Saturday, April 12, 2008

Simpler Times

No news story on Zimbabwe (and there's been a lot of coverage lately) is complete without a reference to its astounding inflation rate. It's hard to conceive what that fantastic number means as far ordinary people being able to put food on the table and keep a roof on their head.

In India, I was so used to having to pay more each month for almost everything that never gave it a second thought. Inflation made prices go up constantly and the your money did not go as far as it did the last time. That was the natural order. You never expected prices to hold steady less go down.

It was quite a shock to find out that runaway inflation was not necessarily inevitable. It took me a long time to get over the fact that a pound of bananas or a gallon of milk did not cost me more each time I went to the store in America. It stayed at the same level for years. I had never experienced anything like it before.

For the first time since I came here, the price of food is rising perceptibly and at a brisk pace. It is impossible not to notice. I know from my Indian experience that is only to be expected given the the steady increase in transportation costs - that's what they blamed it on back home.

You knew that there was no high water mark to this. In ten years a sack of rice could cost you what you pay today
in rent for your house each month . Anything was possible. You would just need to make more money or trim your needs and wants. Financial security was a moving target and you never knew how much you'd need to generate income that could outlive you.

I used to wonder if at some point, inflation would force people to return to an agrarian way of life. Obviously, there would be a lot less to worry about if you could cultivate enough to feed your family in your own backyard.

These days when I fill gas in my car, I find myself thinking what would happen if the cost of gas to get to your place of work and back for a month became higher than a month's salary. You'd probably not be able to keep that job - at least in its present form. Telecommuting would become essential.

Suburban sprawl would have to give way to living huddled together near the urban centers of commerce so one could walk to work in pinch or get on public transport at least. After protesting and striking for a while, truckers would probably give up their line of work to seek something else. Apparently, it may be possible to live in world without trucks and still move goods around. Maybe inflation is not all evil after all if it prompts people to simplify their lives.

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