Inflationary myths?

In my youth, I learned what I thought were important lessons about inflation- both economic and air-related.

Air

Bike racers used tubular (“sew-up”) tires. The hoi polloi used clinchers. Tubulars had narrower cross sections and could be run at higher pressures. High pressure and narrow cross-section were said to decrease rolling resistance. It was all about the science. Wanna-bees rode tubulars. Touring and commuting cyclists rode clinchers. Being half-fast, I rode clinchers. In fact, the deciding factor between two bikes when I was shopping in 1974 was the wheel and tire combination.

Rim and bead technology improved. They made clinchers that could run at 120 PSI (~8.25 bar). Clinchers got skinnier. I once had some nominally 700 x 18c. Even racers started running clinchers.

Now the science says lower pressure and wider cross section equals lower rolling resistance – or does it? Most current research seems to point to wider being better. As for inflation pressure, claims vary widely. Fashion now dictates 28 or 32c. Conveniently, this also means re-designing bike frames for increased tire clearance, so if you want to be fashionable, you need a new bike.

I just read an article on rolling resistance that compared the same tire in 23, 25, 28, and 32c widths at 60, 80, 100, and 120 PSI. They found that the widest tire (32c) at the highest inflation pressure (120 PSI) yielded the lowest rolling resistance. Is wider than that even better? Where does it end? (Most articles seem to concede that at some point the increased weight and air resistance of a larger tire will offset the savings in rolling resistance. I haven’t found anyone citing evidence – maybe because the equivalent tires don’t exist that much wider and they are not sure that evidence with different tires will translate.) They also tested and rated the best tires in various configurations – with tubes, tubeless, and tubular – rated as “best all around”, “fastest”, “most puncture-resistant”, and “best low cost”. I won’t list their results, as I can’t vouch for them, but you can follow the links. I will say I feel vindicated, as they picked the tires I ride. Do you need to buy a new bike to fit 32c tires? Only if you race bikes for a living and someone else pays for them. Will you notice the difference between 7.8 watts of rolling resistance and 8.5 watts (the difference between the 32c and 23c sizes of the Continental Grand Prix 5000)? Probably not, unless you’re a time trialist. Definitely not, if you’re half-fast.

Economics

As for the other type of inflation, I was taught in economics class that inflation was a spiral (actually a helix) caused by rising prices and rising wages, each feeding the other. That theory appears to blame each component equally. The real world seldom looks like that, especially since union membership has declined drastically. (For example, union membership in WI was 34% in 1964 and 11.6% in 2014. Even TX, never a union stronghold, dropped from 13.5% to 4.9% over the same 50 year period.)

Image from HiNative.com. Just because so many confuse these two -starting from when we were kids with “spiral” notebooks.

We are currently being sold a bill of goods; that inflation is the fault of supply chain issues, or “the great resignation”, or increasing the minimum wage, or it’s all Joe Biden’s fault.

Jim Hightower, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner and current editor of The Hightower Lowdown has done some searching. He provides a few interesting examples. The worldwide diaper trade is controlled by two companies – Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark together hold an 80% market share. In April, 2020 P&G announced that COVID-driven production cost increases were forcing it to raise its prices. Its quarterly profit was $3.8 billion. Six months later the quarterly profit was >$5 billion and they bought back $3 billion of their own stock, partly to cash in on those profits and partly to reward top execs. My econ class taught me that Kimberly-Clark could undercut P&G and make money. But did they? No, they raised their prices at the same time – because they could.

Beef prices went up 21% in 2021. Is that because farmers made more money? Is it because of shortages? No. 85% of the US beef market is controlled by 4 companies. They get to set the price at which they buy beef. If you, the farmer, don’t want to sell to them, good luck. While retail beef prices rose, the price paid to farmers fell. Profits to the big 4 rose by 300%.

US corporate profits in the 4th quarter of 2019 were $2.4 trillion. Two years later (3rd quarter 2021), they were up to $2.9 trillion. At their worst during the pandemic, they were $1.9 trillion. (from statista.com) As a whole, US corporations continued to make money during the pandemic. As the rest of us hope to recover, they plan to profit even more handsomely. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. That is not an accident.

Hightower always urges us to do something, not just feel depressed, about the news he presents. Here are his suggestions from this article:

 DO SOMETHING đź‘‡

Study up–and pitch in. You’re not likely to read about the devastating effects of monopoly from your local, hedge-fund owned newspaper, but a few taps on a keyboard will take you to a wealth of resources. Our favorites include Yale’s Thurman Arnold Project (som.yale.edu/centers/thurman-arnold-project-at-yale), the Roosevelt Institute (rooseveltinstitute.org), and The Groundwork Collaborative (groundworkcollaborative.org).

Food system monopoly is particularly distasteful, squeezing both growers and eaters. The Family Farm Action Alliance (farmaction.us) inspired President Biden’s billion-dollar plan to expand independent meat processing capacity and re-inject competition into those markets.

The National Farmers Union (nfu.org) has launched a “Fairness for Farmers” campaign, “fighting for stronger enforcement of antitrust laws and breaking up . . .  corporate monopolies.”

The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (r-calfusa.com) is pushing for a federal “50/14 Spot Market Protection Bill” aimed at stopping the sell-now, we’ll-dictate-your-price-later BS that Brazilian meat Goliath JBS pulled with rancher Steve Charter.

And the Missouri Rural Crisis Center (morural.org)–founded with a grant from the first Farm Aid!–aims to help family farmers not only battle corporate predators, but also offer assistance with sustainable farming practices, accessible rural healthcare, and more.

What to read while you recuperate

On December 4, 1969, Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton while he slept. They also murdered Mark Clark, possibly “collateral damage”, and shot Verlina Brewer, Doc Satchel, Blair Anderson, and Brenda Harris. Since Fred didn’t die in the initial hail of gunfire, but due to two shots in the head at close range, the term “execution” is entirely appropriate.

At the time of his assassination at the age of 21, a documentary about Mr Hampton was being filmed. He was an up-and-coming leader in Chicago, having been a community activist in high school and rising to the chair of the Chicago Black Panther Party. That film became “The Murder of Fred Hampton” (full film at the link) and was released in 1971. In 2010 a longer retelling of the story was published by one of the attorneys who represented the survivors of the massacre and the families of those killed. I spent the past few days reading “The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther”, by Jeffrey Haas.

The police termed it a “shootout”. The evidence showed it was a hit; a planned takeout as part of COINTELPRO, designed to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement” (from an FBI memo). More than 90 rounds were fired into the apartment. One was fired out, by a dying Mark Clark.

In his short life, Hampton said, “You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution. You might run a liberator like Eldridge Cleaver out of the country, but you can’t run liberation out of the country. You can murder a freedom fighter like Bobby Hutton, but you can’t murder freedom fighting….Nothing is more important than stopping fascism, because fascism can stop us all.”

I saw the film when it first came out. While more recently looking for it as something I wanted to show my children, I came across the book; and reading that book is how I spent the past two days. I recommend it highly, as well as the film. With the current off-the-wall right-wing conspiracy theories, younger readers may not recall that it was not so long ago that there was a real-life conspiracy to eliminate the movement for self-determination by African Americans, by any means necessary. Most white people heard more about the Black Panthers arming themselves for self-defense than about their free breakfast programs for school children. Many white people may still think that the stories of police and FBI abuse were exaggerated. This book documents the truth exhaustively, including the coverup that lasted more than ten years.

At the beginning of my recovery, I read Roy Meals’ “100 Orthopaedic Conditions Every Doctor Should Understand”. Also see his blog “About Bone” (no need to be a doctor for the blog). “Murder on the Red Cliff Rez” by Mardi Oakley Medawar, a Cherokee writer living on the Red Cliff reservation, is an entirely fictional murder mystery, and was my next book. Mixed in there was the new book by Jane McAlevey, “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy“. Jane and I worked together in Nicaragua in 1987. She went on to work as an organizer for the union of which I was a member. She also worked at the Highlander School and earned a doctorate along the way.

Constructing a Water Pipeline in Matiguas, Nicaragua, 1987
Jane (right) in Nicaragua; photo from her website. If I’m not mistaken, Patrick Liteky is second from right. Patrick and his brother Charlie, an Army Chaplain, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, and former priest, were active in protests against the School of the Americas, the training ground for Central American death squads at Ft Benning, GA. Patrick was also a veteran and trained at Ft Benning. Charlie later renounced his Medal of Honor.

A central premise of Jane’s book can be summed up by these graphs:

In this first graph, you can see that there is an inverse correlation between union membership and the share of income going to the top 10%. In other words, when union membership goes down, the rich get richer.
Another way to look at this is that, as union membership declines, middle class incomes decline in parallel.

Jane is more optimistic about the chances for unions to make a comeback than I am right now. That might have something to do with Wisconsin Act 10, which eliminated collective bargaining at my place of employment. By state law, a union is now illegal.

On my second visit to Olbrich Gardens last week, I saw the Ancora String Quartet perform Randall Thompson’s String Quartet #2 in G Major. I discovered that quartet music works with riding on a trainer, too.

Back to work!

Finally back to work after six weeks of disability. I must say, working beats the heck out of sitting at home fighting to be able to use the benefits I spent 20 years earning. Not working took about 2 hours/day for the past six weeks. pat mAcdonald said “Lookin’ for work is worse than working”. [The link goes to a live version by TImbuk 3. I gotta say the demo EP version by Pat MacDonald and the Essentials is better, but I don’t have that in a digital format. (Note: The different formatting of his name is by Pat’s choice, or should I say pat’s choice – the old and new ways he writes it.)] At any rate, working beats looking for work or fighting for benefits.

The first day back at work felt, in some ways, like I never left. I don’t know that that’s a good or bad feeling, it just is. My legs felt the ride…a ride that is normally short enough to do in my sleep, though it’s way more fun to pay attention. I guess I’m a bit out of shape. Less than five months to get ready…

Magic Sam Maghett lived on the West Side of Chicago and died three days before Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed. I don’t know if they ever met.

Interview about 50 seconds, then you get to hear him play and sing.