Last week, I ran out of ink for my printer and ordered some more online. My computer automatically pulled up the previous order, and I was shocked to see that the price of the ink cartridges I was buying had gone up 25%. To my mind, ink always seems overpriced. Manufacturers sell printers cheaply because they know that they can make lots of money on the ink. For the same reason, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil is said to have sold millions of cheap kerosene lamps in order to make big profits selling kerosene. But since ink cartridges were already priced way above cost and official statistics show little general inflation, why had ink gone up 25% in less than a year?
Price hikes for a particular item here or there don’t qualify as inflation. If one thing gets more expensive but something else gets cheaper, that’s what economists call a relative price change. Inflation is a simultaneous increase in prices across the board. Some measures of inflation, such as the GDP Deflator, track price changes that affect businesses as well as those that affect consumers. But the Consumer Price Index is supposed to focus on inflation at the consumer level. And the CPI has recorded minimal increases over the past four years. Since the recession ended, the 12-month change in consumer prices has averaged 2% and has never been as high as 4%.
There are lots of other ways to gauge inflation, however, that give very different signals. Gold was $930 an ounce when the recession ended, and today it’s $1,583. So if you believe in the gold standard, prices have increased 70% in four years – or an annualized rate of 14.2%. Of course, many economists dismiss the gold price as an archaic indicator. So it may be more meaningful to look at price increases over a broad range of commodities. The Reuters CRB Commodity Index, which tracks the prices of coffee, cocoa, copper, and cotton, as well as energy, is up 38% over four years, or 8.6% at a compound annual rate.