Eight Years: The Great College Search and Wile E Coyote

Raising children is in some ways like taking a long hike in the woods.  Each stage of childhood is a different part of the forest and parenthood is nothing if not a forest for the trees experience.  A parent can get so caught up in the minutiae of life – practices, appointments, homework, schedules – that he can miss the larger picture, see just how the forest has changed.  This is especially when the children are clustered close enough in age that there’s no reason to revisit a section to assess its change since last trekked.

In the PracticalDad household however, there is an eight year span between Eldest – now a wife and mother – and Youngest, now a high school junior.  This means that we have revisited multiple parts of the copse and are now trekking again through that part pertaining to life after high school, known as The Great College Search.  Such a span and trek begs the question, how has this area changed in the intervening eight years?  Where were we then and where are we now?

This is the first thing that comes to mind.  Don’t worry, it will make sense.

 

 

Attending college was mostly a no-brainer when Eldest was a junior in 2011.  After decades of economic growth and development, both business and academia pushed the concept that the United States was now a knowledge-based service economy.  Millions of manufacturing jobs were lost to competition or simply outsourced overseas so we no longer made things as much as provided needed services to both the rest of the world and one another.  Toss in data supporting the income differential between a high school and college, a liberal sprinkling of fairy dust about finding yourself and fulfilling your dreams and it was off to the races for the institution of Higher Education.  College enrollment rose over the decades as a growing number of students rushed down the cattle chute for a degree and the demand curve took over:  if you have relatively stable supply – and this one is stable because starting a college isn’t easy – then the uptick in demand shifts the price upwards.  Et voila!

How much upwards?  In the twenty year span prior to 2008, Eldest’s freshman year of high school, the cost of public tuition rose an average of 4.1% beyond the actual rate of inflation.  Even after the Financial Crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession, the cost of public tuition rose 3.1% beyond the rate of inflation.

Students were prompted heavily to attend college – Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame noted how his 1980’s guidance counselor actively demeaned trade school and promoted college – while a rip-current of economic factors undercut the students and their families themselves.  Medical care was increasingly offloaded to the family via declining coverage and disproportionately rising medical costs.  Retirement was likewise offloaded to the family  as company pensions were increasingly eliminated in favor of employee savings programs.  States began reducing budgetary funding for higher education as the conservative mantra of personal responsibility and fiscal prudence took hold.  Remember those millions of manufacturing jobs?  Yeah, about that…  The replacement jobs in the new knowledge-based service economy were usually at a reduced wage with neither medical benefits nor pension.  It sounds dry and academic in a single paragraph, but this grinding process has taken place over the course of decades.

Student debt by 2003 was approximately $250 billion and in less than 15 years had almost quintupled to $1.4 Trillion (Trillion deserves to be capitalized).  One crucial change emerged from the combination of the rip-currents and the damage caused by the Great Recession:  the burden of student debt shifted largely from the family unit to the student.

So, how have things changed between 2011 and 2019, the siblings’ respective junior years?

First, families and students are now asking is a traditional college degree even worth the cost?

I might disagree with Rush Limbaugh in many regards, but he is correct when he says that words have meaning.  One of the responses of higher ed proponents to the disproportionate rise in tuition was to change the terminology.  College was no longer a cost as much as it was an investment.  Elders have commented that decades ago, the price tag for college was such that a middle-class family could pay for it in a relatively short time frame.  In Accounting parlance, cost implies a short period of time.  But at some undetermined point, the price tag rose sufficiently to shift it to a longer time frame for repayment and this changed the terminology from cost to investment and that word, investment, means a longer repayment period.  The corollary was that the additional wages gained by the degree would outstrip that of the high school diploma but this ignored a simple reality cognizant to most good accountants:  wages concentrate on the cash flow of the individual and this is inherently short term in nature.

If people want a future that includes the prospect of a meaningful retirement – actually a relatively new concept since our great-great-grandparents usually died in the traces – then they must be able to accrue sufficient assets to support them.  That entails a long-term perspective.  Given everything that has already been offloaded to the family, the addition of student debt to the budget makes asset accumulation much more difficult.

Consider this.  The research arm of the St Louis Federal Bank studied available historical data to determine the wealth effect of a college or post-graduate degree versus a high school diploma from the 1930s to the 1980s.  There was a much larger impact on the wealth accumulation of our great-grandparents in the 1930’s and 1940’s than for the grandparents and parents of the later decades as the rate of accumulation declined over the decades.  And yes, there is a racial disparity between white and black graduates although the results for both races pale in comparison to their circa-1930’s elders.

The combination of factors – macroeconomic and debt – is leaving Millennials with a financial position far worse than their own parents at a similar age.  The median net worth of a Millennial is now -$1900, a drop of $9000 from only 2013.  This generation is like it’s predecessors in wanting to someday retire but they have to first climb out of a seven foot hole and even then, the value of the degree won’t propel them as much as it did with their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

You’re bothered that Millennials want socialism?  Be happy that some wild-eyed, debt-laden lumbersexual doesn’t douse you with beard oil and set you alight.

Second, what demand giveth, demand taketh away.

The societal push to obtain a bachelor’s degree was the nitrous booster to the engine of increasing student population.  When Eldest was a junior in 2011, there was still a rising number of students available for the pool of prospective applicants.  That number had been increasing for the better part of 15 years as the high school graduation rate reached a peak of 83.2% before beginning to decline.  Couple that with an actual fewer number of high school seniors and except for an anticipated bump in the mid-2020’s, high school graduates will reach a level in 2032 less than that in 2013, the year after Eldest’s graduation.  The institution of Higher Ed has been hit twice.  The first was that great disturbance in the Force during the first half of the decade when millions of students and parents simultaneously uttered What the…?! on realizing the extent of student debt.  The second is simple math:  there just aren’t enough bodies to continue filling seats.

How Higher Ed is responding is drawn from the textbooks of any Marketing 101 class and it has appeared in this household.

First, a marketing professor will tell you that the key is to find a way to distinguish yourself from the competition.  In other words, develop a brand.  There are some standout institutions with a Brand – Harvard, Stanford, Penn and Yale.  But those are only four of literally thousands of colleges and universities nationwide and all of them need to fill seats.  What I’d noticed between Eldest and Youngest was in the amount of contact that colleges were having with the kids.  Eldest received her first mailer just before Thanksgiving of her freshman year in 2008 and over the ensuing two years, that volume increased almost exponentially until the attention span was exhausted, both for her and for us.  The mail simply began to stack up and we honestly stopped paying attention.  It was different for Youngest however.  He got a mailer from the same university his freshman year – ‘sup Washington University? – and then…nothing.  There was an occasional piece of mail but the absence of mail over the next two years was jarring.  I commented about this to him a year ago and he responded that there wasn’t much in the mailbox but his email account had been swamped with college solicitations since freshman year.  He was particularly irritated by the repetitive mails from several, who were akin to the insecure kids demanding approval.

There are two reasons for the shift.  The first is mundane in that it’s just cheaper.  Save money on the paper, the ink, the mailing costs that go into an effort with a minimal return.  The second is emblematic of big technology today and consequently more worrisome:  more institutions are data mining the youngsters.  Some of what’s occurring is simply a greater effort by the admissions staffs to understand their successful students, in terms of graduation rates and self-described satisfaction.  The consulting firm providing this service to Higher Education defends itself by saying that they are only gathering data obtained from students who respond to a link in an email they received or from personal information on the college sites that the students visited.  But in doing this, they open their browsers to be mined for information both on what other school sites were visited, how often, and the sites visited prior to and after that digital college “visit”.

So cost isn’t the big reason here.  In an effort to differentiate and gain competitive advantage, the colleges are taking a page from the corporate playbook.  Apart from the sheer issue of data mining, this approach puts parents at a disadvantage.  Most parents do not have a handle on their kids’ email account, let alone social media, and aren’t privy to what is being sent by colleges.  If your teen is entering her junior year and you’re only now gearing up for The Great College Search, gird your loins for some hard discussion because a half dozen colleges have pitched tents in her head and two are probably whispering sweet nothings in her ear.  But Daddy, they’re sooooo environmentally conscious…

They had damned well better be at $60000 annually.

The other lesson that comes from Marketing 101 is that when all else fails, you can differentiate yourself simply by cutting the price of your product.  It isn’t widespread yet but more institutions – all private – are cutting tuition.  They have found that they have neither the cachet nor the endowments of the brand universities and I suspect that they see the writing on the wall for the private colleges.  Their response is to ride the curve early:  who panics first, panics best.  At a college visit to Rosemont College in suburban Philadelphia, we had the opportunity to talk with it’s president, who joined us at our lunch table.  She was an alumnus who returned and had already led it’s transition from a Catholic liberal arts women’s college to a co-ed school when a marketing research survey found absolutely no interest among prospective students in a 90 mile radius of Philadelphia.  Despite some improvement, they still found demand wanting so she had led the effort to cut their tuition by almost a third the year before.  Since then, we’ve received other mailers from private colleges touting their tuition cuts.  One local college took out a full digital highway billboard promoting to every passing trucker that it was cutting tuition by a third.  They missed the irony that the lower tuition was still beyond the reach of the average trucker’s kid.

The demand curve affects state-supported public education as well.  Their situation is different from the private colleges in that they are charged in their state charters to provide an affordable higher education for the residents of their states.  They have been charged with holding the line on costs and have not succumbed to the Mongolian Grills and climbing walls that have hit the private colleges; that said, they have developed the athletic departments as economic ventures that leave the privates in the dust.  Their bind is that despite the charters, they have to provide an education with modern facilities and declining state funding.  How to manage?  The admissions departments have started to monkey with the fine print of the charters, aka what the big print giveth, the little print taketh away.  The charter requires that the in-state rates are lower for residents but it says nothing about how many residents have to compose the incoming class; the result is that state institutions are shifting the class composition to increase the tuition revenue.  The result?  A state’s poorest students are being squeezed out of their final options to obtain a degree.

Price competition isn’t as much of  an option for the state institutions since they’ve already kept their rates much lower than many of the private colleges and universities.  What other options are there short of begging the legislature for more?

Another marketing professor would recommend looking at the state’s system as an on-going concern and each individual university within that system as a separate product.  Let’s use Pennsylvania as an example.  The state university system is known as PASSHE (Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education) and is responsible for the overall administration of fourteen separate state universities; note that Penn State is not a member of PASSHE and is best thought of Schrodinger’s University since it’s a public university and yet, it’s not.  The professor would assign a grad assistant to look at the entire portfolio of universities and suggest that the least profitable and economical be consolidated; it’s what auto manufacturers have done through the years and has led to the demise of such estimable brands as Oldsmobile and Pontiac.  An Ag Science professor would simply refer to it as “culling the herd”.  That’s the theory and unfortunately, that’s precisely what the Pennsylvania legislature did in 2017 when it contracted with the RAND Corporation to “review and assess” the health and feasibility of PASSHE.  There were multiple options recommended but consolidation was one, at least the one, that grabbed everybody’s attention.

Can’t control the price?  Cull the herd.

That’s where we’re at now.  Both the Millennials and Higher Ed have reached their respective Wile E Coyote moments of going off of the cliff and the only difference between those moments is the distance that each has traveled since the plummet began.  Millennials took the plunge years ago and are much closer to bottoming than Higher Ed, which is giving that pie-eyed stare as it recognizes its predicament.  We’ll have to see where that’s at when their population bottoms in 2032.

The Millennials

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher Ed

The Re-boot

You should write a book.  

– PracticalDad’s  Better Half

It was a comment made years ago by my wife as the three kids were young and growing.  Eldest was then in middle school, Middle in the upper elementary grades and Youngest was only a preschooler.  I was then in the midst of managing a busy household and all that it entailed and the notion of being able to carve out hours each day to write seemed problematic.  But it was a good suggestion and a reasonable starting point appeared to be a website.  I could get into the swing of writing and the commitment tucked into the time constraints imposed by the household requirements of three kids and a working spouse.

And so in 2008, my alter-ego – PracticalDad – came into being.  Now please keep that year in mind.

Any relevant life-experience writing requires a thesis, an underlying premise that serves as a framework to tie together the wide variety of articles that could be written.  PracticalDad’s thesis was that fathers were capable of providing more for the than just the traditional paycheck; that despite the popular media, which often viewed fathers on the domestic scene as essentially idiots, men were capable of being highly competent and loving caregivers.  At the time, women faced glass-ceilings – and still do – but the incomes of women versus men were growing at a faster clip and the demographics showed that more women were by then entering college than men.  With this occurring, more time would be claimed and if family stability was to be maintained, then the father would have to pony up and shoulder a much greater load.  Most of the early PracticalDad articles were consequently based upon my own experiences as a stay-at-home father, from traveling with kids to what a father should understand about breast-feeding or communication.

But starting in late 2009 and into 2010, the thrust of the articles began to change as the effects of the 2008 financial crisis continued to ripple through the economy.  My response was to wonder this:  how does this affect my family and what I must do to help prepare them for the world?  The articles shifted from the prosaic family matters to questions of politics and economics and the tone became darker and in some instances, angrier.  It was an anger fueled by an early recognition that the adult world that my children would inhabit would be far more economically difficult than the world in which my generation – and the several preceding – lived.  This vein continued until early 2015 when the flow of articles slowed in response to the increasing demands of an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s, notably spliced with a strain of paranoid dementia.  Couple that with the onset of a new round of personal health issues in later 2016 and virtually all new writing ground to a halt.  PracticalDad, for all intents and purposes, slipped away.

The other situations were resolved, the parent dying in the late winter of 2017 amidst a series of my own surgeries to address issues.  The subsequent mental dust cleared with time and as I looked around, I considered the website.  It still existed and while there was almost nothing new written, I noted that the syndicated feed had continued to grow even in its dormancy.  The site platform was antiquated and creaky and the design, fresh in 2008, was tired and dated.  The technical questions were overwhelming to a non-technical guy like me.  How to move everything to a new platform and if the syndicated feed mattered, could that go along?  From a writing perspective, how did I start again after simply ceasing more than a year earlier?  Most importantly, was there even a thesis that would tie together to drive new writing?  The reality is that all of us are now a decade older and there are plenty of other information sources for young fathers.  The questions were significant enough that it was easier to just not consider it at all.

But serendipity exists and it was serendipitous that the original site designer and programmer contacted me to discuss shifting the site to a new platform so that he could close out the server on which the original site resided.  He kindly took the technical end in hand and in the past several months migrated the articles and feed to this new platform and set things up for me to move forward.  The kids, now older, have encouraged me to get back to it and it was Middle’s suggestion that if there are still people reading, then perhaps re-start by explaining the silence and moving on from there.

The final question still remained.  Was there a pertinent thesis that served to drive the writing moving forward?  I re-read everything that I’d written for the site as well as other notes and even draft chapters for an unsubmitted book proposal.  The final piece was to force myself to re-read the Journal that I kept during my mother’s three year sojourn through Alzheimer’s.  Were my – and my family’s – experiences, entirely novel or did they somehow fit into a larger narrative of what’s transpiring in our society?

The unfortunate answer is that there is a thesis and it is this:  the economic, social and political changes that have occurred since 2008 – there’s that year, again – are not cyclical but instead structural.  What we are witnessing is the real-time wrenching adaptation of a society that is reverting in fits and starts to a standard of living reminiscent not of our parents or even grandparents, but akin to at least three generations ago.  Along with the ongoing damage to the American Middle Class, we are watching several generations of growth in a national standard-of-living being washed away like so much dirt from a Mississippi River dike.  The pressure has built for decades but it was with the 2008 financial crisis and the policy responses that the erosion began in earnest.  It most certainly affects the American family and how child-rearing is managed, even whether or not children are born.  What will be different moving forward is a far-reaching shift in the family dynamic as the nuclear family concept is challenged by a return to the old multi-generational model with elders assisting, and being assisted by, their adult children.  The myriad changes that affect the family, and the potential responses to them, will be the thrust of writing as we move forward.

This is not an intellectual exercise for me.  It has been a periodic topic of conversation with the kids at one time or another over the past several years.  It is truly saddening to have these talks with the kids; to tell them that they are going to have fewer opportunities and choices than we and our parents did.  They will be far more constrained by greater financial demands of health care, higher education and retirement that have been shifted to the backs of individuals and families by corporations and the various levels of government.  What is heartening personally is that each of the three seems to get it and I see efforts by each to accommodate that new reality.

So let me take a moment and re-introduce the principal cast of characters from the 2008 version of PracticalDad.  First, there is my wife, BH; she is a physician with more professional certification letters after her name than I have in my entire given name (it’s true, I counted).  Then there are the kids.  At the website’s start, Eldest was just entering high school; she is now a college graduate and a married working mother.  Middle was in upper elementary school and he is now entering his senior year at a major urban university as a theatre major.  Finally, there is Youngest, who was in first grade at the outset.  He is now entering his junior year of high school, working part-time and deciding on higher education.  The family is now joined by in-laws Millie and Phil, who recently migrated north to be closer to their daughter and Hub, Eldest’s spouse.

I had two rules at the outset of this kitchen table project a decade ago.  The first is simple:  while I reference my family, I refuse to post anything that might be even remotely construed as embarrassing.  Multiple finished articles were ultimately deleted before posting because someone might have taken offense or been embarrassed.  The second is that there will be no daily posts because sometimes, there is just nothing worth saying and if you’re going to read, there should be something worth reading.

It’s nice to be back.  And thank you, John, for your kindness.  I hope that you can take something worthwhile from this for your own family.

 

 

 

 

Back to the Beginning…What is the point of raising a child?

Congratulations.  You now have – or are about to have – a child.  You are about to embark upon two decades of experiences that will frequently seem like a forest for the trees experience because of appointments, practices, events, homework, trips, activities and chores.  It will seem as though you’re sailing through weeks and months and you think that you’ll have these children forever…but you won’t.  The typical child born today will live approximately 80 years and you will have him for perhaps the first quarter of that period.  So maybe it’s appropriate to consider a simple question before you enter the undergrowth of parenthood.

What is the point of raising a child?

It seems like a stupid question on the face of it.  You take care of them and they go out when they’re adults.  I’m not a guy who overthinks things, but is it – should it be – really that simple?  It isn’t.  Given the complexity and costliness of modern American society, it’s important to have a sense of what you want to accomplish.  It’s eye-opening to hear young people say such things as…I wish someone had told me that I should dress a certain way for an eventI wish that someone had explained the terms of my student loans before I took them onI wish that someone had told me that I couldn’t get a decent job with a bachelor’s degree in Western Civ Studies.  You hear enough of these things and it occurs to you that providing a roof and food is insufficient.  Granted, those are critical but it doesn’t have to be a slate roof and haute cuisine, either.  What matters is two-fold: that your child have guidance and an ongoing dialogue about what’s happening both to – and with – her; and teaching her how to think and navigate her way through adult life.

Consider this.  The cost of raising a child born today is now more than $230,000 and that’s even before any higher education.  It’s an expensive proposition.  Now suppose that you were going to build a new house that cost $230,000 and would be taking out a mortgage with a twenty year term.  Anyone would give forethought to the process at the outset, about placement and design and materials.  This isn’t to say that just as countertops should be granite or the flooring a rich hickory hardwood, so your baby should be directed to play in the school band, join a particular activity or take a specific class.  However, it is to say that just as you have a concept of what you’re trying to achieve in a house, you should have a concept of what you’re trying to achieve in raising this child.

So, what is the point?  If you sit back and listen to people – one of my favorite hobbies – you’ll hear those who are parents say some amazing things.  They want their kids to have a particular occupation or attend a specific type of college.  They raise their children to have more than they had growing up, or live in a particular style house or neighborhood.  They only want their children to date others of their own race.  They want their children to grow up to be devout Christians.  Or Jews.  Or Muslims, for that matter.  But they forget one simple fact: this infant that just puked on your new suit is a completely unknown quantity and it’s impossible to predict who she will be and how she will wind up.  Certainly, there are genetic factors, parental traits and family influences, but you don’t yet know what they are and you can’t account for how the outside world will impact this baby.  You have no way of knowing that this bundle might someday:

Attempt to set a new land-speed record;

Go to the local Ren Faire while cross-dressed;

Spend idle time using his bedroom wall for knife-throwing practice;

Run a simple errand to Kmart and within an hour, flip an ATV;

Satisfy the entrepreneurial urge by selling outmoded electronic games for a sizeable markup on Ebay;

Win a science fair, graduate with honors and become bilingual;

Graduate from Cal Tech;

Win a national award for high school theatre (yes, there is such a thing);

Hit home runs and provide support for a female friend who has been accosted;

Become a successful oil trader that can buy and sell you thrice over.

Make any bet about such events at this age and you’ll lose.

So again, what’s the point?  My own take long ago was to keep it simple: I wanted to see my children able to walk out the door into the great wide world as productive adults.  They should be able to think for themselves and be able to provide for themselves.  My wife and I weren’t going to raise Republicans, Christians, heterosexuals or lawyers.  We would raise them to make their way in the world and if they wound up as gay Republican Christian lawyers, then that would be on them.  I’ll grant you that that would be a particularly tough combination, but it would be their combination.

Take some time to consider what you think is your own point and use that as a simple guide going forward.  Look for experiences and opportunities that help support that point and be prepared to talk – a lot – with them with that simple point in mind.  Then enjoy the adventure of seeing who they become.

And yes, the instances noted above have all occurred.  Welcome to the adventure.

A View From the Ridge, Part 9

As I’ve written before, raising a family is a “forest for the trees” experience.  Life moves frenetically in a whirl of appointments, practices, homework, projects and activities; it is such that you can run for lengthy periods without noting both where you are and how far you’ve come.  It’s as if you’re working through the trail’s underbrush and you don’t pause to survey the surroundings until you’ve reached a spot where the forest has thinned, such as a tree-line atop a ridge.  I’ve chronicled such personal moments back to 2008 and this past Labor Day was another such moment, where I found myself – and my Better Half – perched atop one of the highest ridges that we’ve encountered for many a mile.

Eldest married.

When I began writing this site, she was in middle school.  Only recently confirmed in our church and yet to drive, to date, to hold a job, to graduate, to leave for college and then, return.  And now, she is married.  If anything gives a man pause, it is giving his daughter’s hand in marriage at the altar.  Some might deride it as intensely old-fashioned and antiquated, but this signifies to any father not only the turning of a page but the end of an entire chapter.  After I took my seat, I watched this young woman and rolled through memories back to her infancy, back to the first one when she turned her head towards me in response to that sing-song name that I called out as she lay across the room in a maternity ward bassinet, the same name that I repeatedly sang to her while in utero.  It was the same as I watched my two sons, Middle – home from college and reading aloud a selected poem for the ceremony – and Youngest, only a freshly minted high school sophomore and yet towering above everyone else in the bridal party.  They grow and mature and we are left to wonder, when did this happen?

It was a high ridge upon which to perch.

When things wound down and we’d returned home, I took the opportunity to look back at the terrain that we had crossed during the previous year.  It was a vista of twisted trees and thick, thorn-riddled underbrush that tore at clothing and skin alike.  Managing a mother suffering from years of degenerative paranoid dementia, culminating in her early morning death only months ago after a series of moves through multiple care levels in different facilities.  Disagreeing with a facility that refused to honor her final wishes, duly codified in writing and signed by a physician, further confirmed by her in a moment of coherence.  Managing increased personal debility arising from a long-ago encounter with lymphoma, now sufficiently advanced to force a move to a new, less physically challenging house.  And culminating with a new medical episode that lasted for months.  How do you manage through all of this?  You jettison everything non-essential and spend your energies on the most immediate requirements of the circumstances.  You lean heavily upon family and friends; my blessing was a wonderful wife and stalwart friends, a helpful future son-in-law and a youngest son who shouldered the increased physical and emotional load with grace and maturity.  And writing?  It had already slowed as my mother degenerated and with the onset of the other issues, it stopped completely.  In the moment, what is there to say?

But the house is brought both figuratively and literally back into order and you regain breathing room.  I now realize that there’s still much more to say about family and how what’s occurring in today’s world impacts our roles as parents.  More comments about educating the kids and setting them on the path to responsible adulthood; about kids and both politics and money; and how we as parents have to adapt our communications with our nascent-adult children.  Most importantly, there is much to be said about the other end of the age spectrum as we begin to look out for our own parents, who are now going to face new challenges for which many are ill-prepared.  This is perhaps the greatest stress for middle-aged parents, bearing responsibility for the generations that both succeed and precede them.  It isn’t easy and the challenges will only grow in a time when the family resources are further stretched.

There will certainly be other aspects of parenthood and family to be addressed, because the kids grow and change.  As do the questions and challenges.

PracticalDad Price Index – September 2016:  The Potemkin Village Shelves

Another month of pricing for the PracticalDad Price Index is finished and the results for September, 2016 are calculated.  The Total Index, comprising the full 47 item market-basket, declined in September to 98.28 from August’s 100.19, a full 1.91 basis points (November 2010 = 100).  The 37 item Food-only Sub-Index, comprising the 37 foodstuff items within the basket, dropped even more significantly from August; the September Sub-Index was 97.26, down 2.48 basis points from August’s index of 99.74 (November 2010 = 100).  This is one of the largest swings in either direction in the almost six year history of the PracticalDad Price Index.

Here’s a little perspective.  I began the Index in November 2010, in the midst of the Fed’s QE2 Program and both Index and Sub-Index climbed until they peaked in January 2015 (111.32) and December 2014 (115.13) respectively.  This was shortly after QE3 ended in late October 2014.  It took more than four years to induce these apogees but without the stimulus provided by the Fed’s programs however, deflation has ground away and the both Indices have literally collapsed.  The cost of the full market-basket was actually less in June 2016 than at the outset of the project and the food-stuffs segment likewise reached that point in July 2016, a month later.

One of the things that I’ve noticed while pricing for the past several months has been the quantity of items on the shelves and by extension, the condition of the grocery supply chain.  This is in terms both of the seeming appearance of more widely spaced shelves and also the periodic disappearance of items from the shelves completely.  It’s not like the photos of desolate shelves pre-hurricane or even the absolute disappearance of product a la 2016 Venezuela, but it’s little things.  A particular item will be gone for a month or two – not just unstocked but with even the shelf label gone – only to reappear later; in multiple instances, the item has not only returned but been supplemented by an even lower-cost alternative, what economists refer to as an inferior good.  When this has shown to be consistent in the subsequent months, I have have made note and replaced the store-brand with the inferior item in the index pricing.  Also noticed has been wider shelf spacing between products in particular grocery departments (health and beauty, cereal, hot dog cases).  If you’re willing to make the effort, check occasionally for empty space behind the front two rows of products, which might have been moved forward to the very front of the shelf to make it appear more well-stocked.  This Potemkin-Village effect is a wonderful metaphor for what’s become of the American economy as the media touts the stock market but the large majority of Americans grow poorer.  But it was a recent article about the effects of deflation upon the grocery supply chain at zerohedge that confirmed what I’ve noticed.  As prices have collapsed, the entities at the various levels throughout the supply chain are scrambling to adjust and companies are either surviving or dying and it’s the indications of this that are being exhibited subtly in the grocery aisles.

A View From The Ridge, Part 8

There have been moments in the life of this project when I’ve encountered what I now call a view from the ridge.  These are instances in which you get a sense that you’ve emerged from the thickets of daily family life – appointments, events, stuff – and find yourself at a juncture where you can suddenly assess where you’re at and where you’re going.  This late August morning is such a time.  When the first View note – linked above – was written seven years ago, Eldest was entering high school, Middle was entering his last year of elementary school and Youngest was finishing first grade and discovering a love for baseball.

This morning’s instance was the awakening to the fact that Eldest is now officially out of the household.  I awoke early and padded down the hallway, entering a closed door to a room that was now empty except for a single bed.  All of the remaining furniture and clothing was gone, packed up and moved out several days previously.  Such a process is slowly occurring in Middle’s room, now in college; it’s become clear that this past summer was his last at home as his own studies and professional development will require that he pursue opportunities in major urban areas.  All of the furniture is still there, but that which gives it personality – that which makes you understand that it’s Middle’s room – is partially gone to his new college digs.  Youngest’s room is still clustered there with his siblings’ rooms but he is now entering high school himself and gearing up for a Fall/Winter run at making the school baseball team, a far cry from the T-ball year when I started writing. 

In the other direction, the elder generation is finally settled after a lengthy period in which I sometimes wondered whether the sandwich in the term sandwich generation was actually a panini, hard pressed.  There are still rough patches ahead as age and disease process continue, but a look backwards is revealing for the thicketed woods through which we’ve come. What hasn’t changed through this is the presence of my Better Half, a person about whom I’ve largely been silent in the writings.  BH is my companion and love, a person with gifts at which I still marvel and without whom the thickets would be far more difficult.  And perhaps that’s the one of the biggest surprises as I sit here mulling what to write…that as the kids grow and move out into the world, you again find the time and energy to rediscover that one person with whom you began to travel the road.  Make the effort to step back from the day-to-day occasionally to apprise where you are and take stock of what you’ve come through, where you’re going and most importantly, who you’re with.

PracticalDad Price Index – August 2016

PracticalDad note:  The process of writing in the past year has slowed appreciably and has actually come to a stop within the past three months.  There are certainly still things to be written because the situations, observations and conversations with the kids have continued nonetheless, but the process of being sandwiched has risen to impressive levels.  But it is beginning to resolve and my hope is that life will right itself enough that I can get back to this.  That said, I at least managed to get the pricing for the Price Index done.

The prices for the August 2016 edition of the PracticalDad Price Index have been noted and the results calculated and they are, as they were in July, continuing to bounce around at the levels they were when the Index began in November 2010.  The full marketbasket of 47 items actually rose over half a point in August to 100.19 from July’s result of 99.51 (November 2010 = 100) while the 37 item foodstuff only Sub-Index rose almost three quarters of a basis point to 99.74 from July’s result of 99.01 (again, November 2010 = 100).  Certainly there are items that are more expensive than they were at the outset of the project almost six years ago, but enough items have been offset enough in prices to actually bring the average cost of the marketbasket back to a point at which it stood back in November of 2010.

What is notable about this month? 

  • There is yet another product that is being dropped from the shelves by grocers because it apparently doesn’t generate enough revenue to justify its continuance on the shelves.  This store-brand item is still available at a single grocer but even that item was noted to have undergone stealth inflation as the container size dropped from 12.8 ounces to 12 ounces.
  • There continue to be instances in which the shelving is empty at different parts of the store.  There were several instances this month in which the sampled items were absent from the shelves and it was only by locating the shelf label that I could verify whether or not it continued to be even offered.
  • There is yet another instance of stealth deflation as one of the grocers returned it’s packaging to the original size.  The cost is higher than it was with the smaller packaging, but on a per-ounce, price-adjusted basis, it is less expensive.
  • PracticalDad Price Index – July 2016:  Confirming Deflation

    It used to be that you could get a candy bar for a nickel.  Then a year later, you could get three candy bars for a dime.  A year after that, nobody had a dime.

             – explanatory comment about deflation by ‘Dryfly’ to the writer in the comment thread of Calculated Risk, circa 2008

    The prices for the PracticalDad Price Index grocery basket have been collected from the three separate and unrelated grocers and the results continue to confirm deflation and the failure of the Quantitative Easing programs to spark moderated inflation.  The Total Index of the 47 item basket dropped again, this time to 99.51 from June’s 99.90 (November 2010 = 100); the 37 Food-Only Sub-index (the 37 foodstuff items such as dairy, meats, etc) likewise dropped from June’s 100.24 to this month’s level of 99.01 (again, November 2010 = 100).  The upshot?  Although the aggregate cost of the full basket was actually less than at the project’s outset in November, 2010, the aggregate cost of the 37 foodstuff items within the basket was still slightly higher.  As of this month’s result however, that Sub-index is now likewise lower than at the project’s outset in November, 2010.  So yes, hamburger will still cost more than almost six years ago, but there have been enough changes in other items to offset that and lower the aggregate cost.

    You’d say that prices have actually decreased, which is seemingly a good thing.  It’s supposedly what we want, with prices stable or even a little lower so that we can get more for our dollar.  But it really isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be and the opening comment from Dryfly – the nom de blog of an exceptionally astute individual – illustrates why.  Prices for items can go up and down for different reasons, but the largest reason for the prices of everyday items to rise and fall is the aggregate amount of money coursing through the economy.  When there is sufficient money flowing through, normally through family income, people are willing to spend and the price of a particular item is usually the point at which buyers and sellers agree that a sale should occur.  It used to be that you could get a candy bar for a nickel.  But if the underlying money supply begins to diminish, buyers become more cautious about how they spend their money and sellers have to work harder to persuade buyers to spend their money.  Then a year later, you could get three candy bars for a dime.  In a truly deflationary economy however, the money supply held by the public is so low that people simply have no money or refuse to spend what little they have and the sellers simply go out of business.  A year after that, nobody had a dime.  The unspoken phrase in this brief sentence is that there was nobody around to sell a candy bar, either.  This was the Great Depression of 1929 in a nutshell and it’s not for nothing that Ben Bernanke was selected to replace Alan Greenspan as chair of the Federal Reserve since Bernanke’s theses had been about the then-Fed’s errors in responding to the Depression.  People lost their money and businesses lost control of prices as they engaged in bare-knuckle behavior in order to stay in business and more often than not, they went bankrupt.

    So this new monthly Index level isn’t as good of a thing as the Fed would like to see.  It continues to illustrate the effect of the family’s loss of income; for the average family, not only is their income less, but they are now forced to contend with competing demands for their income as other costs are off-loaded by corporations and the government onto their narrow shoulders.  It also says something that despite the efforts of a central bank to inject trillions of dollars into the economy, so little has been accomplished for the family while so much has been accomplished for the uber-wealthy, the .01%.  The grocers are taking multiple approaches to both maintain sales and keep things affordable for the consumer:

  • They are keeping meat prices within reach by starting to contract with high volume meatpackers who sell their products in chubs.
  • They are now including what economists refer to as inferior goods, i.e. items that are cheaper substitutes that wouldn’t be purchased when incomes were more flush.  When I began this project, the most affordable alternative on the store shelf was the generic store brand and the inferior good alternatives were available only at discount grocery stores where the majority of the population doesn’t shop.  But the grocers are now starting to introduce these labels into their own stores so that the store-brand products become the mid-line alternatives.
  • They have always paid attention to the profitability of items on their shelves but now instead of dropping individual brands, they are dropping entire products from any producer so that the consumer no longer has that option within that store.  The logistics of the survey are that I visit the same three stores each month and price the 47 marketbasket items within each for a total of 141 items cumulatively.  Already, I have to account for the fact that two of the three stores no longer even stock one of the original items and that particular item is now dependent solely upon the remaining store for inclusion; if that store were to drop the item, I would end the survey.  This month, two separate grocers each discontinued carrying a single item and that leaves me with two more of the 141 now missing.  I have given thought to discontinuing the project if it reaches a point that so many of the original items are missing that the validity is threatened but it’s not enough of a factor yet that it’s in the cards.  Of course, if it does reach that point that too many of these common grocery items are missing from the store shelves, then it’s moot because we’re going to have far bigger fish to fry instead.
  • The grocers are decreasing their overall inventory and placing less on the shelves.  I’d noticed in the past year that shelf spacing was becoming erratic and in the past several months have purposefully paid attention to the appearance of the shelves.  What I’ve seen is that the grocers do seem to be increasing the empty space between products although I haven’t gone in with a ruler to measure them.  In the case of one grocer, there’s an appreciable difference in the shelf area for non-food personal care items such as shampoos and in another, in the cereal aisle.
  • The grocers have periodically changed their package sizing to meet the situation.  When the QE programs were in effect and commodity prices were rising, products underwent stealth inflation as prices remained the same yet the package sizing decreased so that the net effect was an increase in price for that item had the sizing remained the same.  What I’ve begun to see is the reverse, stealth deflation, as the package sizing is actually increasing with either no change in price or only a moderate increase that reflects an actual price drop in the item.  This has happened several times with store-brand coffee and most recently with the Suave Shampoo brand, which replaced the 22.5 ounce container with a 30 ounce bottle.  In the case of the shampoo, the price changes have not been high enough and when the pricing is recalculated to the original size bottle, the effect is a per ounce price cut.
  • The grocers are also finding ways to mass their purchasing power and force concessions from the producers.  The one grocer is owned by an international firm and I can see how they’re exerting their buying power on the producers as they’re simply cutting prices on more and more items.  There is also the likelihood that they’re driving things down purposefully in order to overwhelm and outlast their smaller competitors; yet the reality is that the prices on similar items are being cut in the other grocers as well.
  • The takeaway is this.  These changes aren’t occurring because the grocers and producers are being kind to stretched consumers.  They’re happening because the grocers have to find a way to maintain sales in a population in which the money increasingly just isn’t there.  And that is deflation.

    And now for the past six months of results.  Note:  There was an error in last month’s table for the June results and I have corrected this in this table.  The correct figures were reported in last month’s text but the numbers were listed incorrectly in the table.  This did not, however, alter the fact that the Total Index for June 2016 did breach the original index floor of 100 for that month.

     

    PracticalDad Price Index – July 2016
    Month Total Index Food-Only Index Spread
    7/16 99.51 99.01 (.5)
    6/16 99.90 100.24 .34
    5/16 100.66 101.60 .94
    4/16 101.64 101.40 (.24)
    3/16 102.86 102.85 (.01)
    2/16 103.86 104.27 .41

    Inventory Management on the Other End

    It shouldn’t be this way, but a fair part of being a parent is inventory management as you try to work through all of the stuff that comes into the home.  You are fortunate if you have links to other families with growing kids and are able to save money by sharing hand-me-down clothing.  It’s a great thing but the down side is that you can’t control when it arrives and so you suddenly find yourself working through one or more bags to ascertain what might work.  This process also involves corralling a resistant child who would rather have a tooth extracted than try on clothing.  Dad, it fits, it fits already! kvetches the youngster as he edges towards the door in the hope of escape.  But the process slows as the kids grow and reach their expected height and sense of style and the push to manage the inventory diminishes.  There does come a time in middle age however, when the necessity to manage the inventory again grows and you find yourself handling boxes, bags and paperwork except that this time it’s on the other end of the age spectrum.

    So precisely what do I mean by the other end?  If you have kids when you’re younger, the other end will be the kids as they come and go to college and you suddenly find the living room or garage again full of boxes and bags brought home from school for the summer as they have to vacate dorm rooms and campus apartments.  You turn around and Wham!, you’ve got a raft of debris filling the family space.  If you’ve had kids when you’re older, then the other end will consist not only of the kids returning but also the elders who are liable to be looking to lighten their own load.  About two years ago, my mother-in-law – actually a wonderful woman – showed up to visit and handed me a box of old tupperware containers with the comment This makes me happy, so just say thank you.  The saving grace in this little episode is that it was a ripple on the shore compared to the tsunami that arrived years ago when two elderly relatives on both sides of our family entered retirement facilities in the same summer, an event from which my garage has never fully recovered and has led to the requisite rental of a storage unit.  That summer’s nadir was the arrival of a one-horse plow fished at the last minute from the suburban backyard shed of an elderly grandmother, who had kept it out of a sentimental attachment to her North Carolinian farmer-father.  That it wound up at our house was a testament to the amount of items and the rapidity with which they had to be disposed.  My wife’s thought was just bring it north and we’ll figure out what to do with it.

    Why go to the effort of trying to sort and manage it instead of just tossing it into a dumpster?  First, there is actually an emotional component to some of the items.  I began writing this article in my spare time three nights ago and last night, Eldest – now a college graduate – inquired about a half-completed quilt begun for her many years ago by her now-deceased great-grandmother.  It is presently wrapped and stored in our basement and I suspect that she’ll pull it and complete it herself.  But the other reality is that there are also heirloom and economic issues as well.  Our own children will become adults and anything that we can do to help get them established – and providing them with quality furniture checks off that box – is worth the effort.  They might not appreciate an heirloom solid cherry desk or bedroom suite now, but I expect that they will when they’re older and don’t have to fork over money for knock-off imported crap.  It’s not for nothing that we took in a 75 year old single owner Baldwin baby grand piano from a deceased family friend; Middle already loves the instrument and we’ve all agreed, even his siblings, that it will someday go to him when he is capable of taking it.  What that means for us is that we’ve had to rent a storage unit and take care of what and how we place furniture there in order to maintain it and prevent its ruin.  It also means an on-going review and debate of what we can and need to keep as we move forward. 

    What are some of my criteria?

  • First, is there a story or something truly personal about it?  A hand-made wool Navaho blanket given as a wedding gift to my parents more than six decades ago…stays.  A half-completed quilt for a great-grandchild…stays.  A stack of blankets/towels/linens from Target…gone.
  • Is the item one that will actually have a perceptible use or value to myself or one of the kids within the next X number of years?  Toolbox full of old shipbuilding tools?  Gone.  Excellent condition baby grand piano?  Stays.
  • Is it better shared elsewhere if there’s historical or collectible value yet space is an issue?  Maybe that vintage Wehrmacht microscope with Zeiss optics and signed factory inspection papers is better served at a museum than in my attic (actually happened here).
  • In the alternative, can I better use the money from selling or donating it?
  • Can I properly store the item without causing it damage and would proper storage be cost-prohibitive?
  • Does my better half likewise agree with the decision?  If not, then it’s probably best to just suck it up and manage until the situation resolves itself either via change of circumstance or mind.
  • If you sit back and consider them, you’re likely to find that there are other decision criteria than what’s just listed above.  But the important thing is to understand that the time is likely to come when you’re going to be involved in helping to manage the inventory of elderly friends and relatives.  When it does, determine your criteria and then hew to it as closely as possible.

    Just what did happen to the horse-drawn hand plow?  After a few weeks sitting in the garage as we worked through the other items, my wife suggested that I contact a local state historical museum that specialized in early American agriculture and I did so, leaving multiple messages over several weeks with the director and receiving no response.  Several weeks after the last phone call, the plow went to the curb to the curiosity of neighbors and garbagemen.  Two weeks after that, the museum director called me back.

    But at least the plow was out of my garage.

    When Does Fatherhood End?

    So here is a question for you.  When does fatherhood end?

    It isn’t rhetorical, but one that you’ll have to wrestle with frequently as the kids grow.  Stages of growth change as one passes into another and each with its own set of challenges