Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Slate

December 18, 2013

Is Whole Foods inflation or growth?

WASHINGTON — Stephanie Strom's New York Times article about how Whole Foods is finding success in markets like Boise that are a bit outside the stereotypical yuppie corridors reminds me of a wonky point-one important reason to think central banks should focus on nominal income and nominal GDP rather than inflation is that "inflation" is harder and harder to define the more you move to an advanced service economy.



For example:

              

Two years ago, when Whole Foods announced that it wanted to expand to 1,000 stores from a little more than 300 and open in places where it was assumed that consumers had never heard of kale and wouldn't dream of spending $6 for a pound of humanely raised pork, some investors scoffed. Its traditional grocery store competitors snickered at the strategy. And even those on Wall Street enamored with the chain's success expressed doubts that its forays inland into smaller, less urban markets would succeed. . . . Anne Madsen had come hoping to find baby artichokes for a recipe she wanted to try. She was not disappointed. "I do shop at regular groceries, but I like organic products and often am looking for things that are a bit unusual," Ms. Madsen said.

          


On a conceptual level, there's a huge economic difference between people buying more expensive pork because the more expensive pork is better and people buying more expensive pork because the price of pork is rising. But the question of whether or not humanely raised organic pork is "really" better than factory farmed pork does not strike me as especially something the Bureau of Labor Statistics is well-equipped to answer. From one vantage point, rising interest in local sourcing, organic production methods, and other snazzy fads is just a negative supply shock to the economy - people are turning their backs on efficient production methods. And naturally if that happens you'll see a rising price level, and stagnant living standards. But if you think these fads are popular because they're better, then it's a sign of rising living standards.

You can try to sort of recursively define this in the sense of "if people are shopping there it must be better." But that's not right. When I lived on the same block as a Safeway, I very occasionally shopped at Whole Foods. Now that I live two blocks from a Whole Foods, I shop there much more often and my grocery costs have risen. I'm paying more, and the product is arguably higher quality, but I'm not paying for the quality - I'm paying because I'm lazy.

There is a lot more organic food being eaten in 2013 than there was 25 years ago. Has that improved or lives or just been a waste of time and money? I don't think there's an unequivocal answer to that kind of question, which is a reason for policymakers to put more weight on broad nominal variables and less weight on the statistical calculation of the price level.

 

1
Text Only
Slate
  • The case for separate beds

    The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 18, 2014

  • Allergies are the real midlife crisis

    One of the biggest mysteries is why the disease comes and goes, and then comes and goes again. People tend to experience intense allergies between the ages of 5 and 16, then get a couple of decades off before the symptoms return in the 30s, only to diminish around retirement age.

    April 16, 2014

  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Boston doctors can now prescribe you a bike

    The City of Boston this week is rolling out a new program that's whimsically known as "Prescribe-a-Bike." Part medicine, part welfare, the initiative allows doctors at Boston Medical Center to write "prescriptions" for low-income patients to get yearlong memberships to Hubway, the city's bike-share system, for only $5.

    April 11, 2014

  • A man with amnesia taught us how memories become personal

    Although not as celebrated as the late American amnesiac H.M., for my money K.C. taught us more important and poignant things about how memory works. He showed how we make memories personal and personally meaningful. He also had a heck of a life story.

    April 7, 2014

  • Investing more money in tornado research would be a disaster

    This week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funding to focus on improving forecasts of "high impact weather events" like tornadoes and hurricanes "for the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy."

    April 3, 2014

  • Hate With Friends, the fun new Facebook tool

    Hating movies, earworms, conventions of grammar, clothing brands, diet fads - you get the twinkle of pleasure without the glob of guilt, or the cold brush of fear. A Coldplay song doesn't know you hate it.

    April 2, 2014

  • dog-sunglasses.jpg Do animals have a sense of humor?

    Right now, in a high-security research lab at Northwestern University's Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, scientists are tickling rats. Their goal? To develop a pharmaceutical-grade happiness pill. But their efforts might also produce some of the best evidence yet that humor isn't something experienced exclusively by human beings.

    March 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • news_zuckerberg.jpg The logic of Facebook's multibillion-dollar shopping spree

    Yet again, Facebook has spent a gaudy sum of money to buy a hot startup. This time, it's virtual reality pioneer Oculus VR, at a purchase price of $2 billion. And don't be surprised if Mark Zuckerberg continues on his buying spree.

    March 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140325-AMX-BARISTA251.jpg Coffee's third wave? The Apple to Starbucks' Microsoft

    Do you remember when Starbucks was cool? It opened in Seattle in the 1970s as a local specialty roaster, a trendy alternative to the prevailing generic swill. But the price of conquest is cachet. What was once novel — the warm décor, the gentle music, the faux-Italian lingo — has become banal. Today's coffee snobs would rather snort Sanka than set foot inside a Starbucks

    March 26, 2014 2 Photos