What's this about a sudden worry over inflation?
NEW YORK — For the past two weeks, I have read with interest the forebodings of American economists on the subject of inflation. On March 22, the Federal Reserve hiked short-term interest rates based on fears of inflation, and on the following day, journalists reported the alarming news that after a long period of relative stability, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was suddenly rising.
Was I born yesterday, or am I living on a different planet from the guys who forecast our economic woes? You see, despite low interest rates, the past few years of my life have been lived in what I would consider to be a pretty fair continuum of inflation.
In the past year or two our family has come to dine only rarely on steak, veal chops, or lamb chops, owing to escalating prices. Over the past three years, heating oil charges for our modest Connecticut home rose about 30 percent, from $1.27 to $1.65 per gallon. And in the past two years, the price of gas for our cars has risen about 40 percent.
And then, of course, there are education costs. College tuition for our daughter went up this year by a whopping $2,400 - more than 10 percent. Oh, and there is health insurance for the self-employed, which in 2004 cost our family $7,088.32 (up from $5,683.71 in 2003) - this with a family deductible of $7,500! But hey, I guess that since health and education are separate governmental agencies from the Federal Reserve, healthcare and tuition costs haven't been noticed much there.
We bought our home outright, in 1992, with an inheritance. And we feel awfully fortunate we did. What with the recent rise in our town's property taxes - which are twice what they were when we bought the place and 17 percent more than they were just two years ago - we probably couldn't afford to live here if we had a mortgage. On the other hand, though the value of our house has climbed about 70 percent since its purchase, we can't afford to move.
Like Fafner, the deluded, treasure-hoarding dragon of Wagner's "Siegfried," my husband and I used to fall asleep at night contemplating the bounty of our inflating property values. One year, our home actually made more money than we did. The problem, however, was that when we considered selling and moving elsewhere, it became clear that, what with brokerage costs, moving costs, and the rising cost of homes anywhere we would consider living, a move would inevitably mean downsizing.
Lest you think I'm a complete bozo, and know nothing about the alleged period of monetary stability Americans have recently enjoyed, I will admit that there are certain things that haven't become more expensive in the past few years. We pay less for airline tickets than ever, if we pay at all. (Could this be why so many airlines are going broke?) We pay less than ever for more phones and more long-distance phone calls than we could have ever dreamed of. (Could this be why the phone companies are still squeezed?) We pay less for cars. (Could this be why so many auto companies are struggling?) And, of course, one other crucial item in our lives has not inflated recently, what with flat interest rates: our bank accounts.
I don't want you to think that I'm complaining. I consider myself extremely fortunate. I have a nice home, an adequate income, and aside from the lease on my automobile, I'm debt free. But I'm nervous. You see, if a sophisticated guy like Alan Greenspan is just now noticing inflation, no wonder the average American has more consumer debt than ever before in our history. And no wonder our national debt is so astounding. Frankly, I'd like to know who is going to pay the piper when all those debts are called in....
All I can say is: Thankfully the best things in life are still free.
• Dana Mack, a senior fellow at the Center for Education Studies, is author of 'The Assault on Parenthood' and 'The Book of Marriage.'