Inflation is so bad these days it’s not even funny. It’s so bad that I’m putting aside my humor column this week to discuss it, but not in a way that is actually informative enough that you can’t read this on Shabbos.
Writer’s qualification to write an article on finance:
I didn’t really take economics in high school, because for some reason there was no Regents on it. In fact, when someone tells me they work in finance, I don’t actually have any idea what they do.
So I don’t have what you’d call a firm understanding of economics. People who understand economics do not become niche writers for niche publications for an audience who is very into chesed and lending people their old magazines so they don’t have to buy them.
But I have been doing extensive research on the topic, without eating or sleeping, for at least an hour.
How bad is inflation these days?
I don’t know. Apparently, according to experts, “Inflation isn’t a physical phenomenon we can observe.” (And by “we”, they presumably mean “We the experts.”) It’s more like we get our total at the grocery story, and we’re like, “Wait a minute…”
Even Dollar Tree – the famous store mostly patronized by cheap families buying afikomen presents and parents planning upsherins on a budget – has had to raise their prices to $1.25, because they realized they can’t sell less than one paper plate in a package.
Why didn’t we notice it right away?
The stores tried to keep it subtle. An item that was $1.99 last year is now $2.69. That’s a new thing – prices that end in 69. That never used to happen. And you’re like, “Was this always this price? I think so. I know it was about $2 and there was a 9 involved.”
And making packages smaller has been going on for years, but at least back then they were trying to hide it. The packages were basically the same shape, but maybe there was a huge indent on the bottom of the package or they’d sneak a little more air in there, and we were slowly catching on, one item at a time: “Is it just me, or did a can of tuna fish used to make more than one sandwich?”
So whose fault is all of this?
Definitely the Democrats. Or the Republicans. It depends who you ask. Either way, I don’t think anyone did it on purpose. We attach such importance to political figures, like they’re smarter than us, but to be honest, you need a certain amount of mental illness to say, “Yeah, I’m going to be leader of the world. That’s me.”
But there’s no one who’s not affected by this. Even rich people are having this issue. They’re saying, “I used to have two cleaning ladies, but now I only have one and she’s smaller. Who’s going to help her clean under the sofa?”
Okay, why is there actually inflation?
As far as I can tell, the way inflation works is that we’re living in this delicate system where if one person drives up his prices for whatever reason, all his customers have to drive up their prices. And so on.
For example, let’s say you have a business selling apples. You sell them for a certain price that is low enough not to drive away customers, but high enough to support you and your kids. But then one at a time, your kids age into high school, where tuition is more, and also chasunahs are around the corner, and you and your spouse are not as healthy as you used to be because the whole apple-a-day thing was not written by the medical community, as it turns out. Plus you have to hire workers, because your lazy kids do not help you in the apple orchard as much as you’d hoped, even if you call it a Chol Hamoed trip. And slowly you get brave enough to push the price of the apples up and risk losing customers, because the way you see it you’re stuck either way, and if you absolutely have to, you can later lower your prices and call it a sale.
But then everyone who always buys a lot of apples from you, such as the apple cake guy and the apple kugel guy, suddenly aren’t making as much profit, plus their kids are getting up there as well, plus there’s the constant stress of what if people figure out that apple cake and apple kugel are the exact same thing? And then the caterer who buys the apple cake and the apple kugel is stuck, because two of his items just went up in price at the same time, so he raises his prices. And then you, the apple guy, have to make a chasunah, and that is suddenly more money than you budgeted for it and you have no idea why.
But why has this happened all of a sudden?
Oh. Corona. I assume.
Corona’s been around for a while. Why did this take so long to kick in?
Probably for the same reason that when you’re sitting in a line of cars at a traffic light and it turns green, the repercussions take forever to get back to you.
On the other hand, it’s not really like a road. It’s more like a five-lane highway, in that if you say, “If I don’t raise my prices, this won’t continue,” there are still four lanes of people speeding past you, plus one angry lane swerving around you, plus everyone on the way out of the destination you’re heading toward is going to slow down to see what’s going on. And you’re almost definitely going to get rear-ended.
What does any of this have to do with the pandemic?
Well, from what I’ve read, “After two years of not making purchases, society is eager to spend money, and manufacturers are having a hard time keeping up with demand.”
Okay, so first of all, who are these people who are eager to spend their money? How come I don’t know any of these people? I also don’t know anyone who spent 2 years not making purchases.
But what’s slowing things down, manufacturer wise?
People are saying it has something to do with the supply chain. There are things that go into producing an item and getting it on store shelves that you don’t even know.
For example, I didn’t even know until recently that water was used to make plastic bags. But that could explain why they’re so flimsy.
And even once the product is put together, there’s transportation. Everything we eat is transported by trucks. So if gas goes up, the price of everything else goes up, unless the manufacturers figure out how to make the packages smaller and fit more on a truck. Which they have, and it didn’t work.
So basically, when you ask why things are being held up and people say, “Supply chains,” it’s another way of saying they don’t know.
So what can we do to keep our expenses down?
The first thing that comes to mind is to just buy less. Which is what got us into this in the first place. And speaking personally, we can’t buy our kids less than we already do. We already give them embarrassingly less than their friends get, according to reports by our kids. I don’t fully believe them, but I have yet to hear a conflicting report. I should call the other parents and try to ask them in a non-threatening way: “Do you let your kids have X?” I don’t even know these people.
There are also plenty of articles you can read that profess to give tips. Unfortunately, every tip is written like you’re 2 years old: “Stop eating in restaurants.” “Look for sales.” What on earth do you think I’ve been doing?
So is the situation just going to keep getting worse?
It depends who you ask. The government says it’s only transitory.
That’s comforting, right?
Not really. How long is transitory? Aren’t we transitory? We say it in davening on Yom Kippur.
(I think. My kavanah is transitory.)
But at the very least, this is supposed to go well into next year.
So what does the government say we should do?
The government says we shouldn’t panic. But what does panic mean? What does panicking look like, exactly? Does it mean they don’t want us to stop spending our money? But if prices are going to go back down, we totally should stop spending our money! Let’s just wait! The only reason I might want to spend my money now is if prices will only go up from here. Unless us not spending the money is what’s going to keep things from going back to normal. But I’m not advising the whole world here anyway. I’m advising niche readers of a niche publication and the people they lend their magazines to who haven’t been spending money anyway.
But even if it’s temporary, “Inflation will decline” does not mean that prices will go down. It doesn’t even mean they’ll stop rising. It means they won’t rise as fast anymore.
So the jury’s still out on whether we should panic.