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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear