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You’re walking around stoned all day. The economic statistics fed to you by the government are concocted to induce euphoria. For one thing, inflation is grossly understated. Because of these artificially low reported inflation rates, the Federal Reserve can continue lowering interest rates without incurring the wrath of people worried about the dollar and excessive credit creation. The artificially low interest rates in turn lead to commodity speculation, one of the main reasons for global food shortages and rioting.

A good example of the government’s humbuggery comes from San Diego. From 2001 through 2005, San Diego experienced one of the nation’s biggest housing bubbles. Median home prices soared 77 percent, points out Kelly Cunningham, economist for the San Diego Institute for Policy Research. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics number for San Diego inflation was a mere 3.7 percent in 2003 and 2004 and 3.6 in 2005. “It’s a little bit suspect,” says Cunningham. San Diego’s consumer price index for last year was only 2.3 percent. “It seems almost ludicrous,” adds Cunningham.

Yes, it’s ludicrous. Ludicrously political. In 1983, the Bureau of Labor Statistics took housing prices out of the consumer price index. A rental equivalent, or what homeowners might get for renting their homes, replaced actual home prices. Voilà! Inflation as reported by the government went down. “Because low inflation encourages low interest rates, which in turn make it much easier to borrow money, the [Bureau of Labor Statistics’] decision no doubt encouraged, during the late 1980s, the large and often speculative expansion in private debt — much of which involved real estate, and some of which went spectacularly bad between 1989 and 1992 in the savings-and-loan, real estate, and junk-bond scandals,” writes Kevin Phillips in the May issue of Harper’s. Phillips’s new book, Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, tells how one cause of irresponsible speculation and debt accumulation is dishonest government.

The phony statistics “create a false sense of economic achievement and rectitude, allowing us to maintain artificially low interest rates, massive government borrowing, and a dangerous reliance on mortgage and financial debt even as real economic growth has been slower than claimed,” Phillips writes. The misleadingly low inflation also permits the government to pay lower cost-of-living adjustments on Social Security, wages, and contracts.

Based on the official 2.3 percent inflation rate of last year, Cunningham is predicting 3 percent inflation for San Diego this year, “but I would think it would be higher,” he says. If inflation were calculated the way it was 30 years ago, “the rate would be almost double that,” he says. Phillips thinks the national inflation rate is actually 7 to 10 percent. Alan Gin of the University of San Diego thinks a decline in the rental equivalent will keep San Diego inflation from soaring this year, but he concedes that some economists say that as people lose their homes to foreclosure, the demand for rentals will go up, and so will the rental equivalent and local inflation rate.

The rental ploy is only one crooked arrow in the government’s quiver. Since the mid-1990s, there have been other ruses. One is called “product substitution.” If steak gets too expensive, the government says you will switch to hamburger. “When someone buys chicken instead of steak because meat has gone up in price, that’s evidence of inflation,” says Barry Ritholtz, a strategist for an institutional research firm who often writes about misleading government statistics. Through the product substitution hocus-pocus, costs that are rising most rapidly get a lower weighting in the inflation index. So inflation looks tame. Of course, the government doesn’t assume people will move up to steak from hamburger or chicken.

Then there is a dandy called the “hedonic adjustment.” Although buying a new car may take a higher percentage of your income each year, the government might assume the car’s price is going down because the car is improving in quality. Moreover, some economists say that the consumer price index gives inordinate weight to products that go down rapidly in price, such as electronic gear. Hedonics, which is very subjective, opens the door to all kinds of mischief. By and large, most products improve over time. “Hedonics is premised on a flawed assumption: that quality is static,” says Ritholtz. But some products and services don’t improve: for example, your milk used to be delivered, toys were once safe, and a man’s suit came with two pairs of trousers. There is no adjustment for decreasing quality.

And then there is the concept of “core” inflation: because their prices tend to be volatile, food and fuel are left out. The Federal Reserve watches core inflation more than it watches the standard consumer price index. Of course, the core is likely to be lower, particularly these days. If you don’t eat, heat your house, drive a car, or ride in airplanes, core inflation is for you.

So what can you expect this year? Inflation, even with the ruses. Commodity prices are zooming. One reason is that the Federal Reserve keeps lowering interest rates, claiming it has room to do so because reported inflation is moderate. So the dollar goes down and commodity prices go up. Another reason is that the U.S. government is making still another mistake: subsidizing ethanol. Farmers are shifting to corn production. That causes distortions. For example, Mexican farmers have been burning their blue agave, used to make tequila, so they can plant corn. You won’t have bargain tequila to toss down anymore. “The U.S. has been dealing with energy problems in the worst way, and it has been doing it since the first oil shock in 1973,” says Ross Starr, economist at the University of California, San Diego. “Subsidizing ethanol from corn is someplace between really dumb, dumb, bizarre, and protectionist. Agriculture in every country is screwed up.”

That goes without saying. There are food riots in poor countries. The massive shift of production to subsidized biofuels gets part of the blame, along with rising consumption in emerging nations, wheat crop failures, currency market volatility, and commodities speculation that is greatly based on artificially low interest rates.

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Comments

Don Bauder May 1, 2008 @ 9:31 p.m.

Response to post #5: I was thinking of putting the phony unemployment statistics in that article, but I ran out of room. It's just as egregious. Best, Don Bauder

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Anon92107 May 1, 2008 @ 1:21 a.m.

Right on Professor Bauder, one of your best reality checks ever.

Keep educating your readers up close and personal because our elected officials are worst-case scenario examples of our failed education system that has been destroyed by politicians who sell out everything they may have learned in school as soon they become politicians.

We are drowning in tsunami of B.S. and the democrats running for election are proving daily that they are totally unprepared to deal with republican betrayals of Democracy and the Land of Opportunity.

Considering the world that Bush-Cheney created so far in this new century, it’s a wonder that anyone wants to be the next president.

And I don’t hear anyone yet in this war of personal attacks-counterattacks who appears to be capable of even beginning to deal with actual problems.

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Anon92107 May 1, 2008 @ 10:56 a.m.

Response to post #2:

Great political cartoon by Breen this morning on that particular subject.

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Don Bauder May 1, 2008 @ 6:50 a.m.

Response to post #1: I had to chuckle yesterday. The government reported that gross domestic product (GDP), or total economic output, rose 0.6 percent in the first quarter. Some exulted, saying this refutes the idea that we are in a recession. The economy is still growing, albeit slowly, they rejoiced. Ha Ha Ha. The devil was in the details. GDP is inflation-adjusted. The government uses a broad measure of inflation called the deflator to adjust GDP. Do you know what the reported deflator was in the first quarter? 2.6 percent. Yes, 2.6 percent. Raise your hand if you think inflation is only running at 2.6 percent. And according to the deflator, consumer inflation was only 3.5 percent despite food and fuel prices soaring. So by this bit of prestidigitation, the GDP rose slightly. I didn't see anybody commenting on that in the printed or electronic media. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder May 1, 2008 @ 12:07 p.m.

Response to post #3: Yes, I saw it. It was good. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder May 1, 2008 @ 9:32 p.m.

Response to post #6: Yes, good cartoon. Best, Don Bauder

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JohnnyVegas May 1, 2008 @ 4:20 p.m.

Don, for you next article why don't you lay out how the government fudges unemployment statistics!

The government includes the military and excludes anyone out of work over 6 month......... It never gets old with the government and their bogus numbers.

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Don Bauder May 3, 2008 @ 6:33 p.m.

Response to post #10:Welcome back, Fumber! I don't know whether wheat grass prices are rising, because I have never had the stuff and had never heard of it until you mentioned it. I doubt if wheat grass is a major item in the compilation of the consumer price index. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder May 3, 2008 @ 6:34 p.m.

Response to post #11: Fumber, somehow I am not surprised at your view on the presidential race. Best, Don Bauder

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Russ Lewis May 3, 2008 @ 11:50 p.m.

For what it's worth, wheatgrass is up -- way up. I had a shot the other day, and it had just about doubled. Of course, Fumbler, I drank it in your honor. I've wondered what happened to you.

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Don Bauder May 4, 2008 @ 6:12 a.m.

Response to post #15: Riposte! Johnny and Fumber can renew their duel! This will be more exciting than the Super Bowl. Best, Don Bauder

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Ponzi May 3, 2008 @ 2:23 p.m.

My water bill just arrived with a notice it was increasing 8% this year. I've noticed that a hamburger now costs $10 in most restaurants and a cocktail is $12. I don't go out very often, but I was shocked to take some out of town guests out to dinner for some sandwiches and drinks and spend $70 on four people. That was 4 cheesburgers with fries, and 4 drinks.

The "food servers" also are pushing that a 20% tip is "normal" now. What happened to 15%? If prices go up so does the tip, why this new rule?

Everything at the grocery store seems to cost $5.00 now. $5 for a jar of pickles, $5 for A-1 sauce, $5 for a box of cereal, $5 for some smoked cheese...

Maybe other people have seen 5% inflation, but I have kept a budget on Quicken for 10 years and this year my costs have increased about 25% over-all. I have cancelled a vacation because I have no room in my budget. The money has been moved to gasoline and food. By investment income has also dropped becuase the yeilds on my long term investments have dropped. So I'm being squeezed at both ends. It also it cutting into my ability to save money. Due to some recent medical bills (also very high) I had to reduce my 401K contribution 3% to help pay the bills.

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Don Bauder May 3, 2008 @ 5:59 p.m.

Response to post #9: Yours is a most astute post. Food and fuel prices have escalated, but because the inflation numbers are rigged, the government keeps telling people that prices really aren't rising that much. It's a con game. As I noted in response to one reader, economists rejoiced this week that the economy grew by 0.6 percent in the first quarter, according to official figures. The economy isn't contracting, they exulted. But that was only because the government claimed that inflation was a mere 2.6 percent. Does anybody believe that? And consumer inflation was only 3.5 percent, said our government, despite the soaring food and fuel prices. Does anyone wonder why more and more people simply don't believe what the government says? Best, Don Bauder

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JohnnyVegas May 3, 2008 @ 9:34 p.m.

Fumbler is back!!!!!

Missed ya buddy.

Obama 08!

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Don Bauder May 4, 2008 @ 6:15 a.m.

Response to post #16: With the price of agricultural commodities soaring, the price of wheat grass at retail should be up (although I confess I don't know the exact ingredients of wheat grass.) Will the higher price of wheat grass cramp your lifestyle, russl? Best, Don Bauder

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