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August 12th, 2022 (Permalink)

Zeroing in on Inflation

The day before yesterday, the President of the United States, Joe Biden, made the following remarks:

Before I begin today, I want to say a word about the news that came out today relative to the economy. Actually, I just want to say a number: zero. Today, we received news that our economy had zero percent inflation in the month of July. Zero percent. Here’s what that means: While the price of some things…went up last month, the price of other things went down by the same amount. The result: zero inflation last month. But people are hurting. But zero inflation last month.1

One might well assume that Biden misspoke or misread his teleprompter, given that he often does so, except that on the same day the Vice President said: "Today, we learned that last month our economy had zero percent inflation."2 Moreover, the administration's spokeswoman bleated:

We just received news that our economy had 0% inflation in July. While the price of some things went up, the price of others, like gas, clothing, and more, dropped.3

So, what's going on here? Clearly, Biden wasn't simply misreading or misspeaking; instead, this is a considered public claim made by his administration. Yet the rate of inflation is currently 8.5%4. There were, of course, immediate accusations that the administration was lying, but it's hard to believe that it would lie in such a brazen, easily-debunked fashion.

Inflation is the loss of value of money over time, that is, a dollar today will buy less than it did in the past5. As a result, the rate of inflation is a ratio, usually expressed as a percentage, between what money would buy in the past and what it will buy today. The percentage you usually see is the difference between the past value and the current value; for instance, the current rate means that a dollar today is worth 8.5% less than a dollar a year ago. This percentage decrease is calculated using the same formula for percentage change explained in the entry from earlier this month6.

It's seldom mentioned that the rate of inflation is calculated as an annual rate, that is, it's the percentage decline in the value of money over the course of a year. However, it is possible to calculate a monthly inflation rate, and this is what the Biden administration has done. The Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is what is used to calculate the annualized rate, was unchanged last month, which means the monthly rate was 0%. As explained in the press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)7, which calculates the CPI, this was largely due to the decline in the price of gasoline last month offsetting increases in the cost of other products and services.

The press release itself did not calculate a monthly inflation rate―in fact, the BLS seems not to announce a rate itself―rather, it just reported the CPI for July. It's the Biden administration that decided to announce this as "0% inflation in July". Notice the careful wording of the President, V.P., and spokeswoman, all of whom mentioned the month.

Phrases such as "inflation in the month of July" are ambiguous between the annual rate in July and the monthly rate for July. Technically, the monthly inflation rate for July was 0%, so the administration was not literally lying in saying so. However, it's at best a half-truth, and wholly misleading to say so without pointing out that this is not what most people mean by the inflation rate.


Notes:

  1. "Remarks by President Biden at Signing of S. 3373, 'The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promises to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022'", The White House, 8/10/2022.
  2. "Remarks by Vice President Harris at the United Steelworkers Constitutional Convention", The White House, 8/10/2022.
  3. Karine Jean-Pierre, "We just received news that our economy had 0% inflation in July.", Nitwitter, 8/10/2022.
  4. Rob Wile, "Consumer prices rose by 8.5% year over year in July as the summer of inflation wears on", NBC News, 8/10/2022.
  5. See: Inflation and "Record-High" Gas Prices, 6/26/2022.
  6. See: The Incredible Shrinking Economy, 8/4/2022.
  7. "Consumer Price Index Summary", Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8/10/2022.

August 6th, 2022 (Permalink)

Rouge or Rogue?

WARNING: The following post may make sensitive readers gag, and cause immature readers to giggle.

A recent article in The New York Post begins:

Astronauts have been warned against masturbating in space over fears female astronauts could get impregnated by stray fluids. There are strict guidelines over “alone-time” onboard in zero gravity. Scientists have warned even the slightest rouge droplet could cause chaos on board.1

All I have to say to this is: if your droplets are red, you're doing it wrong. See a doctor when you get back to earth.

"Rouge" is the French word for "red". In English, it is a noun, referring to reddish makeup, such as blusher or lipstick. It's not usually used as an adjective, but the online Cambridge dictionary's examples show a few cases, such as "rouge makeup"2.

In contrast, "rogue" is an adjective meaning "solitary", "out of control", and usually "dangerous", as in "rogue elephant"3. So, obviously, the reporter meant "rogue" not "rouge".

The New York Post reprinted the article from an Australian news site4, which has since corrected the misspelling. I quoted the The Post reprint, above, because it is uncorrected as of the time of writing. No reporter is credited on the story, for perhaps obvious reasons.

"Rouge" for "rogue" is a surprisingly common misspelling; I've seen it previously, though I can't remember exactly where. It's also one that your spell-checking program may not save you from since both are English words. Given that "rouge" is usually a noun in English, and "rogue" an adjective, you might expect that a grammar-checking program would be able to flag this mistake, but I tried the offending sentence on several such online programs, none of which objected.

Thankfully, the ever-vigilant Snopes has already debunked the quoted article5―not the rouge/rogue mix-up, but the claim that NASA warned astronauts against orbital onanism, or that a male astronaut might accidentally impregnate a female one. A little thought would indicate how unlikely it is that a "rouge droplet" would manage to float into a uterus, even if the female astronaut were floating about the cabin naked. Rather, the "warning" was a joke on a recent Conan O'Brien comedy show.

Much of what passes for news these days is a joke, and much of what passes for humor is not funny. This supposed news story is, literally, an unfunny joke.


Notes:

  1. "Astronauts should not masturbate in zero gravity, NASA scientist says", The New York Post, 7/22/2022
  2. "Rouge", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 8/5/2022.
  3. "Rogue", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 8/5/2022
  4. "NASA scientist explains why astronauts should not masturbate in zero gravity", News.com.au, 7/22/2022
  5. Dan Evon, "Did NASA Warn Astronauts Not to Masturbate in Space?", Snopes, 7/22/2022

August 4th, 2022 (Permalink)

The Incredible Shrinking Economy

Not only is the U.S. economy shrinking1, but so are the items you can buy at the store, assuming you have any money left to spend. A recent episode of the PBS News Hour included a segment on "shrinkflation"2, an ugly word for an ugly practice: manufacturers shrinking the size of a product rather than raising the price, in order to keep up with inflation. Many people may notice when the price of a product increases, but they are unlikely to notice that the product's size decreases when the price remains the same. How many of us pay close attention to the number of ounces listed on a product, or the number of sheets in the rolls of toilet paper we buy? I sure don't, but I think it may be time to start.

This is an important practice to be aware of, especially in these times of high inflation. Decreasing the size of a product without warning is really a hidden price increase, and it may not only fool people into buying the product, it may also deceive them into thinking that inflation isn't as bad as it is.

I commend the PBS News Hour for this useful consumer information, and I recommend viewing the short segment or reading the transcript. However, this is not what I set out to write about.

Near the beginning of the segment, there is the following exchange between the reporter Paul Solman and consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky:

Dworsky: The first one here is kind of an egregious example. Angel Soft toilet paper used to have 425 sheets on a roll. The new one has 320.

Solman: Wow! That's 25 percent. …

Dworsky: I remember the Charmin of the 1960s…and it had 650 sheets on a roll. The biggest one today has 366. It's about 90 percent less.

Can you spot the problem? This brief exchange includes two cases of figuring the amount of shrinkage of the size of the product as a percentage of its previous size, one by the reporter and one by the consumer advocate. Here's a hint: one is correct and the other incorrect, but which?

Before we answer these questions, let's do a short refresher on percentage change. There are two ways that the size of something can change: either it increases or it decreases. Both ways can be measured in terms of a percentage, and the way to do so is the same in each case: first, subtract the old size from the new one, then divide by the old size, and finally multiply by one hundred to convert it into a percentage. In mathematical symbols:

x% = n − oo × 100

Where "x" represents the percentage change, "n" is the new size, and "o" is the old size. So, n − o is the new size minus the old size―that is, the difference between the old and new sizes in ounces or sheets or whatever units―which is the amount that the item's size has changed. Dividing this difference by the old size gives the ratio of the change in size to the original size. Finally, multiplying by 100 converts this ratio into a percentage. If the resulting percentage is positive, then that indicates growth; whereas, if it's negative, that means it has decreased in size.

Now, let's use the formula to calculate the two percentages from the interview. Angel Soft used to have 425 sheets, which means that o = 425, but now it has only 320, so n = 320. Therefore, n − o = 320 − 425 = −105. So, the roll has decreased by 105 sheets. −105/425 = −.247, which is the ratio between the amount of decrease and the original size. −.247 × 100 = −24.7%, or −25%, rounding to the nearest percentage point: this is the amount of decrease as a percentage of the original size. So, Solman was right.

I'll leave it to you to calculate the percentage change for Charmin. According to Dworsky, o = 650 and n = 366. If you plug these numbers into the equation, you should get about: −43.7% or −44% rounded off, which is considerably less than 90%.

Calculating percentage change can be confusing because there are two numbers involved, one for the size before and one after the change, and it's easy to forget which is subtracted from which, as well as which divides into the result of that subtraction. Still, it's possible to develop your number sense so that you'll notice when a percentage change claim just doesn't seem right.

If something decreases by 50%, then 50% of it is left; that is, take away half, and half is left. In general, if something decreases by x%, then 100−x% of it is left. This is enough to raise doubts about the claim that the size of Charmin had decreased 90%, because that would mean that the new Charmin was only 10% the size of the old one, which is implausible. Moreover, if you look at the two numbers, the new size―366 sheets―is approximately half the old size―650 sheets. So, you can tell that 90% must be too high, and that the actual decrease is closer to 50%. Moreover, you can do all this in your head, without putting pencil to paper or using a calculator.

An important consequence of the fact that 100−x% is left after an x% decrease is that nothing can decrease by more than 100%. If something decreases by 100%, then it's gone―that is, if you take 100% of it away, that leaves 0%. Nonetheless, percentage decrease is so confusing that you'll occasionally see people claiming decreases greater than 100%. For instance:

June represented a new low for disclosed ransomware attacks in the U.S. this year, which have been steadily declining since the end of March. …[T]he number of reported ransomware attacks in the U.S. hit its peak in January and its low in June. Comparing just January to June, there was more than a 300% decrease in the number of reported attacks.3

A. K. Dewdney discussed a similar claim in which an electric company advertised that "by installing a metal halide fixture the consumer is…promised an amazing savings of '200 percent on energy'.4" That really is amazing: apparently, the fixture would be generating more electricity than it was using!


Notes:

  1. See: Yes, We Have No Recession, 7/28/2022.
  2. Paul Solman & Diane Lincoln Estes, "Manufacturers use ‘shrinkflation’ to pass costs on to consumers", PBS News Hour, 7/29/2022.
  3. Peyton Doyle, "Public sector still facing ransomware attacks amid decline", TechTarget, 7/7/2022.
  4. A. K. Dewdney, 200% of Nothing: An Eye-Opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Math Abuse and Innumeracy (1993), pp. 3-5.

Puzzle
August 2nd, 2022 (Permalink)

Crack the Combination IV

The combination of a lock is three digits long. The following are some incorrect combinations:

  1. 532: Two digits are correct but each is in the wrong position.
  2. 241: One digit is correct and in the right position.
  3. 751: Two digits are correct but each is in the wrong position.
  4. 347: One digit is correct but in the wrong position.

Can you determine the correct combination from the above clues?

WARNING: Do not operate heavy machinery while working this puzzle.

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Recommended Reading
July 31st, 2022 (Permalink)

The Pull-It Surprise


Notes:

  1. Mark von Hagen, "The Pulitzer Prize the NYT Should Not Have Won", History News Network, 7/24/2003
  2. This refers to Janet Cooke; see: Mike Sager, "The fabulist who changed journalism", Columbia Journalism Review, Spring/2016

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing and rearranged the order of the excerpts in order to emphasize points.


July 28th, 2022 (Updated: 7/29/2022) (Permalink)

Yes, We Have No Recession

Today, the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its scheduled report on the gross domestic product (GDP)1, and it announced that during the second quarter of this year it was −.9%2. In other words, rather than growing, the GDP contracted by almost a full percentage point. The GDP for the previous quarter was −1.6%, so this is the second straight quarter with a negative GDP. This is important because two consecutive quarters of "negative growth", as it's sometimes oxymoronically called3, is a sign that we are in a recession.

So, just what is a recession? As with many economic words, it has two meanings: a vague ordinary language meaning and a precise technical one. As is the case with the technical meanings of common words, it's meant to capture as much as possible of the ordinary meaning in a precise, measureable way:

So, by the technical definition, the U.S. is now in a recession since the economy contracted in the first half of the year. Whether it's a "recession" in the ordinary sense of the word, I'll leave for you to judge.

It had been anticipated for the last week or so that the BEA's report would show a contraction in the GDP for the last quarter and, unsurprisingly, the Biden administration and its apologists in the major news media have been scrambling to play down the technical meaning of "recession"5. They keep pointing out that "two quarters of negative GDP" is not an official definition of "recession", but then there is no "official" definition. The technical definition, however, has been widely used for at least the last twenty years, as indicated by its entry in the Routledge dictionary4.

Way back in 1980, William Safire wrote:

The Administration's chief word-fighters promptly called in [Alfred Kahn] and read him the Riot Act…. "[R]ecession" was frowned upon as a word for economists of good will. Mr. Kahn got the message. He announced he had never predicted any, uh, "that word", and, being a man of puckish humor, added that whenever he felt the urge to reflect on the possibilities of recession, he would substitute the word "banana." He has since been heard to mutter, "The worst banana you ever saw." …

Calling a recession a banana is better than calling it a "rolling readjustment," a "crabwise movement of the economy," or…"a soft landing." The problem is that editorialists across the country have already begun to characterize every knee-jerk, cheery Administration statement in the face of bad news as "Yes, We Have No Banana."6

The economy is contracting and inflation is at rates unseen since the days when William Safire wrote the above. Let's just hope that we're not headed for the worst banana we've ever seen.


Update (7/29/2022): In the quote from Safire, above, he mentions some doublespeak terms used in place of "recession": "rolling readjustment," "crabwise movement of the economy," "a soft landing" and, of course, "banana". William Lutz lists several others, including the oxymoron "negative economic growth", "suppression of economic activity", and "temporary interruption of an economic expansion"7.

The Biden administration's doublespeak term of choice appears to be that the economy is "slowing down". For instance, here's Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Sunday, prior to the BEA's release of the GDP number:

Chuck Todd: Let me just start with this: Many businesses seem to be preparing for a recession. Should all Americans at home be preparing for a recession that many people think now is likely?

Yellen: Well, look, the economy is slowing down. … The labor market is now extremely strong. Even just during the last three months, net job gains averaged 375,000. This is not an economy that's in recession. But we're in a period of transition in which growth is slowing. And that's necessary and appropriate, and we need to be growing at a steady and sustainable pace. So there is a slow-down and businesses can see that. And that's appropriate, given that people now have jobs and we have a strong labor market. But you don't see any of the signs now. A recession is a broad-based contraction that affects many sectors of the economy. We just don't have that. Consumer spending remains solid. It's continuing to grow. Output, industrial output, has grown in five of the six most recent months. Credit quality remains very strong. Household balance sheets are generally in good shape. … Well, you know, I would say that we're seeing a slow-down. We're likely to see some slowing of job creation. I don't think that that's a recession. A recession is broad-based weakness in the economy. We're not seeing that now. … Growth is slowing globally.8

Yellen raises some good questions here about whether the current situation fits the vague, everyday notion of a recession. However, saying that the economy is "slowing down" mischaracterizes it. If GDP growth had simply become less than it was previously, it would be correct; if GDP growth completely stopped, it would be more accurate to call it a "halt" than a "slow-down". However, the situation is worse than that: economic growth is not "slowing", as Yellen said; rather, the economy is not growing at all, but shrinking. Making use of the metaphor of the economy as a moving object, that is not a "slowing down" but a "going into reverse". We're metaphorically losing economic ground.


Notes:

  1. "Gross Domestic Product", Bureau of Economic Analysis, accessed: 7/28/2022.
  2. "Gross Domestic Product", Bureau of Economic Analysis, accessed: 7/28/2022.
  3. See, for instance: "US Q2 GDP shows 2nd quarter of negative growth", Reuters, 7/28/2022.
  4. Donald Rutherford, "Recession", Routledge Dictionary of Economics (2nd edition, 2002).
  5. See, for instance: Kate Sullivan, "Biden dismisses recession fears despite US economy shrinking again in second quarter", CNN, 7/28/2022.
  6. William Safire, On Language (1980), pp. 26-27. Paragraphing suppressed.
  7. William Lutz, Doublespeak Defined: Cut Through the Bull**** and Get the Point! (1999), pp. 101-102.
  8. "Meet the Press", NBC News, 7/24/2022.

July 21st, 2022 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added a new review of a not-so-new book to the book reviews page; see:

Book Review: Thomas Rid, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, added: 7/20/2022.

The book is not-so-new because it was published two years ago, that is, 2020 B.C. (Before Covid). I placed it on the separate reviews page rather than here because it's of more than passing interest. Check it out.

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