Monday, May 19, 2008

Who Will Bail Out The U. S. Government?

My “stimulus” payment from the federal government arrived on the same day that a front-page article in USA Today reported that federal deficit is far greater than the government admits. While the politicians struggle to bailout the housing crisis and head off a recession, they are also rigging the budget numbers to hide the fact that there is no money to give away.

The reported deficits of hundreds of billions of dollars sound bad. But, USA Today found that federal deficits would be trillions of dollars if the government used the accounting rules that are required of corporations when issuing financial reports to shareholders. The reason for the discrepancy is that trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities to Medicare and Social Security do not show up on the government’s balance sheet. A corporation would have to report future financial obligations as a liability unless it had the funds set aside to make the payments.

But the federal government avoids reporting unfunded liabilities. It collects Social Security and Medicare taxes to supposedly set aside in trust funds to pay for future financial obligations. That allows the government to claim its future obligations are funded. The ruse is that the money never remains in the trust funds. Instead money is “borrowed” from the trust funds to pay for present day obligations. Because the money is “borrowed” from funds the government controls, it never reports that obligation as part of the deficit.

What the practice means is that a mathematically equivalent expression for “borrowed from the trust fund” would be “spent the trust fund.” But the government never admits that it has spent the trust funds because that would undermine the entire rationale for collecting separate Social Security and Medicare taxes.

None of this is a secret. When I wrote The Two Headed Quarter I included a chart that showed that projected indebtedness to the Social Security trust fund was expected to increase from $1.5 trillion to $4.0 trillion between the years 2003 to 2014. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) made the projection. I simply made a chart of data taken off the CBO Website. The chart makes clear that the government has no plans to every pay back the money it is “borrowing” from the trust fund.

Even though these trust funds exist on paper, the fact is money is not in them.

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy

Monday, May 12, 2008

Confusing Prices at the Grocery Store

One of the frustrations with grocery shopping is the refusal by stores to post prices on many individual items. In fact, if the item costs less than a dollar the stores rarely post a single-item price. If you are not facile with division in your head or have a calculator, comparing prices is difficult and this is clearly the intention of the store. Yesterday, I was especially irritated because most of the items I bought had pricing designed to thwart rational price-comparisons.

At the produce area limes were priced 15 for $2. I’m sure the store would have liked for me to pick up 15 but I only needed 2. But, knowing the cost per lime requires dividing $2 by 15 to get 13.3 cents. That is not a simple mental division to arrive at the single item price.

With lemons the comparison problem was worse because bulk lemons were sold by weight while loose lemons were sold by quantity. The loose lemons were priced 2 for $1.38 while the same size lemons packaged in 2-pounds bags sold for $3.98. Both prices staggered me; were talking about lemons not apples or pears. It brought home how fast the prices on produce (and all other groceries) have risen in recent months.

I needed about 6 lemons; so how should I chose? I counted 7 lemons in the 2-pound bag so that is 57 cents per lemon compared to $1.38 divided by 2, or 69 cents per loose lemon. That means if I buy six lemons loose it will cost slightly more than the 7 in a bag so I bought a bag.

At the frozen meals section the quantity pricing was used to hide higher prices. In contrast to the lemons you could spend more per item buying in bulk. I reached for some meals on “special” that were priced at 2 for $6. Then I realized a competing product priced normally at $2.89 each is actually cheaper. I put the higher-priced meal back behind the large sign advertising the special price and replaced it with the less expensive product that lacked the flashy signage.

I felt like having a chocolate bar on the way out, but once again at the register I needed to perform division to know the price. My favorite Hershey chocolate with almonds bars were priced 3 for $2. I added one to my groceries because I only wanted to eat one and it rang up for 67 cents.

Of course stores intentionally post prices in this manner because it works in two ways in the store’s favor.

First, it suggests to customers that they buy quantities greater than actually needed. Most customers think they need to buy the quantity posted to get the advertised price. In fact most of the time the pro-rated price will ring up at the register, just as it did for my candy bar. But sometimes you do need the entire quantity to get the price and many customers don’t want the aggravation of finding out at the register that they needed one more of an item to get a price break.

But customers would be better off buying exactly what they need and fighting at the register when necessary if the store over charges. Why shop for special prices and clip coupons if you spend 50 cents extra on many purchases because of an artificial number the store selected for quantity? Consumers should control decisions on quantities to avoid wasting money and food.

Second, stores subvert market forces by making price comparisons difficult. The market cannot work properly if consumers cannot compare prices. It might be aggravating, but grocery shoppers should take small calculators along and do the division. Consumers should base buying decisions on single-item prices for the quantity they actually

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy