public university.
University of California at Davis: 
2004 in-state tuition $5,684
2015 in state tuition $13,951 
That’s an increase of 145% in a time span in which official inflation says tuition in 2015 should have cost 25% more than it did in 2004, i.e. $7,105.  Oops—the real world costs are basically double official inflation—a difference of about $30,000 per four-year bachelor’s degree per student.
Here’s my alma mater (and no, you can’t get a degree in surfing, sorry):
University of Hawaii at Manoa:
2004 in-state tuition: $4,487
2016 in-state tuition: $10,872
Sure, some public and private universities offer tuition waivers and financial aid to needy or talented students, but the majority of households/students are on the hook for a big chunk of these costs. And remember that many students are paying living expenses, which doubles the cost of the diploma.
If you think I cherry-picked these two public universities, check out this article:
So the divergence between real-world costs and official inflation isn’t limited to burritos; it’s just as bad in items that cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The Official Fantasy of Hedonic Adjustments
In the official calculation of inflation, hedonic adjustments offset soaring costs: that 160% increase in the cost of a burrito is offset by the much lower cost for computers, especially when the greater processing power and memory are accounted for.
Clothing has also gotten cheaper, and this theoretically offsets higher costs elsewhere.
The problem with this is sort of calculation is that we have to eat every day and we have to pay higher education costs if we want our kids to remain in the middle class, but we only buy a new “cheaper” computer once every few years, and we don’t even have to buy new clothing at all, given the proliferation of used clothing outlets, swap meets, etc. (I do my annual clothing shopping at Costco: two pair of jeans for $15 each , one pair of shoes for $15, etc.)
The savings on $100 of new clothing per year or a $600 computer every three years does not offset the doubling or tripling of costs for items we consume daily or big-ticket essentials such as higher education, rent and healthcare.
Official Inflation: A Flawed Metric
Official inflation also assumes that consumers will actively substitute a cheaper alternative for whatever is soaring in price. If a burrito doubles in cost, then the consumer is supposed to buy a banh mi sandwich instead. (Oops, that doubled in price, too. So much for substitution gimmicks.)
The problem is pretty obvious: there are no alternatives for big-ticket essentials. There is no “cheaper” substitute for a four-year public university diploma or meaningful healthcare insurance. There is also no alternative to renting a roof over your head if you can’t afford to buy a house (or don’t want to gamble in the housing-bubble casino).
The scale of the costs matters. If I bought a burrito every working day (5 per week, with two weeks of vacation annually) for four years, that’s 250 per year or 1,000 burritos over four years. That’s one-tenth the cost of a university degree—assuming I can get all the classes needed to graduate in four years.
I can always lower the cost of lunch by making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich at home rather than buying a burrito for $6.50, but there are limited ways to reduce the cost of a public university, which is already the “cheaper” alternative to private universities.
Even stripped-down healthcare insurance has soared in multiples of the official inflation rate.
Inflation in big-ticket items adds up to tens of thousands of dollars—costs that can’t be offset by choosing a cheaper mobile phone, cheaper clothing  or substituting a peanut butter sandwich made at home for a burrito at the taco truck.
Even if you skip buying lunch for four years, you’ve only offset 1/10th of the cost of a university diploma, a four-year stint in which the student lives at home and also eats peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches every day for four years (at least in in our barebones example of books, tuition and fees only, no dorm or university-provided food expenses).
As for healthcare: feast your eyes on this chart of medical expenses.
According to official inflation calculations, the $12,214 annual medical costs for a family of four in 2005 “should cost” $14,963 today in 2016.
Oops—the actual cost is $25,826, $10,863 higher than official inflation, which adds over $100,000 in cash outlays above and beyond official inflation in the course of a decade.
So let’s add the $30,000 per university student above and beyond inflation for two college students over a decade and the $100,000 in healthcare costs that are above and beyond inflation over that decade, and we get $160,000.
Since deductions for education and healthcare don’t completely wipe out income taxes, the household has to earn close to $200,000 more over the decade to net out the $160,000 to pay typical college and healthcare costs above and beyond what education and healthcare “should cost” if inflation in big-ticket items had actually tracked official inflation.
$100,000 here, $100,000 there and pretty soon you’re talking real money in a nation in which median household income is around $57,000 annually.
So if a household’s income kept up with official inflation over a decade, that household would have to earn at least $20,000 more per year just to keep pace with real-world, big-ticket cost increases.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? If the household’s wages only kept up with inflation, there isn’t another $20,000 a year in additional income needed to pay these soaring big-ticket costs. So the shortfall has to be borrowed, burdening the household with debt and interest payments for decades to come, or the kids don’t attend college and the household goes without healthcare insurance.
I’ve done some real-world apples-to-apples  calculations on our household’s costs of healthcare insurance, which we buy ourselves without any subsidies because we’re self-employed and we earn too much to qualify for ACA/Obamacare subsidies. (I would have qualified easily for the subsidies due to low earnings for the 20 years prior to Obamacare, but weirdly, as soon as ACA passed my income increased. Go figure.)
We’ve bought our stripped-down healthcare insurance from one of the more competitive non-profit providers, Kaiser Permanente, for the past 25 years. We’ve had the same plan (no meds, eyewear or dental coverage, and a $50 co-pay for any visit) for the entire quarter century. (Our plan is now grandfathered; the ACA equivalent is more expensive.) To keep the comparisons apples-to-apples, I compared identical coverage for the same-age person from year to year.
In 1996, the monthly cost to insure a 43-year old was $95. Now, the same plan for a 43-year old is $416 per month—more than four times as much for the same coverage.  If the costs had risen only in line official inflation, (52% since 1996), the monthly costs would be $145, not $416.
The cost of insurance for a 55-year old in 2008 was $325 per month. Today, the same plan for a 55-year old is $558, a 72% increase over a time span that officially only logged an 11% increase in inflation.
Last but not least, let’s look at a government-provided service—weekly trash pickup.  Since 2011, our trash fees have gone up 34.5%, compared to the official reduction in purchasing power of 6% since 2011.
Once again, real-world costs have soared at a rate that is almost six times higher than the official rate of inflation.
The reality is real-world inflation in big-ticket essentials is crushing every household that doesn’t qualify for government subsidies of higher education, rent and healthcare.
In Part 2: How To Beat Inflation, we examine a number of strategies for offsetting the soaring costs of everything from burritos to healthcare -- with particular focus on the investments and actions you can take today, inside and outside of the markets, to preserve the purchasing power of your wealth from the nefarious "stealth tax" placed on your money by the kind of inflation discussed above.
Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)
This essay was first published on peakprosperity.com, where I've been a contributing writer for many years.


My new book is #7 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition)For more, please visit the book's website.

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Social Fragmentation Suits the Powers That Be

The Elites have successfully revolted against the political and economic constraints on their wealth and power.
Ours is an Age of Fracture (the 2011 book by Daniel Rodgers) in which "earlier notions of history and society that stressed solidity, collective institutions, and social circumstances gave way to a more individualized human nature that emphasized choice, agency, performance, and desire."
A society that is fragmenting into cultural groups that are themselves fracturing into smaller units of temporary and highly contingent solidarity is ideal for Elites bent on maintaining political and financial control.
A society that has fragmented into a media-fed cultural war of hot-button identity-gender-religious politics is a society that is incapable of resisting concentrations of power and wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.
If we set aside the authentic desire of individuals for equal rights and cultural liberation and examine the political and financial ramifications of social fragmentation, we come face to face with Christopher Lasch's insightful analysis on The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996 book).
"The new elites, the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension.... Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing."
Though better known for his book on the disastrous consequences of consumerism in an era of economic stagnation, The Culture of Narcissism:American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy is the more politically profound analysis, as it links Elite dominance of the media, higher education and cultural narratives to the erosion of democracy as a functioning institution.
Extreme concentrations of wealth and power are incompatible with democracy, as Elites buy political influence and promote cultural narratives that distract the citizenry with emotionally charged issues. A focus on individual liberation from all constraints precludes an awareness of common economic-political interests beyond the narrow boundaries of fragmenting culturally defined identities.
In a society stripped of broad-based social contracts and narratives that focus on the structural forces dismantling democracy and social mobility, the Elites have a free hand to consolidate their own personal wealth and power and use those tools to further fragment any potential political resistance to their dominance.
The Elites have successfully revolted against the political and economic constraints on their wealth and power, and now the unprivileged, unprotected non-Elites are rebelling in the only way left open to them: voting for anyone who claims to be outside the privileged Elites that dominate our society and economy.
As long as the American public chooses to focus on individual liberation and consumerist expressions of "freedom," the Elites will have a free hand politically and financially.
The Powers That Be excel at claiming they are busy reforming a broken system,even as they co-opt, water down or outlaw any real reform that threatens their concentrations of wealth and power: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform.
Precisely what does individual "liberation" mean in a neofeudal society of indebted financial serfs?


My new book is #4 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition)For more, please visit the book's website.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Will Any Future POTUS Matter (Other Than Launching More Wars)?

We are already experiencing the powerlessness of POTUS.
We all know the POTUS (President of the United States) has the power as Commander-in-Chief to engage the nation in senseless, costly, needless wars.We also know the POTUS has a media-saturated bully pulpit to set an agenda and fashion a cultural tone for the nation.
But beyond the power to wage war and dominate the media spotlight, does the President have the power to solve the structural problems that are eroding the nation's economy and social contract?
This chart summarizes one such problem: wage earners are receiving a diminishing share of the nation's output (GDP):
A second related problem is the national income that is flowing to wage earners is increasingly flowing to the top 5%:
If the president can't solve the nation's systemic problems, then he/she no longer matters. The President, outside of declaring war, is nothing but a source of "news" chum for the media feeding frenzy aimed at grabbing eyeballs to maximize advertising revenues for the media's corporate owners.
Analyst Gail Tverberg explained why the political machinery of POTUS cannot change the downward trends in household earnings in a series of insightful essays, most recently Overly Simple Energy-Economy Models Give Misleading Answers.
Tverberg considers the costs of finance/debt and complex hierarchies in the matrix of energy production and consumption, and references the work of Joseph Tainter on the systemic impact of the rising cost of complexity.
In a similar vein, I have often mentioned The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization by Thomas Homer-Dixon.
In summary: successful civilizations generate sufficient surplus to invest in complex hierarchical communication-command-control mechanisms which boost productivity and generate additional surplus. The cost of these complex systems continually rises while the increases in production eventually plateau and decline in an S-Curve:
The net result is a society with higher costs and diminishing returns. Eventually the costs of maintaining the status quo exceed the benefits of maintaining the status quo hierarchy and the society decays and collapses.
My own work has focused on two dynamics of the cost of increasingly unproductive complex systems. One is privilege, which can be defined as unearned wealth and power. Privilege is by definition unproductive, and a drain on the economy and society. Once the privileged class (i.e. the protected class that shifts risks and taxes to the unprotected/non-elite classes) expands and social mobility decays, the economy collapses under the dead weight of the privileged class.
I covered the history and dynamics of this process in The Lesson of Empires: Once Privilege Limits Social Mobility, Collapse Is Inevitable (April 18, 2016).
The second dynamic is the destructive consequences of a self-serving political-financial elite that is structurally incapable of real reform because real reform will collapse the high-cost structures that enable the concentration of wealth and power.
I explain these dynamics in Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform.
I know this runs counter to the media-supported delusion that POTUS is the most powerful person on Earth, but in reality it no longer matters who's president. The inevitable collapse of a debt-based model of complexity, energy extraction and consumption is already baked in.
The only potentially positive role of any President would be to downsize the unrealistic expectations of the citizenry to align with real-world dynamics. But downsizing expectations doesn't get you re-elected, so the political reality is that future presidents will no longer matter in terms of solving the critical problems we face in the coming decades.
We are already experiencing the powerlessness of POTUS: the campaign for the office of President has already been reduced to two poor players that strut and fret their hour upon the stage, a tale told by an idiot media, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


My new book is #3 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition)For more, please visit the book's website.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Psychiatric Diagnosis of the U.S. Market: Schizophrenic Disconnect From Reality, Bipolar Mania, Psychotic Delusions of Wealth

If you think a delusional market is healthy, it's time for a psychiatric exam.

What diagnosis would an experienced psychiatrist offer when presented with the bizarre behavior of the U.S. stock market? We assume that the wild mood swings of greed and fear are "normal" for markets devoted to short-term profit and speculation, but the stock market's disconnect from reality is far beyond mere mood swings.
The stock market thinks it's solidly on pavement, but in reality it's like a car flying off a cliff: the Wiley E. Coyote moment is just ahead. There's nothing but air beneath the stock market.
Consider the reality of PE expansion from a price-earnings (PE) of 10 at the bottom in 2009 to 18+ today, while profits are stagnant. And what is driving this expansion other than a delusional belief that profits will magically reverse and log massive gains in the second half of 2016?
If we strip out "one-time expenses" and other accounting flim-flam, profits are plummeting. How else can we characterize this disconnect between stagnant sales (look at Apple, CAT, etc.) and "profits" that are one step away from outright fraud as anything other than delusional?
As global trade, U.S. rail traffic and other non-gameable measures of economic activity stagnate or decline, how can anyone connected to reality expect sales and profits to rise sharply?
The stock market is hitting new highs for what reason? The typical answer is: more central bank stimulus is on the way, the Fed/ BoJ /Bank of China/ European Central Bank have our back, etc. etc. etc.
But the reality is obvious to all: the returns on central bank stimulus have declined to near-zero. Trillions in additional stimulus are needed to just keep the delusional markets from experiencing gravity (see car photo above).
And how about the manic mood swings from panic in February (i.e. a whiff of reality) and the euphoria of new highs in summer? If this isn't the acme of bipolar delusion, then what is?
Perhaps the greatest delusion is the confidence that this ephemeral bubble "wealth" is actual wealth that can be counted on to fund pensions and insurance claims in the future. Pity the deranged souls who actually believe that stock gains based on fraudulent claims of "profit" and delusional expectations of rising profits as the dollar strengthens and the global economy implodes are "wealth" that can be considered permanent.
The only possible diagnosis of this stock market behavior:
1. Patient (the U.S. stock market) is suffering a schizophrenic disconnect from reality.
2. Patient (the U.S. stock market) is suffering from bipolar mania that leads to delusional beliefs in delusional profits and delusional central bank omnipotence.
3. Patient is suffering from psychotic delusions of wealth, akin to the delusion that the patient is ruler of the world, galaxy, universe, central banks are all-powerful, etc.
If you think a delusional market is healthy, it's time for a psychiatric exam.


My new book is #3 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition)For more, please visit the book's website.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
Thank you, Frankie M. ($50), for your stupendously generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Why Real Reform Is Impossible: We Can't Believe the Mighty Titanic Could Actually Sink

Unfortunately for those partying on the upper First Class decks, they are as doomed as the steerage passengers when the ship goes down.
Why did passengers remain on the Titanic even as its bow sank deeper into the ice-cold Atlantic? They believed the experts and authorities because they wanted to believe the ship was "unsinkable." And why did they want to believe the ship was "unsinkable"?
Two visceral realities fueled their misplaced faith in the ship's supposed safety:
1) The warm ship seemed so mighty, and the alternative--open lifeboats drifting in the dark cold night--seemed so vulnerable, uncomfortable and risky.
2) It was much easier to believe the experts' assurances that the ship was safe than it was to clamber into a small lifeboat and bob around the open Atlantic.
We all know which alternative turned out to be safe and which one was fatally unsafe. The apparently risky open lifeboats were the sole source of survival and the enormous, complex "unsinkable" ship sank, ending the lives of everyone who clung to the appealing fantasy that the mighty ship was too technologically advanced to sink.
We are all on a Titanic, a complex system that experts and authorities declare safe and unsinkable for all time. Our money, our government, our Social Security, our Medicare and our entire debt-based way of life is mighty and invulnerable. Those few who see the eventual need to prepare "risky" lifeboats are mocked and ridiculed.
But the status quo's bow is already sinking into the ice-cold waters of reality.The only way the status quo can support the debt-based financial system and government that funds all these vast systems is if the economy creates 10 million more "breadwinner" jobs (in David Stockman's definition, a job that earns enough to support a family of four) a decade.
These new jobs are needed to raise the additional $1 trillion per year in payroll and income taxes needed to keep the fiscal ship afloat, and to provide the household income needed to support trillions more in private-sector debt--new home mortgages, auto loans, student loans, credit card debt, etc.--that's needed to support consumption.
If the status quo can't create at least 10 million new breadwinner jobs a decade, it sinks just as surely as the Titanic, which was doomed the moment the fifth watertight compartment was ripped open by the iceberg.
And please don't tell me we can raise $1 trillion in new annual taxes by "taxing the owners of the robots," another "unsinkable" fantasy I dismantle in my books Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform and A Radically Beneficial World.
Now that software and robotics are commoditized, the scarcity value of these tools and the goods they produce is plummeting. Take a look at profits in commoditized goods: they're razor-thin, and getting thinner by the day. As the cost of software/automation tools drops, they become affordable to an ever-larger pool of owners/producers, which means the competition from new owners will increase until there is no profit at all.
And exactly how do you extract $1 trillion in phantom profits from "owners of robots" who happen to be overseas? The belief in "taxing the owners of robots" is identical to the doomed souls on board the Titanic believing the ship was unsinkable.
The belief in the status quo's permanence is exactly like the belief in the Titanic's invulnerability. The systems we depend on are so vast and seem so mighty, it doesn't seem possible that they could unravel and fail. But their eventual unraveling and failure are already baked in and cannot be undone by the modest tweaks of what passes for "reform" in the status quo.
The financial realities of systemically stagnant jobs, incomes and tax revenues have already ripped a fatal gash below the waterline of the status quo. The bow is sinking but the parties on the First Class deck continue. The passengers in steerage are getting anxious because they see the cold water sloshing around the lower decks, but few on the upper decks care what mere steerage passengers are experiencing.
Unfortunately for those partying on the upper First Class decks, they are as doomed as the steerage passengers when the ship goes down.
As the supposedly risk-free status quo decays, the supposedly "risky" lifeboats-- decentralized private-sector arrangements of multiple income streams derived from ownership of productive assets that are debt-free and not dependent on debt-based government funding or global corporate cartels--will be cooperating and collaborating with each other.
Those seeking lifeboats will benefit from the Mobile Creative credo: trust your network, not the corporation or the state.
My new book is #10 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition) For more, please visit the book's website.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
Thank you, Frankie M. ($50), for your stupendously generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

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