April 2012

Here’s another interesting slice of economic data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics via NPR’s Planet Money. It concerns how much money consumers spend on necessities now vs. 1949.

We know, from past surveys, that the amount spent on medical care has risen sharply. This snapshot shows that people spent 3.2 percent of their income on medical care in 1949, but 7.1 percent in 2011.

That’s about what you’d expect. The surprise is that Americans spent 40 percent of their income on food in 1949 but only 15.3 percent last year. That’s a 62 percent drop in what people spend on food, even though the assumption is that much of the inflation we see today is at the supermarket.

Some items have jumped in price, particularly those that are dependent on commodity prices, such as beef. Produce has remained relatively inexpensive especially if you look around for deals at farmer’s markets.

Corporate agriculture is the reason food prices have become a smaller part of the American budget. Family farms may have been wonderful environments in which to grow up and prosper, but they were largely inefficient ways to produce food, at least in comparison to mass production style corporate farming.

Unfortunately, the downside of corporate farming is pretty ugly. I recently watched a documentary on factory chicken production on the Top Documentary Films website and I won’t bother to post the actual link to the movie because it was nasty stuff. I’ve sworn off chicken and eggs unless they’re free range, and even then I’m not entirely sure about it.

A couple of week ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece about chickens rasied in factory farms, and what goes into the birds to maximize production. Namely, caffeine, the active ingredients in Tylenol and Benadryl, antibiotics and arsenic.

The analysis was based on a study by a researcher at Johns Hopkins University. Lab personnel were unable to test the actual chickens, so they looked at feather meal, a byproduct of chicken feathers.

According to Kristof, the Tylenol and Benadryl calm the birds down so their meat is more tender. (In China, they use the active ingredient in Prozac, he claims.)

“It turns out that arsenic has routinely been fed to poultry (and sometimes hogs) because it reduces infections and makes flesh an appetizing shade of pink,” Kristof said. The United States Poultry and Egg Association declined comment.

But essentially this is the price we pay for cheap food. You can go organic — if you trust the labeling — but then expect to pay much more than 15.3 percent of your budget.

But getting back to the BLS survey …. What ARE Americans spending more of their income on today? The biggest chunk is now spent on housing. The percentage shot up from 26.1 percent in 1949 to 41 percent in 2011. That’s the result of a trend that’s become very visible over the past decade: bigger houses.

In 1950, the average housing unit was under 1,000 square feet; it is now more than 2,000 square feet. Everybody needs more rooms to watch TV, surf the web and play video games.

The other big increase is in transportation, which climbed from 7.3 percent of household income to 16.9 percent. True, much of that is in the price of gas, but the rise in car prices is phenomenal. And, almost every Tom, Dick and Harriet have a car now. In 1950 there were three for each American; now there are eight.

These are the priorities of the culture that have been brewing over the last five decades. How will they be fine-tuned over the next 50 years?

Photo: McMansion under construction via Wikimedia Commons

For years, people have been trying every which way to cram more fat and calories into a pizza. As it turns out, it’s not that easy.

The original pizza pie idea was genius: Combine bread dough, sausage, tomato sauce, two or three different kinds of cheese and pepperoni and pop it into a 500-degree oven. The Right Stuff, as they used to say at NASA, but then some marketing guy at a pizza chain went to see the staff at the test kitchen. Go nuts, he said.

One of the first tricks was to infuse the crust with additional cheese. That outer crust is nice, but it’s a little dense isn’t it? Ideally, you have the flour and the yeast coming through and maybe a little olive oil and garlic. But still, crust is crust. Admit it, you’re sometimes tempted to leave it on the plate.

Then somebody walked into the lunch room at Pizza Hut, where the executive staff was eating arugula and salad with cherry tomatoes and drinking iced tea with fresh lemons, and said: “Hey, what about filling up the outside crust with more cheese?” The head of menu development dropped his fork on the floor and looked up with a smile, a tiny speck of green lodged between his two front teeth.

This is outstanding, he said, and so it began.

But that was then and this is now. As my brother-in-law recently explained, there is no progress without imagination, hard work and risk. So the head of a test kitchen walked into the Big Cheese’s office first thing after his morning trip to Starbuck’s and said: “Are you sitting down?”

But the boss was already sitting down and the test kitchen guy felt a little foolish. Nevertheless, he held up his thumb and forefingers like a 1950s movie director explaining a scene to MGM Boss Louis B. Mayer. “Picture this,” he said. “A hot dog embedded in the crust.”

Well, the boss practically dropped his bottle of Lipitor and pretty soon it was the buzz of the company. The idea was recently unveiled in the United Kingdom, according to CBS News. The pie comes with a free mustard drizzle.

For now, it’s only available across the pond, and the network quoted a Pizza Hut spokesman as saying that there are no plans to introduce it into the U.S. But hey, if enough folks demand it at their local Hut, my money says they’ll cave and put it on the menu pronto. What’s more American than pizza and hot dogs?

And I would bet you a dollar to a donut, as we used to say when a dollar could buy a lot of donuts, that whoever came up with the hot-dog pizza idea ended up with a week all-expenses-paid vacation in the Caribbean, smoking big cigars, sipping spiced rum and eating dinner on oversized white plates with a colorful little arrangement of food nestled decoratively in the center.

Here’s to the good life.

* * *

When I purchase a product and bring it home, I always note the manufacturer as I unwrap the package and prepare to use the item. Nine times out of 10 these days it’s made in China, or somewhere in Indonesia or, outside chance, South or Central America.

Not on Sunday though. Getting into the grass-cutting season this year, I realized how tired I was of my weed-eater getting a busted filament before finishing the job. I’d have to replace the filament once, sometimes twice, which takes a big bite out of my Sunday afternoon.

Well, this time I set my old line aside and tracked down a product called Rino-Tuff at Home Depot. Heavy Duty Univeral Trimmer Line, it said.

And here was the kicker at the top of the package: Made in the U.S.A. The line, a little thicker than the other spool I had, was made in Columbia, SC.

Result: One early break, which I blame on incorrect loading. I put a new filament in quickly and when I finished the job, I still had a weed-eater ready to go for the next cut.

Now I feel like I have to send them a campaign slogan. How’s this: “Rino-Tuff goes on the rampage when it comes to your weeds.”

Well heck. It’s not hot dog in a pizza crust, but I’ll keep working on it.

I was at Home Depot the other day getting some plumbing supplies, and I wandered over to the light bulb aisle to see if they had 60W bug lights. I’d rather have a 40W bug light, but I can never find them, even amid the half-acre of bulbs that are on display.

The light bulb aisle at Home Depot is stocked with about every bulb you’d ever want, except the one you need. People don’t usually strike up conversations at the Home Depot light bulb aisle, but I ran into a co-shopper who was complaining bitterly.

He couldn’t find a simple 40W flourescent bulb. We both looked up and down, back and forth, for our respective bulbs but eventually gave up.

“It reminds me of the cereal aisle at the supermarket,” I said. That seemed to set him off.

He said that the cereal sections at supermarkets are perverse, and reckoned that there are only four or five brands worth purchasing. He called the supermarket cereal aisle “a hump hanger,” a term I’d never heard before. I hope it’s OK to use in polite company.

But I was generally agreeing with him until he started blasting Cheerios, which I like. Everyone has a favorite, I’m sure.

Overall though, the proliferation of breakfast cereals is a real-life horror story. I suppose the mark-up is so high that every producer wants to get into the act and create their own mini-market for their unique cereal.

Here’s a list of them from Wikipedia.

Whereas in the 1970s Kellogg’s perked up the market with a product like Apple Jacks, we now have Apple Jacks Crashers, Apple Jacks Gliders, Apple Jacks Apple Cones, and Apple Jacks Criss Crossed. There are also CinnaScary Apple Jacks and Apple Jacks Double Vision. I’m not even going to bother finding out what the last one means.

Cheerios appeared on the scene in 1941 under the name Cerrioats. It was renamed Cheerios apparently in 1945. But we now have Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Berry Burst Cheerios, Cinnamon Burst Cheerios, Chocolate Cheerios, Frosted Cheerios, Fruity Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, MultiGrain Cheerios, Oat Cluster Cheerios, and Yogurst Burst Cheerios, which comes in strawberry and vanilla. Millenios appeared briefly to celebrate the turn of the century from 1999-2000.

Corn Chex is a good solid product that was introduced in 1958. There are now 11 variations, including Chocolate Chex.

Corn Flakes, which kicked the whole shebang off in 1907, is hanging in. You will also now find Crazy Flakes, Cruncheroos and Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

Some of the oddest brands over the years have promoted movies and TV shows: Ghostbusters Cereal (1988) and Ghostbusters II Cereal (1989); Heart to Heart Blueberry Oat Cluster Crunch; Honey Bunny (Pulp Fiction?); Krusty-O’s (The Simpsons); Nickelodeon Green Slime Cereal (2003); Pac-Man cereal (1983); and Pink Panther Flakes (1972-2007).

Limited Edition Smurfs Pebbles are still on the market, by the way.

You’ll have no trouble finding what you want if you stick to your favorite brands. Because you know exactly where they are so you can get in and out of the cereal aisle with a minimum of muss and fuss. What trips you up is when the store designers shuffle the deck and put your brand on a different shelf. This is a devious ploy to introduce you to cereal impulse purchases.

Or, if you’re at a strange store, an out-of-town market, best of luck. Figure on spending 10 or 15 minutes hunting for your brand.

Last week my daughter, visiting from out of town, asked me to pick up a box of Special K. Sure, I said. But when I got to the aisle I realized my naivety. Special K, but what kind?

I picked up my cell phone to find out. Then I noticed a guy down the aisle on his phone as well. He was reading the names of the brands off to some unknown cereal connoisseur ….

Photo via Flickr.com

There was a lot of health care news last week, much of it about the Supreme Court debate on the health care reform law.

Originally, I was convinced that the court would kick the can down the road and cite a 19th century law that the court can’t rule on a tax issue until the tax actually goes into effect. In this case, the penalty people would have to pay if they don’t purchase health insurance.

Now, it does in fact look like another 5-4 opinion along “party” lines to strike the law down, even though justices are supposed to rule on the law, not their political inclinations. The only point I’d add to what’s already been said is that past courts have been just as influenced by politics and social trends as this one. This isn’t new.

There were other big-ticket stories, too. Second on the hit parade, perhaps, was the passage of the Paul Ryan budget in the U.S. House. It virtually dismantles Medicare, guts Medicaid, and slashes other social services programs.

As alarming as this may be to many, I think passing this bill is a helpful addition to the American health care debate. As a result, people have a clear-cut choice in November. Keep Medicare or can it. Provide medical coverage to the poor via Medicaid or cut them loose to fend for themselves.

If you are in your late 40s or early 50s, and you’ve been paying into the Medicare system for 25 or 30 years, and still you’d like to give it up for the good of the country and the deficit, then you truly are a man or woman who stands behind their beliefs. In my view, you are dreaming if you think companies are going to sell you an affordable health insurance policy at age 75, 70 or even 65, but I salute you nonetheless.

Two other items of interest:

And then there was one: A century ago, Americans came from, and produced, big families. Couples with five to 10 kids weren’t uncommon. In the 1950s and ’60s, the 2.5-child family became the norm.

Families continued to shrink into the 1980s, and the divorce rate rose. Now as we head into the second decade of the 21st century, more people are going solo.

“The number of people living alone globally is skyrocketing,” says The Guardian in the United Kingdom. The number climbed from 153 million in 1996 to 277 million last year, according to a market researcher called Euromonitor International. About 27 percent of households in the U.S. consist of one person.

That breaks down to 18 million women and 14 million men, the majority of them middle-aged adults between 35 and 64. Solo households are king in Sweden, where almost half — 47 percent — have one resident.

The Guardian asks: “So what is driving it? The wealth generated by economic development and the social security provided by modern welfare states have enabled the spike.”

If that’s the case in the U.S., look for another reversal of this trend as changes to the safety net make people more vulnerable to economic shock, and more reliant on family and friends.

Woody Allen syndrome on the rocks: The term “neurotic” has more or less gone the way of the passenger pigeon, the New York Times reports. Decades ago, being neurotic meant that you were quirky but interesting. It has almost fallen out of the language in favor of more medically accurate ways of describing abnormal behavior.

“But in the process,” the Times says, “we’ve lost entirely the romance of neurosis, as well as its physical embodiment — a restless, grumbling, needy presence that once functioned in the collective mind as an early warning system, an inner voice that hedged against excessive optimism.”

In fact, the neurotic has been normalized, experts argue. Barbara Milrod, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College explained: “These are ridiculous times, and if it all makes sense to you, there’s probably something wrong.”