Really Stable Prices

Breaking news in America this week: Little Caesars will be raising the price of their Hot-N-Ready Pizzas from $5 to $5.55. Some see this as a sign of the times, just another bit of bad news among all the inflation data lately. But what really surprised me is that this price has been stable they introduced it in 1997. This means that compared to median wages, these pizzas were about 50% cheaper than 1997 (before this price increase). That’s a doubling of America’s Pizza Standard of Living in just 24 years.

Keeping a fixed price is a somewhat rare, but fascinating pricing strategy. It can even become part of the identity of the product. The most famous example was Coca-Cola, which sold a 6.5 ounce bottle for 5 cents from 1886 to 1959. It’s so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page! “Always 5 cents” became a marketing slogan for them. And while we may regard that time period as one of generally low inflation, consumer prices on average more than tripled from 1886 to 1959.

Probably the most famous recent example is Costco’s $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, which has been stable in price since 1985. Rumor has it that the founder of Costco once told the current CEO that he’d kill him if he raised the price of the hot dog. Since 1985, nominal median wages in the US have tripled, meaning that your Costco Hot Dog Standard of Living has also tripled.

The concept of nickel and dime stores and later dollar stores are similar concepts, but they aren’t necessarily selling the exact same products over time. Coca-Cola, Hot-N-Ready pizzas, and Costco hot dogs really are the same product from year-to-year, so these products stand out as amazing examples of price stability during periods of time when most prices were rising in nominal terms (other than new technologies).

What are some other examples of consistently stable prices?

Pumpkin Spice: 15th Century Edition

It’s pumpkin spice season. That means that not only can you get pumpkin spice lattes, but also pumpkin spice Oreos, pumpkin spice Cheerios, and even pumpkin spice oil changes.

The most important thing to know about “pumpkin spice” things is that they don’t actually taste like pumpkin. They taste like the spices that you use to flavor pumpkin pie. (Notable exception: Peter Suderman’s excellent pumpkin spice cocktail syrup, which does contain pumpkin puree.)

Last week economic historian Anton Howes posted a picture of the spice shelf at his grocery store and guessed that this would have been worth millions of dollars in 1600.

Some of the comments pushed back a little. OK, probably not millions but certainly a lot. Howes was alluding to the well-known fact that spices used to be expensive. Very expensive. Spices, along with precious metals, were one of the primary reasons for the global exploration, trade, and colonialism for centuries. Finding and controlling spices was a huge source of wealth.

But how much more expensive were spices in the past? One comment on Howes’ tweet points to an excellent essay by the late economic historian John Munro on the history of spices. And importantly, Munro gives us a nice comparison of the prices of spices in 15th century Europe, including a comparison to typical wages.

As I looked at the list of spices in Munro’s essay, I noticed: these are the pumpkin spices! Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and mace (from the nutmeg seed, though not exactly the same as nutmeg). He’s even included sugar. That’s all we need to make a pumpkin spice syrup!

Last week in my Thanksgiving prices post I cautioned against looking at any one price or set of prices in isolation. You can’t tell a lot about standards of living by looking at just a few prices, you need to look at all prices. So let me just reiterate here that the following comparison is not a broad claim about living standards, just a fun exercise.

That being said, let’s see how much the prices of spices have fallen.

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Happy 400th Thanksgiving from EWED

In 1621 the pilgrims were starving after their communal farming system gave them little incentive to work hard, leading them to rely on the generosity of their native neighbors at the first Thanksgiving. But in the long run they were able to produce their own feasts after switching to a private property system. Economist Ben Powell tells the story briefly here, or you can read the primary source, William Bradford’s Diary here.

It is customary in many families to “give thanks to the hands that prepared this feast” during the Thanksgiving dinner blessing. Perhaps we should also be thankful for the millions of other hands that helped get the dinner to the table: the grocer who sold us the turkey, the truck driver who delivered it to the store, and the farmer who raised it all contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner because our economic system rewards them

Powell calls this “the real lesson of Thanksgiving”, and while I think there are other great angles to the story this is certainly a real lesson of Thanksgiving.

Buying in Bulk: Money Saver or Self Sabotage?

Recently, I’ve been buying a lot more non-durable goods when they are on sale. Whereas previously I might have purchased the normal amount plus one or two units, now I’m buying like 3x or 4x the normal amount.

What initially led me here was the nagging thought that a 50%-off sale is a superb investment – especially if I was going to purchase a bunch eventually anyway. I like to think that I’m relatively dispassionate about investing and finances. But I realized that I wasn’t thinking that way about my groceries. The implication is that I’ve been living sub-optimally. And I can’t have that!

If someone told me that I could pay 50% more on my mortgage this month and get a full credit on my mortgage payment next month, then I would jump at the opportunity. That would be a 100% monthly return. Why not with groceries? Obviously, some groceries go bad. Produce will wilt, dairy will spoil, and the fridge space is limited. But what about non-perishables? This includes pantry items, toiletries, cleaning supplies, etc. 

Typically, there are two challenges for investing in inventory: 1) Will the discount now be adequate to compensate for the opportunity cost of resources over time? 2)  Is there are opportunity cost to the storage space?

For the moment, I will ignore challenge 2). On the relevant margins, my shelf will be full or empty. I’ve got excess capacity in my house that I can’t easily adjust it nor lend out. That leaves challenge 1) only.

First, the Too Simple Version.

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Give the Gift of Cooking and Murder-Bears

What is the point of reading non-fiction?

Hopefully it is entertaining, and you feel like you are learning something, though usually it is hard to recall much of a book a year after you read it. The best you can usually hope for is that it makes you look at the world differently. But how often does a book actually clearly change what you do?

While there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of books that changed how I think, Tim Ferriss’ books stand out for actually changing how I act. It was after reading The 4 Hour Body that I finally starting going to the gym every week, and it was after reading The 4 Hour Chef that I started to really cook.

Giving anything fitness-related as a gift can be dicey, so of the two I’d recommend The 4 Hour Chef as a gift. Its huge, its pretty, and its not just a book of recipes (though it has lots of them)- it is what made me think I no longer need recipes.

If instead you’d rather forget about big self-improvement books and just go for fun/entertaining, my best recommendation you’ve probably never heard of is Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem: Strange Stories from the Bible to Leave You Amused, Bemused, and (Hopefully) Informed.

As a said as part of a review of my favorite non-fiction last year, its funny but not just funny. Its not just trying to highlight the craziest stories, its also full of lessons about how to read potentially confusing passages. “Murder-Bears” is a reference to the end of 2 Kings ch 2:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys

Gifts for a Time of Inflation and Supply Bottlenecks

I’ve never been great at gifts, and don’t have much in the way of specific ideas now. But I’ve been thinking about what the macroeconomic environment means for gift-giving.

First, as you’ve probably heard by now from us or elsewhere, if you want to get any physical gift I’d order it now, since shipping is a mess and prices are only going up. I’d especially recommend this for complex electronics that could become hard to find- its part of why I got my wife an iPad for her birthday this summer. Foreign food and drink that can be stockpiled is always a good idea, but perhaps especially now; think wine, Scotch, or Beirao liqueur (a Portuguese drink that was my favorite discovery this year). Wine and liquor make good stores of value in an time of inflation.

Alternatively, you could avoid the scarcity of physical goods by turning to the digital realm. If your economistic heart yearns to give cash, consider giving some your favorite stock or cryptocurrency instead- its both more personalized and less subject to inflation. Or if you think you can judge the recipient’s taste well enough, subscribe them to one of your favorite Substacks or podcasts. My recommendations:

Unsupervised Learning, Razib Khan– Genomics and History

The Diff, Byrne Hobart– Finance and Strategy

Astral Codex Ten, Scott Alexander– Rationality, Psychiatry, Everything

The Readers Karamazov– Funny podcast on literature and philosophy (now seems entirely free though)

Or if you really have money to burn, go for the Bloomberg subscription. I always run out of free reads on the Tyler Cowen articles and so can’t read Matt Levine, even though he has the magic ability to teach you finance while making you laugh. But the subscription is expensive and Mike Bloomberg doesn’t need the money, while the Substacks are relatively cheap and enable talented writers to spend a lot more time writing instead of needing to focus on a real job.

La Dolce Vita Economica

I thought about writing about soccer (again). I thought about writing about time management and personal production functions. I considered writing about Lebron James or how I manage multiple research projects. I thought about writing about a classic, and entirely addictive to the point of career ruination, video game. They all seem a little redundant at the moment, though, because they are all the same basic story.

One soccer manager is over-exhausting their resources because of a confluence of bad contractual incentives while another team is witnessing a renaissance in a player they essentially forced to take 7 weeks off. While so many NBA careers of the 80s evaporated in a cloud of cocaine and clubbing, Lebron James’ entire life is built around managing the only two resources whose limits are salient to his life: his body and relationship with his family. Playing baseball growing up I watched pitchers blow out their arms before they finished puberty in service to Little League glory, while modern professional pitchers are (finally) on strictly managed pitch counts to maximize their expected output.

There are two manners in which I armchair quarterback the rest of the world. One is the things in which I have just enough knowledge to be frustrated by others decisions, but no so much as to actually know what I am talking about. These frustrations are ephemeral, they flatter myself to the point of mild embarrassment upon reflection, and, if I am being honest with myself, are fun.

The other manner is resource management. These are the times when armchair quarterbacking is less fun and more exasperating because they are the moments when outsiders, with inferior levels of narrowly-applicable expertise, are often actually right. Which is not to say the knowledge that resources are being poorly managed is uniquely held by outsiders. Insiders are more often than not quite aware of the suboptimal deployment and conservation of resources, but are unable to overcome the status quo institutions, incentives, or inertia of decision-making power loci. It’s obvious to lots of people that athletes, CEOs, doctors, and congressional representatives are over-extended. What’s not obvious is how to get out of these equilibria.

When I see most attempts at self-improvement, I am generally skeptical of anything that doesn’t start with the identification of a key resource that is salient to outcomes and the options available to better manage it. Maybe its calories and how to budget them. Maybe its time and how to better partition and conserve it. It could always be money, but in general I find that money is so immediately identifiable as a finite resource and entirely fungible that people who ostensibly are managing it poorly are, in actuality, failing at managing a different resource (time, emotional energy, vices, etc) that is intertwined with financial resources.

When I see successful firms, teams, and individuals, what I most often find myself admiring is not (just) a worldly talent, but a facility with managing resources that others haven’t yet adopted or mimicked. An appreciation for sleep, a protection of time blocked for creativity, an adeptness trading low opportunity competitive minutes for higher opportunity cost moments on the biggest stages. Or even just the ability to recognize that this is the moment to savor a 600 calorie dessert with a loved one because the emotional sustenance will make it easier to walk away from three vending machine Hostess pies during the high-stress moments in the week to come.

Once you learn to manage your donut-based caloric intake, the spreadsheet of your life will be revealed before you, an endless cascade of resources to be managed and optimized. A life with the right donuts at the right time. The dolce vita economica.

Purchasing Drinks with Push-ups.

Early in the summer of 2021, I was having fun. The semester was ended and traveling was on the horizon. Due to changes at my wife’s job I began driving to work instead of making the 20 minute trek by foot. And there was plenty of time to be social. And social I was — several days of the week. And, inevitably, drinks would be served. I was doing a lot less walking and a lot more drinking alcohol (responsibly).

I was footloose and fancy free. Until… The bathroom scale reminded me that I had surpassed the age of 30 years old. Being sedentary and drinking were starting to add up.

Right then and there, I made a decision. I would disincentivize my drinking, but I would also make drinking beneficial rather than detrimental to my waist line.

I made a deal with myself. For each drink that I had, I would have to ‘pay’ 25 push-ups. No exceptions. And, no borrowing from myself. Push-ups *had* to come first. None of this “I owe myself push-ups” nonsense (it’s a trap!). I could *save* for the future, however. Knowing that a social event was approaching, I’d build myself a nice little balance. And the exchange rate was constant: 25 push-ups per drink – always.

Who held me accountable? Me, myself, and I… And some incentive compatible approbation.

I wasn’t shy about any of it. At a outdoor beer garden with my wife and her cousin, I had prepared by banking 50 push-ups. But round 3 was impending… and I’m no square. So, over to the side, quite out of the way on the outdoor patio, I knocked out a quick 25. Round 4 came after still another 25.

Now let’s talk incentives. Requiring push-ups of myself increased my physical activity, so I felt better about my body. Further, if I hadn’t banked push-ups ahead of time, paying prior to each drink limited how many push-ups I could comfortably do. Once push-ups became uncomfortable, I stopped drinking.

That’s all great. But the social incentives were pivotal in keeping me dedicated. Upon seeing the push-ups in action, female friends would talk to my wife who quickly developed a well-crafted dialogue for each new observer, complete with convincingly spontaneous gesticulations and eye-rolls. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the attention.

Other men provided direct positive approval. I combined 3 activities that were already ‘manly’ when separate: muscle building, drinking, and dispassionate self control. Men would praise me immediately and similarly feel compelled to do there own sets of push-ups in my presence — as if being sedentary in my presence convicted them as guilty of something. At least one wife sent me a text after we had left town that included a picture of her husband knocking out some of his own pre-drink push-ups (Is this what it feels like to be an influencer??).

Aristotle would be proud.

I was very consistent for months. Being the summer and seeing a lot of friends and family, I did a lot of push-ups. But, as time passed, the exercise habit stuck even as the drinking began to pass by the wayside. What began as an arbitrary, self-imposed rule soon became a legit change in behavior. And then, that change in behavior became a practice. Did that practice improve my temperance and fortitude through habituation? Idk. But wouldn’t that be nice?

Penny-Pinchers Gonna Pinch

Text books say that there are two major problems with the Consumer Price Index (CPI). First, accounting for changes in quality is difficult. Second, the CPI is calculated by assuming a fixed basket of goods is consumed over time. For both of these reasons, the rate of inflation that is implied by CPI is typically considered to be about 1% overestimated.

Imperfectly accounting for quality improvements causes higher measured inflation because the stream of services that a product creates for the consumer has increased – even though the product is nominally the same product. For example, the camera on my smart-phone is now good enough to record a high-quality Youtube video, whereas it was of mediocre quality on my previous phone.  My life is better-off with the better camera. But the increase in my quality of life isn’t measured by the CPI. The CPI does, however, make note that I paid a higher price for a phone.

Further, people don’t consume a fixed basket of goods over time. Even if we stopped the introduction of all new products and maintained the quality of all current products, people would still change the composition of their consumption due to price changes among related goods.

When people get hot and bothered by inflation, they often appeal to people who are of less means and who would find higher prices more burdensome. For that reason, below is a graph of some calorically dense and roughly comparable food staple prices (from the PPI).  You can put a protein on top of any one of these and call it a meal: pasta, flour, potatoes, & rice.

Let’s say that a consumer consumed equal parts of these in January of 2020. The CPI assumes that the consumption basket remains constant and plots a weighted average. In such a case, price rose 2.3% through July 2021. But in real life, penny-pinchers gonna pinch. If our consumer is particularly Spartan, then he will always consume the cheapest option – he treats the different foods as perfect substitutes. The Spartan price of consuming *fell* 22.3%. To be clear, the CPI assumes that the consumption composition remains unchanged, while the consumer’s actual basket is responsive to price changes.  Even if a consumer considers these goods to be imperfect substitutes and is willing to cut any particular type of consumption in half in favor of the cheapest alternative, then the price fell by 10%. In fact, a consumer who is at all responsive to prices will always have a cheaper basket than the headline CPI, all else constant.

In conclusion, be careful with your money. Spend it well and seek out alternatives. Your flexibility determines how much money you’ll have at the end of the month. The headline CPI number impacts only the most passive consumer – and even then, budget constraints gonna constrain.