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    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    Inflation ate your free lunch, but you're still better off

    Believe it or not, we live in the best of times. It's been a crazy few decades, with a pandemic, rising inequality, slowing growth and productivity, and major changes in the economy. But generally, most people experienced huge gains in living standards. We shudder to think what life was like in the 1980s or '90s, when air-conditioning was still a luxury, as were dishwashers; people had to defrost their freezers, we were tied to landlines, and homes had only one or two televisions - and they weren't even flatscreens. The smartphone may not be the game changer that indoor plumbing was, but just stop and count all the ways it's smoothed out the kinks in your daily struggle.

    In the same way the first waves of industrialization made consumer goods (clothing, housewares) cheaper and more accessible, the tech boom made services that were once luxuries (car services, delivery, handymen, digital butlers) widely available and contributed to rising prosperity. It's indisputable that our standards of living are remarkably higher than they used to be.

    Here's the bad news: We've basically been living a free lunch and now it's about to end. And that means a drop in our living standards, at least for the next few years.

    The Atlantic's Derek Thompson recently wrote that we have been under-paying for many services we now take for granted. That $10 Uber ride never really made sense when you thought about the cost of fuel and labor. The same is true for food delivery and other app-services that became a way of life for many urban dwellers. Many of the tech firms that supplied these services lost money to keep prices down, gain customers and dominate their markets.

    In the tech world, network effects are valuable, but it's not clear what the long-term business model was for many app-based services. Perhaps they planned to increase prices once they drove off competition. Or maybe they believed that with enough volume, even negative profits would turn positive.

    Such concerns were not top of mind in an era of very low interest rates. Investors, often venture capital firms — flush with cheap capital and public-sector pension money (which we are all on the hook for) — were hungry for risky long-shots. If a few of those long-shots paid off big, everyone would still make money. So they were willing to tolerate losses if their investments could demonstrate a growing market share. Except then the pandemic hit and labor wasn't so cheap anymore. Then interest rates started to increase and tolerance for losing money evaporated. So now what was once a $10 car ride is $50.

    Low rates didn't just allow investors to sustain money-losing tech ventures. They also meant companies could bulk up on corporate debt, which subsidized even more cheap services. Before the pandemic, Netflix earned a junk bond rating because it took on so much debt to offer endless content. Now higher rates have increased the cost in borrowing and subscriptions have declined, so we'll all have to watch ads (effectively a tax on our time) or pay more every month.

    Inflation is the other shoe to drop. Alexis Leondis wrote a rage-inducing column last week on "drip-pricing." This is when we are charged extra fees for things that used to be included in the price, from picking your airline seat to paying for credit card transactions. Now with higher inflation, firms are trying new, more opaque way to pass on their costs to customers. But even if inflation goes back down, many of these fees will probably remain. And if you're suddenly paying "fuel surcharges" and "kitchen appreciation fees," you probably won't be indulging quite as often.

    This means that, in addition to the inflation we're already experiencing, we're going to start paying for things that were previously subsidized by low rates and low price growth. Odds are, prices for these services will never be so cheap again. Rates and prices are going up and may stay higher for the foreseeable future. So unless you have unlimited money, things like car services will become a luxury again. This is an unambiguous fall in living standards: Instead of getting more, we'll get less, and it will be painful.

    Take heart. It may not last forever. I don't know what will happen to interest rates or if future consumption might be subsidized. But I am optimistic that new, even-better technology and rising prosperity are in our long-term future.

    It may feel like a small consolation now, but all this new technology did make us better off. Even without the subsidy of low interest rates, we still have more choices and cheaper services than we did 20 or 30 years ago. Perhaps people hate loss so much that it's worse to lose a subsidized Uber than to have never Ubered at all. But I don't think so.

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