Inflation: It's worse than it seems

Low wage growth + High price growth = Misery.

Inflation around the government's target of 2 per cent - or even up at 3-4 per cent as it has been recently - does not sound too bad but people are complaining about making ends meet. Part of that is the squeeze on incomes which are rising more slowly than prices. Yet lurking behind the innocuous-sounding headline rates of change for inflation, and smooth words of reassurance from the Bank of England, is a harsher reality. Several items have more than doubled in price since the Bank was made responsible for inflation and interest rates in 1997, despite the headline measure only increasing by one-third in that period and the annual rate averaging barely 2 per cent.

Overlay from Timetric

In the early 2000s, earnings were rising faster than inflation but the pattern changed in 2007. Earnings growth has slowed dramatically while the rate of price increases has risen. Indeed, from the start of 2008, prices have risen by 15 per cent while average earnings have increased by only 5 per cent. It's no wonder that people are feeling the squeeze. The squeeze probably feels worse as we tend to notice the items which are rising in price strongly! The chart below shows all the top level components of the index - and a considerable variation in the rates of inflation among the different goods and services. Some components have fallen since 1997 - prices are actually lower than 15 years ago - while others have risen by much more than the average. By far the largest riser has been education - a combination of university fees (which rose in 2006), private school and nursery fees, and evening classes.

Overlay from Timetric

The story is more striking at the next level of disaggregation. Since 1997 (our charts have set May 1997=100), transport insurance has more than tripled in price and fuels (we show gas) have more than doubled. But more surprising are the price rises of some run-of-the-mill items such as postal services (up 94 per cent since 1997), petrol (+134 per cent), cigarettes (+137 per cent) and train/air tickets (+113 per cent). As if to prove the point that basics have been hit hard, chocolate, the jam on your bread, and fish and chips are among the largest risers in the food category and have risen by more than double the aggregate rate of inflation (up 36 per cent as measured by the CPI).

UK CPI: High Rising Components 1997-2012 from Timetric

Too sanguine? Bank of England chief Mervyn King (photo: Getty Images)

Lauren Buljubasic is an analyst at Timetric, provider of economic data visualisation and analysis

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.