You can hardly read a news source these days without reading one article or the other about inflation. There’s plain vanilla inflation, there’s shrinkflation, and there’s skimpflation. There is, one might argue, an inflationary spiral in coining terms related to inflation!
But as students of economics, I found a recent blogpost written by Virginia Postrel quite fascinating. She speaks about inflation being a formative experience as a young person growing up in the 70’s, and for this blog post, she asked some folks who were around then to speak of their memories regarding the inflation episodes of the 1970’s.
And what made this such an enjoyable read is the fact that day to day activities and behaviors changed due to inflation. It’s one thing to speak about how prices went up, and households cut back on their expenditures. But it is quite another to speak about how the lives of ordinary people changed as a consequence of inflation:
In the late 1970s, Tom Noonan, then around 20 years old, worked in a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Louisville, Kentucky. His job was to change price tags a couple of times a week. He’d go through the store with a box cutter and a pricing gun, slicing off the old price stickers and applying the new, higher ones. It’s one of the 1970s memories that came pouring out of my Facebook friends when I asked about their experiences.https://vpostrel.substack.com/p/from-the-archives-remembering-inflation
Not every store was so meticulous. Many just slapped the new prices on top of the old ones. “I half remember peeling off price labels to get a lower price (maybe on a book?), not even realizing that what I was doing was wrong or illegitimate,” confesses Mike Schiffer, a law school IT manager born in 1968, in the Facebook thread. “I don’t think I really understood how prices were set or changed at that point.”
Which activities, tasks and chores have changed in our lives today because of the recent bout of inflation? How does inflation manifest itself in terms of how we lead our day-to-day lives? With barcode scanners, Tom Noonan’s job no longer need exist in most (but not all!) cases, and that is a good example of how you might want to think about the intersection of inflation, technology and day to day lives.
And if you’ll allow me a brief but entertaining digression: this would also be a good time to talk about, well, barcodes:
How vast mega-stores emerged with the help of a design originally drawn in the sand in 1948 by Joseph Woodland as he sat on a Florida beach, observing the furrows left behind, an idea came to him which would – eventually – become the barcode. This now ubiquitous stamp, found on virtually every product, was designed to make it easier for retailers to automate the process of recording sales. But, as Tim Harford explains, its impact would prove to be far greater than that. The barcode changed the balance of power between large and small retailers.https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04k0066
Not just this episode – please listen to the entire series, and purchase the book if you can. This series remains a great way to understand how our day to day lives in the modern economy are impacted in surprising ways by inventions we take for granted. Such as the barcode, for one – but on an entirely related note, also check out the episode on shipping containers:
How a simple steel box changed the face of global trade. Shipping goods around the world was – for many centuries – expensive, risky and time-consuming. But 60 years ago the trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean changed all that by selling the idea of container shipping to the US military. Against huge odds he managed to turn “containerisation” from a seemingly impractical idea into a massive industry – one that slashed the cost of transporting goods internationally and provoked a boom in global trade. Tim Harford tells the remarkable story of the shipping container.https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08jbd20
Both, of course, have a lot to do with inflation today – and both are not objects that would come up in an introductory course on economics, more’s the pity.
But a useful question to think about as a student of economics today is this: which of our day to day activities today are impacted by inflation in surprising and unexpected ways? Or put another way, what would be a good Tom Noonan example from today?
Thinking about this question is a good way to think about economics, but even better, economics in conjunction with technology and better-est of all, it helps you become a keener observer of life around you. An economic naturalist, if you will.