Father (for) Christmas

We spend much of our lives in a forest for the trees environment, pressed by details that keep us from seeing the big picture.  Many men see themselves as the junior member in the parenting partnership, noting how the mothers seem so much more at ease with the kids and consequently step back from the daily merry-go-round that is part and parcel of raising children.  The thought is that I’m really not that important here and they need their mother more than me…

It is a real thought process for more than a few fathers.  But fathers do make a huge difference in the kids’ lives and their presence is missed when they’re not there or involved.  This was borne out by an English survey of 2000 parents, who were asked what their children asked for; the results were compiled into a roster of the fifty most requested Christmas gifts.  While I’m not certain of the full list, what was relevant here was that "a father" was the tenth most requested Christmas gift.  It’s not #1 on the list, but it’s certainly not at the bottom either and it’s a testament to what men bring to the table as parents. 

So when you start to wonder how much you really matter or whether you’re just as important as mom – and no, I don’t plan to choose one over another – consider the Christmas list.  And have a wonderful season.


Sending Off the Kids

The news from Danbury, Connecticut strikes home with a visceral fear as the reality is that this madness isn’t relegated to a third world nation or ghetto free-fire zone.  This happened in a small town with a school that probably looks very similar to most other elementary schools across the country.  When Youngest came home, I met him on the front porch and gave him a hug and when he goes to school in the morning, I’ll see him off from the front porch again.  While it’s statistically highly unlikely that anything is going to happen and I’ll see him again in the afternoon, the randomness and severity of the violence gives me a lingering sense that this is akin to watching a teenage child leave for service in the military.  On top of the shootings at Columbine, Nickel Mine and Virginia Tech, there’s a raw feeling that anything can happen and I had better make it a goodbye when he departs.

Like many people, I wonder what’s happening in our society that this is occurring with seemingly greater prevalence and I certainly have some opinions.  But when the family discussed it this weekend, Eldest – home for college break – commented that she felt it disrespectful that Facebook and other social media was full of opinion and invective so soon on the heels of this tragedy.  My two cents will consequently wait as she’s correct.

What I will offer is that you take an extra moment when you last see the kids and give them another squeeze, or if the teens are grumpy, suck up the annoyance and give thanks that they’re there to annoy you at all.  It’s something that I’ve tried to do with mixed success but will make the extra effort going forward. 

The Conversation

Most fundamentally, the question is whether people are fully understanding of the limits to central banks’ abilities. It is, to repeat, not to be critical of actions to date to wonder whether private market participants, and perhaps more importantly governments, recognise what central banks cannot do. Central banks can provide liquidity to shore up financial stability and they can buy time for borrowers to adjust. But they cannot, in the end, put government finances on a sustainable course and they cannot create the real resources that need to be found from somewhere to strengthen bank capital. They cannot costlessly correct earlier misallocation of real capital investment. They cannot shield people from the implications of having mis-assessed their own life-time budget constraints and as a result having consumed too much.

            – Glenn Stephens, Governor, Royal Bank of Australia

Serendipity lives and this quote came on the cusp of a long, rambling conversation with Middle the other evening after watching Will Ferrell’s The Campaign.  One of the perks of living in this household is that as the kids get a little older, I’ll occasionally permit them to watch an R-rated movie with the proviso that I have the opportunity to pause and explain a few things.  First on the list was that the film’s fictitious Motch Brothers – Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow – are satires on the real-life billionaire Koch Brothers, who muscled into the nascent Tea Party Movement for their own personal benefit.  Second on the list was the plot twist by the brothers to purchase up the congressional district and then import Chinese workers; for the brothers, it was a win-win with no shipping costs and almost slave labor wages. 

But it was at the China juncture that the conversation took flight as it turned

You’ve Come a Long Way, Buddy…But You Can’t Have It All

Change usually happens incrementally and with such stealth that it creeps into your consciousness like an ex-boyfriend slipping into the backpew of the wedding service.  But occasionally, you get that instant aha! moment when you see something that registers immediately.  Such was the case when I took Middle for an annual physical last week and realized that the doctor’s office was full of men and that all of them had babies and toddlers.

There was a time when I took the kids – much younger then – to the pediatrician’s office and found myself the sole non-physician male in the entire office.  Mothers and grandmothers were there with kids of all ages and for any number of reasons and there I sat, reading a well-thumbed Dr Seuss book to one or two children while I awaited the call of our name.  But last week was eye-opening on multiple levels.  The first level was the simple presence of so many fathers concentrated in one area, actually outnumbering the number of women who weren’t on staff; there were mothers in the area, but there appeared to be more fathers there.  The next level was the earliest years with the kids were spent in the DC region, which would certainly qualify as one of the forerunners in the fatherhood movement as men became more involved.  But last week’s excursion was to a suburban physician’s office in a very politically and socially conservative area.  There were men there with their wives, but I noted several bringing multiple kids in by themselves and all that I could think of was a paraphrase of the old commercial tagline, you’ve come a long way, buddy.

The 1970s seems to be the definitive decade for when the family structure began to go off of the rails.  It was an economically difficult decade that really pushed more women to go back to the workforce and the increasingly vocal Feminist movement – born in the late 1960s – made it socially and politically acceptable for this to happen and women went back to the workforce in much greater numbers.  The increased rise of the Great Society welfare program led to a literal destruction of the paternal figure in the inner city.  Finally, the increased acceptance of no-fault divorce made divorce far easier to obtain yet the delay in the recognition that fathers could also be fit parents led to true hardship for fathers.  Advertisers watched this and jumped aboard the bandwagon to target products to this new and potent feminist wife/mother market and rolled out such taglines as you’ve come a long way, baby and she can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan (and never, never let you forget you’re a man).  The decades passed and as wages slowly closed the gender gap – and yes, I know that there’s still a discrepancy – and women moved into upper echelons, there were any number of publications and articles that told women you can have it all as it showed pictures of attractive mothers in upscale clothing playing with the kids or working around the house.  But the difference was that more and more of those decades’ kids grew up seeing that Mom was actually being pulled and twisted like taffy to make things work while Dad simply wasn’t a factor in many cases.

We’re now two generations removed from that initial period and the kids are parents in their own rite.  They’re not stupid and have watched what their parents went through and in many cases have decided that there has to be a better way.  Men want to be the fathers to their kids that they often didn’t have and the women want help so that there’s some sense of balance; they want to be a person with a life, not a Twizzler.  There’s recognition that there’s a cost to having it all and it isn’t only financial, but also physical, emotional and even moral.  So more fathers are taking the opportunity to take up the slack with the kids in the daily life and that’s only fair, even if they know that it puts a serious crimp in the career plans.  They understand in today’s world that while it can be hurt to have the employer let them go, it’s far more painful to know that their child let them go.

You can’t have it all.  Ignore anyone that tells you that you can.

A Trend in Tuition Cuts?

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 

Isaiah 11:6

On the cusp of the announcement by catholic  Belmont Abbey College that they were cutting their annual tuition by a full third starting in 2013, it only seemed appropriate to lead with a biblical quote.  The news over the wire was that the college was cutting tuition by $10000 to about $18000 starting in 2013 and in the announcement, they stated that they were doing it in response to the ongoing disproportionate rise of college tuition over the past two decades.  I have to applaud their action as they acknowledge in their statement that many good students are discouraged from applying to colleges based on the published price alone.  They are realizing that the financial maneuvers in the college financials appear to be, as one close friend stated, just so much funny money; both she and we were told to ignore the published price and focus on the actual price, net of grants, work-study and loans.  The process is confusing to many and can be offputting, as more and more kids and families look at things and say to hell with it

In all fairness, Belmont Abbey isn’t actually the first small school to cut their tuition but they are among the first of several small schools – the little children – who are saying enough.  Part of it is, I believe, an actual sense that things truly are out of control and that they have a moral obligation to do what they can in both the micro and macro sense of helping to lead the way.  Part of it is also simply an act of enlightened self-interest as the understanding that folks are staying away because of the published price.  While Belmont Abbey states that they’re in a good position with new infrastructure and a full class of students, they also are looking at the other trends in American society and recognizing that if they aren’t in trouble now, then they will be. 

While the much higher rise in college costs is the major factor in the equation, it’s now being slowly eclipsed by the realization that the ever-dependable middle class is being throttled.  Since the recession of 2007, family incomes have declined and there’s simply no sign that they’re coming back as the majority of jobs being created are part-time only and more Americans are forced to eat courtesy of local food banks and the US Government’s SNAP program.  Barring an economic miracle to massively bolster family incomes, and that’s not remotely likely, then the institutions will be forced to make the cuts themselves and put the word out.  While some may think that the colleges are panicking, the rule of thumb is that he who panics first panics best and those institutions will be ahead of the curve. 

So if Belmont Abbey’s action gains legs and spreads, that’s only part of the battle.  There should also be work done to make the process easier to understand for the average family, and that’s something that can be done by the higher education establishment.  But the families have to do their part and actually pay attention to the process and not simply leave it to the hands of the kids who don’t have the experience necessary to adequately assess all of the complexities in the process.  This doesn’t even consider what would be necessary on a national level to stem the economic decline at the family level. 

Kids and Gun Control

That anybody takes another human life is a tragedy, compounded by the subsequent suicide in front of others.  Lives are altered in so many ways and the recriminations begin as fingers point in so many directions,. fingers often pointed by people who compound shock with cluelessness in vain search of an answer.  That it happened is terrible enough but now comments are being made that add fuel to the fire for gun control, most especially Bob Costas and his halftime commentary about gun control.  The gist of his remark was that young men are incapable of self-control and that permitting them ready access to weapons is simply setting the stage for tragedy.  But what does this mean when a family is about to train the kids in the use of firearms?  Is Costas right in his comments that our youngsters are incapable of self-control and thus in far greater danger by sheer dint of ready access to weapons?

The comments are outlandish, but timely since we’re going to proceed with firearms training come Spring.  I’m not a survivalist and have no bunker accessible via a hidden passage beneath the fishpond waterfall, but we will – now that the youngest is old enough – teach them how to use the firearms safely.  This is partially for the sheer fun of it as well as the fact that society has grown coarser and more violent and I want to be sure that they have a firm handle on things.  There’s a greater availability of gun and firearm games on various platforms, such as Xbox and Wii, and while we’ve worked hard to control access, I know that they’re playing with friends at their houses; if they’re going to do so, I want to assure that they actually have an understanding of the real thing.  This is akin to finally letting the nine year-old watch Saving Private Ryan so that he has a clue that the violence in warfare isn’t the sterile, harmless type that they’re fed online. 

There are several issues that I have with the comments and controversy arising from the tragedy. 

  • The first is the confusion that’s shown by some commentators about the Second Amendment.  The fact that we have a significant standing mililtary doesn’t mean that weapons for the populace is unnecesary; part of the right to own arms is that the citizenry have the right to protect themselves from the government should things slide out of control.  While we depended upon a militia at the founding of the nation instead of a standing army, there was real concern that the populace also be able to defend themselves from tyranny.
  • The second is that this is a response to an exceptionally high profile case; there isn’t the outcry over the chronic gun violence that permeates inner city America or the Mexican border and I doubt that this incident should throw the whole thing over into a repeal of the Second Amendment.
  • The third is the simple realization that football is a violent sport and a profession that rewards violence; the men who play football are, as a whole, more aggressive than the average person.  This means that these men live their lives with a familiarity of violence that the large majority of Americans don’t understand.  Their world is contact and damage and while I don’t expect that the great majority are going to wander around beating the average joe to a pulp, I do expect that they have a greater sense than the average joe of how situations can go awry and lead to violence and they want to be certain that they’re protected.
  • The fourth point is that I don’t view this tragedy as one that’s attributable solely to Belcher’s age and gender, but one that’s ultimately attributable to some degree of instability and mental illness.  This is a man who lost control and after killing his girlfriend – the mother of his child – was overwhelmed by remorse to the extreme.  This situation could have easily occurred, and does, within the general population.  If a plumber goes kills another and then himself, we don’t blame it on his age and gender.

What Costas should refer to is a situation akin to the controversy surrounding sportswriter Jason Whidlock’s criticism of Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos.  Whidlock’s commentary was that the extreme tattooing was symbolic of a prison culture that didn’t jibe with the persona of a professional quarterback; this does tie into the gun violence issue in that multiple football players have been embroiled in the past decade in the thuggish behavior that derives from the gangsta mentality of the inner city gang.  Multiple players – Adam "Pacman" Jones, Santana Moss, Ray Lewis – have been involved in deadly situations with gun usage.  Along with Michael Vick’s dogfighting, these evolved from the violent, unstable mentality fostered by the inner city gangs in which nobody else matters but another member of your own group. 

So how does this relate to my own family scenario?  The gangs have always existed, but have especially flourished in the broken family environment of the inner city.  The gang becomes the family to the member instead of the parents and siblings and the gang imprints its own family "values" onto the new member.  While these values permit and encourage the use of weapons, they do nothing to teach the responsibility that must extend naturally with the potential of the weapon.  Guns are simply symbolic of the real issue here, the rise and celebration of the gangsta culture via popular media and electronic gaming; a culture that sprouted from the destruction of the family in the inner cities.

If Costas wants to focus his attention somewhere, then he should focus it here.  I’m angry that in their view, so many responsible families will suffer for the irresponsibility of the few who flourished and fell in the rise of the gangsta culture.  I live in a state in which hunting and firearms flourish and I know of so many parents who take great care to assure that their children understand and respect the power of the gun.  Ths issues are so much deeper than portrayed in the media and I resent that for a few, the ready elimination of a symbol is tantamount to resolving the issue.  If you’re going to have or bring a weapon into the house, be certain to exercise the responsibility that comes with it so that the media monster isn’t fed with even more fodder.

The New Housing Kool-Aid

As they say, /rant on.

While taking a moment to check some online news, I came across a headline banner proclaiming the benefits of purchasing a new home instead of a used one.  This is probably the first headline banner that I’ve clicked in more than a year just because…well, just because I was curious.  The site is a product of some construction advertising LLC and proudly exclaims all of the many reasons that purchasing a new home is sooooo much better than a used home.  For instance, you can relax in it knowing that you’re the first to ever own it; that you can configure the house to your desires instead of configuring your family to meet the floorplan; that it can have the highest quality materials and energy efficiency; that many of these are located in posh developments with attractive amenities (cue picture of mansion with lit pool in front of it).

My thinking and philosophy – and writing – has changed dramatically since I created this site in 2008.  The thrust of real-world education for the kids is that they’re going to live in a world of markedly fewer opportunities than were afforded to most of my generation and that in today’s society, the corporation rules to the detriment of the individual. They will be catered to and feted via advertising with the sole purpose of becoming good consumers charged with the task of spending their money on the latest and greatest gadgetry even if it makes no significant difference to their ultimate well-being (want/need).  The goal of advertising is, indeed, to convince the individual about what their ultimate well-being actually is.

But this kind of banner advertising isn’t accounting for the real world, the world in which we live.  It doesn’t account for the world in which the median American family income has dropped about $5000 since the 2007 recession and the majority of new jobs are part-time without any benefits.  What’s actually driving the banner ad is the actual desperation of the builders as they see ongoing mediocre demand for new housing and the competition that’s coming from the much lower cost stock of existing homes; that industry sees that people are nervous about their world and happy to mix up a potent batch of new Kool-Aid for the public to consume.  Unfortunately, if the median family income has dropped by such an extent, is it in the best interests of your own family to stretch and shoot for that demographic? 

If nothing else, it goes back to a purposeful obfuscation on their part, a deliberate confusion that purchasing this building makes it a home.  This is the ultimate example of the age of self-gratification, that you purchase a ready-made structure home much as you could toss a TV dinner into the oven in the 1950s and call it a family meal.  What you are buying is a structure, a house that will take considerable work and effort on your part to create a home for the family.  A house is built from physical materials, a home is made from the family’s values and habits, it’s practices and love. 

It’s fine to look and dream about what if for the kids and family, but take the images with a grain of salt.  If you want Kool-Aid, go to the grocer instead of the "home"builder.

/rant off.


Then and Now:  Food Prices in December 2010 and 2012

Pay attention to the news and you hear that the CPI has increased by .x% for a particular month, at an annualized rate of y%.  You also shop and can see that, somehow, the price of something has risen.  But by how much and what does this mean in terms of reality?  I thought that it would beneficial to look back at the prices for items in the PracticalDad grocery basket in 2010 and then compare them with the prices today. 

What a family buys at a grocery store is more than just food, and includes items for the household and body, such as paper towels, feminine products/pads and diapers.  It’s these three items that by themselves, comprise a full 20% of the basket’s dollar value and it’s these three items that have been either seen no price change or an actual drop in the past two years.  This means that their presence in the basket hides the effect of price rises on other items and it’s for this reason that I began to split out the food costs earlier this year.  While the full Index of 47 items rose by 8% since November 2010, the cost of the 37 food items increased by a higher 14%.

Items that are obviously related to commodities saw the greatest rises, such as bread (wheat), orange juice, coffee and cooking (canola) oil.  Others saw more moderate increases but the large majority of items within the basket saw an increase of one kind or another.  Following is a short recap of some of the items at random.

Item                                                                    % Rise

Cans Green Beans, Peas, Corn                  11

Hot dog rolls (8 ct)                                           18

Sugar Flakes Cereal (generic 17 oz)           19

Oatmeal (42 oz generic)                                 11.9

Butter (1 #, generic unsalted)                         5.2

Peanut Butter (28 oz generic)                         46

Coffee (13 oz generic)                                     36

Hot Dogs (1 # franks, generic)                      6.5

Carrots (2 # bag)                                              28

OJ (64 oz, generic)                                           22.9

Why did prices rise? 

  • In some instances, it’s the result of simple supply such as a failed peanut crop in late 2011 and early 2012.  The supply of peanuts was so constrained that some stores actually had a limit on how many jars of peanut butter could be purchased at any one time.  The same occurred this Fall with apples as a poor apple crop in some parts of the country led to higher prices.  The cost of a gallon of apple cider locally spiked recently to $6.99.
  • In the case of certain commodities, it’s frankly related to ongoing lax easy money policies.  Major investors – including large investment houses and hedge funds – look at the environment for investing and push money to assets that are tangible and will have an ongoing demand.  People don’t actually have to purchase iPods or Chevy Volts, but they do have to feed themselves and their families so the money for the futures contracts flows to those items.  If you recall the movie Trading Places with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, the corollary plot pertained to the acquisition and use of inside information on the orange harvest.
  • Some items see their rises because of corollary rises in other products.  The cost of generic sugar flakes cereal rose higher than oatmeal or generic rice chex cereal because the sugar and wheat ingredients saw rises of greater than 10%.  Canola oil saw a major spike in 2011 because crude oil’s spike led to an increased demand for biofuels; since the canola crop also goes to biofuel, the increased demand for canola led to a corresponding rise in the cost of the cooking oil.  The price of a pound of ground beef (80% lean) rose 30% over the past two years and a significant spike occurred across the three surveyed grocery stores after a media brouhaha over the use of pink slime; the rationale behind the increase would be that grocery chains eliminated the additive and were forced to raise prices accordingly. 

There is one thing to takeaway from this and that’s the realization that in most cases, prices aren’t going to go down once they rise.  There can be circumstances that lead to price decreases, such a new supplier providing an item for a grocer, but by and large the cost of food isn’t going to magically decline once it rises. 

Plan accordingly.

PracticalDad Price Index for December 2012:  The Basket Cost is Accelerating

The afternoon and evening were spent determining the results of the 47 item PracticalDad grocery market basket and the results were a bit startling.  Listed below are the results for December’s Total and Food-only Indices, along with the previous two months. For a complete list of the 47 basket items, see here.

Month     Total Index     Food-only     Spread

10/12      106.42           111.80            5.38

11/12      107.06           113.04            5.98

12/12      108.07           114.33            6.26

The total cost of the basket rose to an average of $192.79 for a December 2012 index level of 108.07 (November 2010 = 100); this is a full point increase from the November 2012 index level of 107.06.  Consequently, the cost of purchasing the same 47 items since November 2010 has risen more than 8%.

What caught my eye was that when the ten non-food items (such as foil, soap, shampoo, diapers, etc.) are stripped from the basket and foodstuffs alone are considered, the Food-only Index has risen further and at an even higher rate than the Total Index.  The Food-only Index actually rose more than 1.25 points to an index reading of 114.33 (November 2010 = 100); the upshot is that considering the 37 food items alone (such as eggs, milk, a pound of ground beef, sugar, etc.), the cost of buying the same identical foodstuff items has risen 14.33% from November 2010.

The "Spread" column refers to the difference between the two indices – the 37 food item index and the complete 47 item index – and is indicative of the way that food prices alone are rising when compared against a basket that also comprises non-food items.  I make no pretense it is a statistically valid measure given the paucity of items, but it is a measure that’s more easily comprehensible to the average person.  The long and the short of the spread is that it shows that when the effect of non-food prices are stripped away, the basket’s food prices themselves are increasing at an even greater pace.