Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stealth Inflation

I was eating breakfast with my family at a nice little local restaurant on Saturday morning, when saw a headline in the Wall Street Journal proclaiming that inflation was at only one percent. And I had to shake my head.

That's preposterous. Gas prices are up and food prices are, well the same. But, and this may be part of what's missing in the figures, food quantities are down. A half-gallon carton of ice cream is no longer a half gallon, it's 56 ounces, or 12.5% less for about the same money. Burger King still has Chicken Tenders for a buck, but now four instead of five. And the Buck Double is the old Double Cheeseburger, less one slice of cheese.

And it's not just food. I recently bought a bottle of Ivory dish soap, the same height as the bottle I was replacing, and about the same price. But the old bottle was a quart, and the new one is 24 ounces.

Maybe I'm wrong and the powers-that-be have figured this in. Or maybe inflation includes housing prices which have fallen through the floor. But in either case it does not matter. Average folks like us are paying more and getting less.

We just don't always know it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One Bite of Sanity

Yesterday I took a big step and got rid of something that has been getting in my way, and weighing on my mind, for quite a long time. I have been driving a van on my 84-miles-a-day commute for about six years, burning up a bunch of gas and, in the last couple of years, worrying about the day when the van would leave me stranded.

I'd like to say that I got smart and took the step boldly, but the fact is that the van made the decision for me and actually did abandon me when the lug bolts on one of the wheels started to shear off.

But I did take bold action after that. I took a day off work, and in that day I located a car, bought it, registered it, and took it home. I still have to get rid of the old one, which is sitting on someone else's property, but that will probably be little more than a phone call to a junk yard or charity; the car is unsafe to drive and its time is up.

I did this without adding debt burden. At first I considered a new car, but then I thought about the financial side of that. First, I just didn't want to add monthly payments in this uncertain life, a move that would have obligated us further and made it harder to be flexible.

Second, I did some simple math. If you buy a car for $14,000 (which is pretty low-end these days once you have an automatic transmission and air conditioning, both of which my family needs), and you manage to keep it running for ten years, then it costs $1,400 each year just to purchase the car. Add interest to that and it's more like $2,000 a year.

I just bought a car for less than $2,000 including the day I had to take off work to get it, and if it only lasts me a year I'm even, without the obligation. And I think that the car will probably go longer.

It's nice, for a change, to be doing something so completely sane.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Of Waste and Water

In a recent entry in the Web site Springwise, a claim is made that 58 billion paper coffee cups are discarded each year, using up 20 million trees and 12 billion gallons of water.

I don't have any facts to dispute that, but I find myself objecting to the notion of using 12 billion gallons of water. Except in rare circumstances, we don't use water. The amount of water existing on the planet is an amazingly stable thing. The water we make use of is still water.

Now, we can pollute water and make it unsuitable for living things, and that is a problem we have to consider as we put water to work. There can also be localized water shortages, as anyone who has lived through a drought can attest. And in certain areas getting clean water for drinking, bathing, and food preparation is a huge problem.

But on a global scale, we don't use water so much as move it around. Let's take a simple example. You wash you hands. Where does the water come from? In my case, in a rural area, it comes from an underground well. It goes down the drain into my septic system, where it leaches back into the ground, and eventually find its way back into the water table, which is also fed by rain and underground streams.

It's different if you live in the city, but the net result is the same. The water goes round and round.

It would help the discussion of water coservation if we avoided meanlingless statistics about so many gallons of water, or millions or billions of gallons, being used, and gave more thought to how the application of water affects the quality of the water.

Because nothing we do on any meaningful scale affects the amount of water in the world.