A Prophet In His Own Land

There are times when it’s better for the kids to hear it from another adult since repeated commentary in the household smacks of the prophet in his own land deal, just more nonsense spewing out of the old man’s mouth.  Today was one of those rare occasions when one of the kids got to hear it full bore from another parent, even if that kid was Eldest, the college student who actually gets it.

She’s home on summer break and joined me at the grocery store.  Our cashier at the checkout line was a mother of two that had, at one time, gone to our church.  Her kids are of similar ages to Eldest and Middle and as we transacted business, I inquired as to their whereabouts.  The discussion was fascinating because it encapsulated both what I’ve been saying to my kids for years as well as providing a snapshot of larger economic issues.  Neither of her kids are now in school, although her eldest had spent a year in college before transferring elsewhere and ultimately dropping out.  There was significant discord in her household as she and her husband refused to take out a PLUS loan or co-sign for any loans that he might take on himself, leading him to withdraw for now.  It wasn’t that they didn’t want to; but both Mom and Dad recognized that the old college model – the best seven years of my life – are gone.  The boy wasn’t deadly serious about it and uncertain as to what he wanted; topping it off was that Dad had lost his own job and their own finances were shaky although they at least owned their home free and clear.  The unhappy conclusion for their Eldest was that he would find a job and pay off his existing student debt while he figured out his next step.  The cashier’s daughter is graduating in a week but has decided, despite straight A’s and a stellar athletic stint, that she’d rather work for now while she figured out her next steps.

What came through in the conversation, as Eldest listened, were several points.  First, that there really is a shortage of livable wage jobs out there for young adults as this woman’s kids are struggling to find adequate employment.  Second, that the student loans really are a deadweight on household formation, a cornerstone of viable economic growth; she commented that her kids, and others that she knew, were having difficulty pulling together the down payment for a used car, let alone for a house.  This is borne out by the recent Zerohedge/Pew Research article showing that the average net worth of a college graduate with student debt is a full 20% less than an unindebted high school graduate of the same age.  As she pointed out to Eldest, her wish – and mine as well – was that the adult kids would come for Sunday dinner and visits, not every breakfast without fail.  My contribution to the conversation was the third point, one that Eldest has heard me make before:  if an average young person’s lifespan is expected to surpass 80 years, does it make sense to take on the debt now instead of growing a bit and letting the post-high school smoke clear?  Make sure that there’s a plan for college, otherwise take some time to get your life in order before incurring the cost.

Eldest clearly wants to be out in the great wide world on her own.  She’s smart and in the past several weeks that she’s been home, I’ve noted thought processes that were dormant in earlier years and some of these go to standing on her own two feet.  She didn’t say much in the conversation with the cashier acquaintance but I could tell that the persistent home meme about student debt had paid off, leaving her with the prospect of doing what she wants when college is through.  Setting up her own place and moving out into the great wide world.

Now I have to keep talking to her younger siblings. 


So, What Did You Learn?

There are moments when it’s entirely appropriate to rain fire and brimstone upon a kid or teen for behavior or stupidity, and there are other moments when it’s unnecessary because they’re raining it upon themselves.  This typically happens in competitive situations when an error causes points to score and it’s especially likely – for many kids – when it involves a team sport and the letdown affects teammates as well. There are parents out there who will willingly take the kid to task for the error but it is, in most cases, needless and unnecessarily painful because any worthwhile kid is beating himself up for all of them.

Such was the case this entire baseball season for Youngest, whose team is providing ample opportunities for what can best be described as "character-building lessons".  Decent pitching and hitting is wholly overwhelmed by poor fielding and a complete lack of understanding on what to do with that round white thing when it’s hit into the field.  Dropped balls are treated as dead plays when they are actually as live as a hand grenade and easy outs are wrapped in tinsel and handed to the other teams as tickets that can be exchanged by opposing teams for more and more runs.  Once that truck starts moving downhill, then it’s difficult to stop and eventually everybody climbs aboard as almost everything degrades.

With multiple kids, other responsibilities and two parents, it’s problematic getting to everything and I missed seeing a recent Saturday afternoon game.  But I heard about it in glorious, gory detail in the kitchen as Youngest related one particular play in which he was involved and which allowed the winning run to score in the last inning.  I could hear the embarrassment in his voice and even though it takes more than one person to make up a team, he blamed himself. 

So what’s the best approach?  Do I look for the bright side in every little thing and minimize the particular play?  Or do I lose my cool and hammer the kid?  God knows that I’ve heard plenty of parents through the years hammer their kids for a mistake.  There’s ultimately no way to put lipstick on the pig so after hearing the story, I opted to simply stop preparing dinner and ask so what did you learn from this?  What’s your lesson?  And after stopping for a moment, he simply responded I have to know where the play is going to be made.  

A similar scenario played out with Middle in an after-school conversation the other day.  He has a teacher whose reputation is that he’ll challenge the kids and he apparently lives up to it, based upon what I hear.  In class, the teacher posed an analogy for the Ottoman Empire with a $5 payoff to anyone who could get it right.  Multiple kids took the stab and failed and Middle mouthed an answer to a neighbor, who then claimed it publicly as his own.  It was also the correct answer and the neighbor took home $5.  When Middle approached the teacher after class, he admitted that he’d seen Middle mouthing the answer to the other kid yet did nothing when it was claimed…so what did you learn from this?  I inquired.  Middle shook his head and acknowledged that he might as well take the shot at an answer, at a minimum.  I agreed and noted that the teacher was also explicitly teaching him – Middle – a lesson that is invaluable even if it doesn’t come from a book.

Our job as fathers and parents is to prepare them for life, to help them learn to think for themselves and stand on their own and that’s not going to happen if we don’t stop and make them think.  I’ve even walked through my own screwups and laid out the lessons that I should take from the situation, what my own father referred to as the Post Mortem.  Giving them pep talks or dressing them down simply isn’t of much value unless they actually learn the lesson that should flow from their growing experiences.


The College Food Bank

It’s been awhile since I’ve written on the college debt issue although the topic has certainly had play within the household as Eldest continues her way through college and Middle starts to examine options.  But while inured to the issue, I was appalled to find that the local state university’s Student Christian organization now runs a food bank for students so that they have something to eat.  Why?  Because in an effort to get through with as little debt as possible, students are cutting out the student meal plan and getting by on what they can cadge.

This particular food bank is not officially sanctioned by the university as any approved student organization but is indeed one of the multiple services offered by the campus student christian organization.  It has a paid chaplain whose salary is covered by the local ministerium of churches but no other staff and it’s office is located in a university provided building.  The need was noticed a very few years ago by the chaplain when he found that some students were simply going without and then hitting events in order to feed themselves.  Now the notion of college students living on ramen isn’t new and even I had friends and acquaintances eating cheap hot dogs, spaghetti and ramen in college; but what’s different is now that these students can’t even afford the cheapest food and are simply doing without in entirety.  When I spoke with my own pastor, who sits on that group’s board and informed me of the bank’s existence, she stated that what they were handing out were single serving items such as instant soup or single serving mac/cheese which were easy to fix when there are minimal kitchen facilities.  The kids aren’t cutting out the niceties to go to the basics, they’re being forced to cut out the basics in the entirety.

There’s now a fundamental disconnect in our society.  We sell the importance of a college education and many kids take it to heart, yet we saddle them with crippling debt and a barista job at Starbucks.  Now that they’re getting the disconnect, they’re doing everything that they can – unhealthy as it is – to still get the degree.  It’s time to rethink higher education and put our money where our mouth is…because God knows that more than a few kids aren’t putting anything in their mouths.



PracticalDad Price Index:  May 2014

Although this is being posted later than would normally happen, the pricing for the May 2014 PracticalDad Price Index occurred at the first of the month and the results were simply unexpected.  For all of the talk about incipient inflation – given credence by April 2014’s jump in the 37 item Food-Only Segment Index by greater than 1.5 points – the battle between Fed desired inflation and deflation continues as both of the indices declined again; this was led by Food-Only Segment Index literal collapse of greater than 2 points from April’s 113.59 to May’s 111.54 (November 2010 = 100).  The results are listed below:


PracticalDad Price Index – May 2014
Month Total Index (11/10 = 100) Food-Only Index (11/10 = 100) Spread
2/14 109.64 112.46 2.82
3/14 109.41 112.06 2.65
4/14 110.28 113.59 3.31
5/14 109.85 111.54









Most notable about this result is the sheer size of the index swing downwards – more than 2 full index points – and especially on the heels of the largest upward swing of 1.53 full points in the previous month.  If the marketbasket were a machine, I’d swear that the vibrations were increasing in such a manner as to damage it.

So for all of the talk about inflation, why the sharp move downwards?  Remember that deflation is symptomatic of a decline in the money supply as well as incomes and if the money supply is at all time highs, then prices are declining because the producers/retailers are having to drop them to help maintain sales; the Great Depression of 1929 was a situation in which businesses lost all control of their pricing because of a collapse in jobs and income. 

In May 2014, the index decline was again due to the price decreases in multiple food items at one store.  This same store has had greater than a half dozen food item price cuts since January 2014 and an additional three food items saw price declines as of the May pricing excursions.  

Let’s put this in perspective.  The PracticalDad Price Index marketbasket is composed of 47 common grocery store items, of which 37 are foodstuff products (for a complete list of the items in the marketbasket, see here).  Of the three constituent stores surveyed, one store has had price cuts in ten separate foodstuff products from the Index – more than a quarter of the food items – in the past five months.

There were certainly price increases in meat and dairy products as the cost of milk rose and the effects of the national beef herd culling rolls through to the consumer, but these factors were more than offset by the efforts of a grocer to stay afloat amidst a customer base that is cutting back spending because it’s being starved of income in the bifurcated American economy.

I’m waiting to see if and when this trend starts to hit the other two grocers.