Monday, June 14, 2021

Random thoughts about inflation

 

Last week, the Labor Department said consumer prices were 4.99% higher in May as compared to May 2020. It was the biggest year-to-year gain since August 2008, just before the Great Recession’s crash, when it was 5.3%.

 

Five is high, but it is definitely not high enough. Talk to anyone who controls the purse strings – be it the head of a business or household. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about inputs for a manufacturer or the grocery bills for a family, everything is up dramatically, in most cases double digits.

 

That’s what inflation statistics should reflect.

 

And, they would, if we were using previous methods of tracking it.

 

Referencing the website shadowstats.com, if the government were still using the pre-1990 math, inflation would be just over 8%. Using the pre-1980 math, we’d be at 13%.

 

That unlucky 13 certainly seems more like it. It’s that painful.

 

So, why is the government telling us it’s “only” 5%?

 

Because, it makes for good politicking.

 

They’ll claim that the formulae were changed through the years to make the numbers more reflective of reality and less prone to volatility, but, really, it was done to keep us from getting restless and booting the powerbrokers out of office if we had a better understanding of how bad inflation really is.

 

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While government is playing us while playing the numbers, corporations are doing the same in their own way.

 

Shrinkflation has always been a thing. That’s when companies shrink their packaging and still charge you that old price for what you they want you to believe is the same amount of food. You’ve seen it – or maybe you’ve missed it -- with cereals, pastas, canned goods, potato chips, pet food, and paper towels through the years. It’s a sly way of increasing profits as costs escalate…or increasing profits just to increase profits.  

 

This practice has gone into hyper-speed over the past 15 months. It’s been done to keep product on the shelves (such as making more toilet paper rolls, just smaller, to protect against hoarders) and to mitigate the impacts of inflation on food processors (the prices for vegetables and meats are out of control).

 

Despite this, grocery bills still remain 7 to 10 percent higher versus last year. You’re paying a lot more and getting a lot less.

 

Only recently have some talkers and media outlets (like Glenn Beck, the CBS Evening News, and Washington Post) brought this to light. Expect to hear more about this in the coming months, especially with many players like Campbell’s, Proctor and Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and others announcing price increases and other changes coming this summer and fall. 

 

Shop wisely.    


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The Federal Reserve and officials in the Biden Administration have said that this wave of inflation is transitory. They believe, or want us to believe, that it’s short-lived and corrections will naturally come into play by year’s end.

 

Don’t buy it.

 

Manage your personal and professional budgets like these prices are here to stay and will be getting higher over the next eight to twelve months.

 

Once businesses and governments have consumers committed to higher prices and taxes there’s usually not much going back. Plus, there aren’t many policy tools and theories that can allow a return to the “normal” we knew not long ago.

 

And, if we began to feel deflation (which is when consumer prices decrease while purchasing power increases), there would be chaos on Wall Street and in the halls of Washington DC. The typical assumption with deflation is that the economy is contracting from an activity standpoint (rather than seeking its preferred level with prices). Were deflation to occur, it would lead to a plethora of economic policies that would, again, inspire more inflation.


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One input to consumer pricing that is seeing a significant increase is the cost of labor.

 

Employers everywhere -- and especially in states like ours that have a comparatively-high unemployment payout and are also maintaining the $300 unemployment bonus – are fretting about the lack of workers because so many people have found unemployment to be a lifestyle and not a lifeline. So, they are pulling out all the stops, increasing starting wages dramatically.

 

Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but this was by design.

 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle knew they had to increase the minimum wage, especially with only 29 states and the District of Columbia having a minimum above the federal government’s $7.25 standard. Given the Fight for Fifteen and other movements of the past few years, they knew that, or something close to it, was where they needed to be.

 

But, who was going to be the bad guy to change the laws?

 

Republicans wouldn’t. Even Democrats would have seen their biggest supporters turn on them and, especially in southern states, they would have set themselves up for failure at the polls.

 

So, rather than changing it by fiat, they changed the de facto minimum wage by upping unemployment payouts and issuing stimuli (under both Biden and Trump, I might add), and increasing the Child Tax Credit which all force businesses to be more competitive with incomes doled out by other employers and these newfound government subsidies alike.

It’s a $15 minimum without all the political theater and loss of incumbency.

 

 

 

From the 14 June 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Allow youth participation on non-profit boards

 

Studies by the Corporation for National and Community Service consistently show that only 19% of New York residents volunteer over the course of a year, placing us among the least engaged in the whole nation.

 

Think about that: Less than one of every five New Yorkers gives of themselves.

 

To improve those numbers and, more importantly, the human condition and the quality of life of those served by volunteers, we need to change our culture of participation.

 

To do that, we have to start young.

 

Goodness knows we try – most Participation in Government classes at high schools require some sort of mandatory volunteerism (which is oxymoronic). It shows in the participation rates. 20% of New Yorkers aged 16 to 19 volunteer. Compare that to those who came before them: Only 14% of college-aged adults volunteer and 15% of those in the 25 to 34 age bracket do.    

 

So, we force kids into volunteerism, some of them dig it and stick with it, but many just fade away and stay away. We need to reverse that trend and find a way to keep these people – our future - engaged in their communities when they’ve got their foot in the door.

 

To do that, we need to treat them like adults and allow them to understand and participate in the high-level operations of the organizations that they are working with. If we could have them sit on the board of directors, we would afford them the chance to know the operational, financial, marketing, and recruiting aspects of their chosen non-profit. By doing so, that board could capitalize on the bright and new ideas and youthful energy of the minor, which could help bring in more new blood to achieve the charity’s stated goals.

 

Unfortunately, New York State law doesn’t give most of those minors and boards the chance to do that.

 

Under Not-For-Profit Corporation Law – NPC section 701 -- board participation for youth is extended to minors down to the age of 16, but only for those organizations that educate youth or provide them recreation. A quick roll call would show non-profits like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, charter schools, and your local little league.

 

While that could be a fair number of organizations, it impacts only those non-profits that provide direct services to that youth and her peers. It does not allow minors to sit on the boards of groups through which the minors would provide services to others such as the United Way, Meals on Wheels, fire departments, or any number of foundations and charities.

 

That approach to board participation does not promote volunteerism at its best. Instead of having the teen approach his directorial duties with “what can I and this organization do for the community?” he’s encouraged to be a selfish board member who sees his role as “what can this organization do for me and my friends?”

 

We need to change that way of thinking by changing New York’s laws. We need to allow minors to be a part of the boards of all non-profits in our borders. While we’re at it, we need to drop the age, too, from 16 to 14, to recruit kids in middle school who can make their efforts infectious while in high school.

 

Now is the perfect time to do it. The pandemic gutted many non-profits while at the same time laying bare society, exposing and increasing needs for charitable actions. It’s all hands on deck. All of them. Young and old.

 

Never discount what young people are capable of. In my decades of volunteering for the Boy Scouts, I’ve encountered many teens who are wise beyond their years and brighter and more caring than many adults I know. We as a society (and as adults who run non-profits) need to capitalize on that – a simple fix to state law could really change the business model of our institutions and promote a lifetime of service in an era when it’s truly needed.

 

From the 07 June 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, May 28, 2021

Be aware of oak wilt

 

It seems like Western New York’s forests are under constant attack, in wars that they can’t win.


In the early 1900s, chestnut trees were all but exterminated from our woodlands by chestnut blight. Dutch elm disease wiped out our impressive stands of elms from the 1950s through the 1980s. Today, millions of ash trees are being decimated by the emerald ash borer. And, mature beech trees will be totally eliminated from our forests in the coming years thanks to beech bark disease.

 

As our forests reel from those diseases and pests, and are forever changed, more pestilence is piled upon them. The newest of those threats being posed to our woodlands is oak wilt.

 

It is a serious tree disease that kills thousands of oaks each year in the midwest. It is caused by a fungus -- Ceratocystis fagacearum -- which grows in the water-conducting xylem of host trees, causing the vessels to produce gummy plugs that prevent water transport. As water movement within the tree is slowed, the tree starves to death. The leaves wilt and drop off, and eventually the tree dies.


Until only recently, oak wilt was almost unheard of in New York. There was a small outbreak in Glenville in Schenectady County in 2008 that was contained and then found to have recurred in 2013, which was also contained.

 

Six times since, though, the wilt reared its ugly head in the Empire State.  

 

Realize, those are the known occurrences. Others might slip under the radar.

 

That’s concerning when you consider that the fungus is dangerously close. In 2016, a homeowner in Canandaigua noticed that an oak tree on their property began dying with no identifiable cause. Samples from the tree were sent to the Cornell Plant Disease Diagnostic Clinic, where they tested positive for the fungus that causes the disease. In 2019, a number of infected trees were discovered not far from there in the towns of Bristol and South Bristol.

 

There is no known treatment to contain and kill the oak wilt fungus other than to remove infected trees, as well as any surrounding host oak trees. The Department of Environmental Conservation took down the trees in question, deployed root disruption, and initiated an emergency order establishing a protective zone prohibiting the movement of oak material out of the immediate area to prevent the fungus from spreading. The DEC is also conducting regular aerial and ground surveys to identify additional trees that may be infected.


It seems like a lot of concern and work, but it’s absolutely necessary to save the forests from the spread of oak wilt. All oaks are susceptible to it, but red oaks die much faster than white oaks. Red oaks can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months to die and they spread the disease quickly. White oaks can take years to die.


Property owners and outdoors enthusiasts are the first line of defense and need to stay aware of any issues impacting oaks in their yards or in the wilds. Symptoms of the disease include browning of leaves starting at the outer edge and progressing inward toward the mid-vein of the leaf; branch dieback that may be visible starting at the top of the canopy and progressing downward; leaves suddenly wilting (hence the name); leaf loss during spring and summer; and fungal spore mats raising and splitting the bark.


The DEC asks that the public report any occurrences where an oak tree dies over a short period of time, especially if it occurs between July and August. You can use the toll-free Forest Health Information Line toll-free at 1.866.640.0652 or send an email with photos and site specifics to foresthealth@dec.ny.gov.


It is very important that we regularly inspect trees for the disease and engage the state if we see something amiss. Not only would oak wilt eliminate some of the most brilliant trees from our fall landscapes, but if oak trees are gone from our forests, especially in the southern tier, it will remove an important food that provides sustenance for a variety of animals from deer to bear to turkeys to squirrels. Years ago, these creatures lost chestnuts. Now, they’re losing beechnuts. If they were to lose acorns, too, there would be a serious, wide-ranging environmental crisis.

 

So, if you see something, say something.

 

 

31 May 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News