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

    PracticalDad Price Index – June 2016:  We Just Broke the Buck

    The PracticalDad Price Index for June 2016 is completed and calculated and the results are simple.  The Total Index of a market basket consisting of 47 grocery store items again lost ground from the previous month and broke the buck, actually declining to a level below its initial start point in November 2010.  The June 2016 Total Index declined to 99.90 (November 2010 = 100) from May’s near-zero reading of 100.66.  The Food-Only Sub-index of 37 foodstuff items within the same marketbasket likewise lost ground from May’s level of 101.60 to this June’s reading of 100.24 (November 2010 = 100).

    What precisely does that mean?  Simple:  It now officially costs less to buy the market basket of 47 grocery items than it did at the beginning of the survey in November 2010.  So much for Quantitative Easing.

    What does it mean to break the buck?  The term comes from the money market group of mutual funds and refers to the scenario that all money market managers try desperately to avoid – when the Net Asset Value of their fund’s actual investments decreases below the $1 per share floor.  Understand that money market funds are considered to be the safest investments around since they invest their proceeds in extremely short term debt instruments, which are of such short duration that they are considered ultra-safe.  But while safe, money market funds aren’t insured by the FDIC so the managers work assiduously to ensure that their share Net Asset Values don’t break the buck and breach the $1 floor, an event with signficant psychological impact upon the fund-holders.  The last time that a fund did so was in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis and the government actually created a fund to insure and stabilize that market.  As I sat and reviewed the results, it seemed to be an appropriate term that’s applicable to situation.  The Fed’s intent with the multiple Quantitative Easing Programs was to invoke inflationary pressures and so long as they could inject liquidity into the system, it managed to create a modicum of steam to drive inflation.  But the ending of QE 3 in late October of 2014 doused the boilers and brought a deflationary return that commenced within only two months and has continued almost continuously since then.  What it took the Fed to accomplish in 49 months – with some help from real supply/demand issues in beef and dairy – has been simply reversed back to, and beyond, the original point in only 18 months.  The Fed must indeed feel like that 2008 Fund manager as they too, break the buck to a point where they don’t wish to be.

    And now for the past six months of results.

     

    Month Total Index Food-Only Index Spread
    6/16 99.82 100.07 .25
    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
    1/16 104.54 105.25 .71

    PracticalDad Price Index – May 2016:  Start Watching the Shelves

    Deflation reigns.

    The May installment of the PracticalDad Price Index is now ready, prices for the 47 item marketbasket gathered at three unrelated grocers, averaged and calculated.  The result?  Deflation continues as the Total Index dropped from April’s level of 101.64 to a current level in May 2016 of 100.66 (November 2010 = 100), a decrease of almost a full basis point.  When I remove the ten non-food items, the remaining 37 item Food-Only Index did increase marginally from April’s 101.40 to May’s 101.60 (November 2010 = 100).  This month’s Total Index drop was fueled by one grocer’s decision to drop the cost of a package of Enfamil formula and another’s decision to significantly drop the price of both adult and children’s store-brand ibuprofen.  Magnify these types of decisions by the untold number of prices that are on the shelves of grocers across the United States and you have a sense of what’s occurring.

    There is another significant difference this month and that pertains to what I’ve noticed as to the inventory levels maintained by the grocers.  There have been occasional blurbs noted online – and I can’t verify where I’ve read them – about what might be going on with the inventory levels at retailers as people might have noticed that clothing racks suddenly appear to be more widely spaced apart than they might have been in a previous visit several months before.  Because the PracticalDad Price Index is a monitor of grocery prices instead of inventory levels, I haven’t paid explicit attention to what’s happening with the product inventory.  It’s something that I’ve begun to notice within the past years in a huh… fashion as shelves might appear to have fewer of the item in stock than previously or even missing it completely, leaving me to work with the shelving label.  But I was taken aback this month to see entire gaps in the frozen food section of one grocer as multiple products were missing in entirety from the case – and the shelves were still labelled for those products.  This observation raised a mental concern and that concern was confirmed when I visited another grocer to find a perceptible difference in the quantity of products on the shelves of the health/beauty aisle.  In this particular store, there was the typical variety of health/beauty products for sale but in far less quantity than I ever recalled seeing previously; there would be handful of an item but it would be set back against the back of the shelf and the front part of the shelf would be completely empty.  Magnify this across an entire spectrum of products in the health/beauty section and it appeared utterly barren.  When I continued through that particular store, I began to note other areas in which the product line appeared to be well-stocked but only because the amount on the shelves had been moved forward but there was very little behind it.  In other words, there was no product in depth on the shelving as I’d seen in previous months or years.

    So what is the upshot?  As family incomes continue to decline and the middle-class American is stretched, this economic emaciation is beginning to move through the greater economy as grocers now appear to be far more actively culling their inventory levels to maintain their margins and profitability.  I’ve already noted that a grocer might opt to no longer carry a product because it simply isn’t profitable – two of the three grocers no longer carry cases of size 3 store-brand diapers, for example – but this is now moving beyond the individual product choice to a broader spectrum.  So when you next walk through the aisles, looking at the shelves and have a huh… moment, there’s a decent chance that it isn’t just you.

    A View From The Ridge, Part 7

    I’ve said before that being an engaged father is akin to hiking a heavily forested area.  The life with kids and their activities is a forest for the trees experience as the rush from one place to the next fills your vision and planner and you don’t always have the opportunity to take a moment to reflect.  But then your wooded trail comes to a ridgeline and you can suddenly see for miles, backwards to where you’ve been as well as forward to what lies ahead and you sit for a moment and take it all in.  Such was the case this weekend as Eldest – who was in middle school when I first thought of this site – graduated from college.

    The benefit of arriving early to grab seats for elderly relatives was that I could look in different directions from the ridgeline.  When I looked in one direction, considering the event in terms of this website, Eldest had progressed from middle-schooler to college graduate.  Middle, the elementary school kid at the site’s inception, had arrived the previous day with his grandparents, who picked him up at a nearby train station where he’d caught a morning train from the city where he himself is now in college.  Youngest, at the outset just entering kindergarten, was now himself in middle school and en route to becoming a truly stalwart adult of honestly surprising capabilities of observation and common sense.  When the doors finally opened and I found seats that worked, my Better Half ushered in her parents and the sons followed with Boyfriend, who had come along unannounced to surprise Eldest.

    In another direction from the ridge was to see things in terms of the college experience and while one was now graduating college, the youngest was still a good two years away from beginning the pathway to higher education; it will probably be a college degree given his growing skill set and inclination, but the reality is that the cost of a degree is such that it can no longer be the de facto choice, the road taken simply because it’s what everybody is expected to do when high school is finished.  My wife and I have now lived through two rounds of college solicitations – and folks, it’s fascinating to see how different the college mailings are from one kid to the next – and prospect visits, completion of the dreaded FAFSA and the excitement of the acceptances and first moves away from home.  What also crossed my mind was that the funding of college was now a family affair.  This was, for Eldest, a communal family effort as her debt-free degree was in due to multiple parts: a decent scholarship that made the difference between this particular university and a local state university; four years of hard work through summer jobs to help pay for her annual contribution to the cause; years of savings and then input into the pot by us; and a lovely piece of generosity from another elderly relative.

    In another direction was the view of my own age and mortality.  It’s now more than two decades since Eldest’s birth and as she has aged, so have I.  Some years ago, a now-deceased elderly friend commented to me that in his head, he was the same guy who once served as a Marine and a firefighter and I have come to appreciate his statement.  All three of the kids have grown up knowing that their father has a physical debility and each has adapted to it through the years.  But it’s fallen most upon Youngest to help pick up the slack caused by the issue and his siblings’ college absence.  It’s a most curious coincidence that he is now the largest and strongest of any of us within the household, most capable of picking up and covering for said slack and I go to lengths to avoid abusing him because of it.  I have to admit that there was conflict between personal pride and common sense during the wait, as I considered a lengthy drive behind the wheel of a 16′ box truck with no cruise control and it was only after acknowledging to myself that I’m no longer a thirty-something young father, that I agreed to let someone else handle that aspect of the move.  I plan to be around for Youngest’s event in less than a decade but there’s a point at which you realize that it’s time to adjust the speed downwards and go for distance instead of speed.

    But doors open, crowds enter and the view fades and you are once again in the forest amidst the trees, waiting for that next moment when you reach the ridge.  Maybe I should make it a point to try for the ridgeline more often.

    Post-Consumer Parenting

    We have many jobs and roles as parents, too many to note.  But all of these things happen to only one purpose – to raise the kids to make their way in the adult world; successfully, we hope.  Much of their success will be dependent upon their own efforts but it’s the simple truth that their efforts will be built upon the foundation that we give them.  If it’s crucial that we teach them about the great, wide world then we have to understand that the world in which we were ourselves raised has changed and that particularly goes to our economic system.  We must now purposefully buck the long-prevailing consumer-model – in which the lion’s share of American economic activity is predicated upon the typical American’s willingness to spend – as that is functionally dead.  We have to now raise our kids to both survive and live within a post-consumer system.

    Post-consumer is a term typically tied to ecology and sustainability.  We see the term posted on the park benches made from recycled plastic products and on cereal boxes touting that they’ve been made from 30% recycled paper and cardboard materials.  It has come about because of the earth-friendly ecology movement that launched in the latter part of the twentieth century and the whole movement has a new-age, California, touchy-feely vibe to it.  Yet post-consumer also has a much more hard-nosed aspect to it that is intimately tied to what we’re seeing in both America and the world around us.  Remember that the words ecology and economics are at their heart related to the same thing, albeit from different angles.  Each is based upon the prefix eco-, derived ultimately from the greek oikos-, meaning household or habitat.

    Ecology literally translates as the study (-ology) of our household or habitat but became synonymous with the environment in the wake of a series of widely covered environmental disasters such as the infamous incident in which an Ohio river, the Cuyahoga, caught fire in the late 1960s.  It was inconceivable to even the most common person that water could be so utterly polluted and fouled that it lost the most basic property of being able to extinguish burning debris floating upon it.  Coupled with a multitude of images of dead and befouled wildlife and adopted as a cause by the then-young and hip Boomer generation and it took on today’s evocation.  Economy is a word likewise coupled with the root of household and habitat but from a different aspect, that of how it is numbered (-nomics).  Step back from the hard-math financial aspects promoted by many economists, economics is at its heart a matter of how our resources are not only numbered but allocated and – boy howdy! – are we looking at the America of today.  Wealth gap, anyone?

    Ours is at least the third generation to be raised under the consumer-driven model of the economy.  This model conceives of the average American – the consumer – as a driver for economic growth and was first proposed by macro-economists in the early twentieth century but didn’t become an economic reality until it was pushed in the years immediately following the Second World War.  The principal economic driver beforehand had been Business and Capital Investment but its collapse in the Great Depression meant that American political and economic leaders began to look elsewhere for a driver to supplement that if not outright replace it.  What made the consumer-model possible was more than just the growth of personal income via well-paying jobs; it was also that many costs previously borne by the individual were now partially borne by other sectors of the economy.  Insurance for health-care costs was becoming a standard benefit for corporations that hired many Americans.  Educational costs for the youngsters was subsidized by the state first via the GI Bill of 1944 and then subsequently through public funding of state supported colleges and universities.  Old age was no longer feared economically as there were corporate and public-sector pensions and the government now guaranteed a base minimum via Social Security.  There was now not only income, but disposable income that allowed for the things – the niceties – that were previously unaffordable to previous generations.  The wants that we’ve now been ably taught to accept as needs.

    The truth is that the consumer-driven model is now functionally dead, an economic zombie shambling along and awaiting the merciful head shot that drops it, allowing it to be kicked into the gutter and out of the way.  The very factors that made it possible are either falling away as we watch or gone completely.  We’ve now seen almost an entire decade of falling family incomes and the wealth gap is increasing to levels unseen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.  Health insurance?  Increasingly unaffordable and shifted back to the family and individual.  Educational costs?  Disproportionately expensive and with public funding cut back, costs borne more and more by the family and youth.  Retirement?  Likewise shifted back to the individual with an increasing reliance upon self-funding via the IRA/401k.  The you can have it all mantra with which we were incubated in the consumer-model system is now replaced by a painful and simple reality.  You can’t.

    This sea-change is the truth with which we have to contend and which we will have to teach our children.  It is not, however, a truth that the economic and political establishment wishes to acknowledge.  Establishment mouthpieces such as the Wall Street Journal print missives to the American public telling them that they aren’t doing their part as consumers.  Economists at the Federal Reserve publish studies about Americans not spending and slant their phrasing phrasing negatively when they state that Americans are hoarding money.  When former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to a group of high school educators, his choice of terminology was telling.  When he referenced teens, he referred to them as students and young people; when he referenced adults however, he predominantly used the term consumer with the implication that our job is to raise our young people to be consumers.  In the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush even spoke to the American people and urged that they shouldn’t let the terrorists win but should instead go back out and shop.  Seriously…shop?  So obviously, spending money matters.  Questioning the consumer model is a threat to the corporate profits that are directed to a smaller and smaller cadre of executives and investors that make up the high tier of the wealthy class.  Questioning this model is a threat to the profitable tenure and security of our elected and government officials, many of whom will exit government to cushy sinecures in the private sector.  Acknowledging this will require the public will for change that is a threat to the cancerous symbiosis between the corporate and political sectors that is, at its heart, fascism.

    The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as presidential contenders is a clear sign of the public pushback.  There are commonalities at the core of each movement that ultimately lead back to renewed opportunity for the individual and most importantly, sustainable, living-wage jobs.  There are massive differences in how each candidate would hope to achieve these ends but when you cut through them, the heart of each pertains ultimately to trade, jobs and income.

    This consumer-driven economic model that we’ve followed has been around for longer than the lifespan of most Americans and like anything, it will change and be replaced by something else.  That is at the heart of our present upset because nobody knows with what it should be replaced and such a real-life process is neither as sterile nor academic as it would seem when written on a page.  What the Establishment seems to want is a perpetuation of the model even though they understand that it continues the hemorrhage of the American Middle-Class until the. masses of our countrymen are reduced to a servitude of dead-end jobs and interest payments.  It’s what they know and as the saying goes, if you give a monkey a hammer, then that’s what it’s going to use.  However, that doesn’t square with the great mass of Americans who understand that something is badly amiss yet can’t precisely enunciate what it is.

    So here are the takeaways.

    First, the Consumer-Model economic driver of the past six-plus decades is officially dead.  It has been killed by a combination of falling incomes on one side and competing demands for that same income on the other side.

    Second, the Corporate/Political Establishment has a vested interest in perpetuating this dead model.  The Corporate because it allows money to be extracted from someone else – the Consumer – and redirected to them.  The Political because of unchecked campaign finance practices and a post-political career revolving door into the lucrative corporate sector.

    Third, we cannot assume that whatever replaces the consumer model is already pre-ordained.  What we are witnessing with the utterly unexpected rise of Trump and Sanders are early salvos in a contest between this Establishment and the diverse citizenry.  If the Gilded Age is any example, it will be a contest that will last for decades.  That means that we have to remove our noses from Facebook pages and begin to think in the longer term.

    Fourth, parents must begin to purposefully raise their children so that they aren’t herded into a dead economic system that views them solely as prey.  We must be overt and direct in our conversations with them and we must likewise model an economic behavior of controlled consumption that is, for many of us, uncomfortably new.

    We must become the first generation of Post-Consumer Parents.