Wait, How Much Have Groceries Gone Up?

The most startling moment in the CNN debate last week between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump was not from the candidates. It was from moderator Jake Tapper, who said with a straight face as if it were just the science that grocery prices were up by 20 percent since President Biden was elected.

I had a hard time getting past that moment, and I suspect that many watchers did too. Just by the way, even if the current rate is lower than the past rate, that doesn’t mean that prices are falling. It means that they are rising more slowly. For some reason, maybe people, even professional journalists, don’t seem to understand that point.

Millions were watching. Intuition tells me that millions of people were stunned and thought to themselves or said out loud: no way. Truly, is there a single living soul in America who lives on a budget, watches their spending, and who believes that their grocery bills are only up by 20 percent in three years?

Well, as it turns out, Mr. Tapper could have cited the leading authority on that statistic. It’s the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as reported by the Federal Reserve. The precise number is 20.8 percent.

(Data: Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), St. Louis Fed; Chart: Jeffrey A. Tucker)

The trouble is that this fits with no one’s experiences. People on social media are posting receipts showing grocery prices up by anywhere between two and 10 times that rate.

In one viral video that offered receipts, a man bought 45 items (he says a full month of groceries) two years ago for $145. WalMart’s software allows him to reorder that now. He tried it just as a test. The new price: $414.

That’s an increase in two years of 185 percent! If we stretch that to three years assuming no inflation in the first, that’s an annualized increase of 61 percent. Over two years, it’s 92.5 percent.

Adding in some inflation in the first year, we can round it to 100 percent annualized, which is hyperinflation by any measure.

Commentators offered corrections that this is just one person’s experience. Maybe there was one item in there that went up vastly in price, changing the entire basket. All that is true. However, I tried looking at a few items that I bought in 2021 and found price increases of 54 percent. That’s just one item but a very normal one: lemon juice.

When all the anecdotal evidence points one way and all the official data points another way, we’ve got a problem. The distance between real experience and the official data is gigantic. And it raises the eternal problem first articulated by Chico Marx: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

There are alternative and more industry-based price monitors that are closer to the truth but still seem wildly underestimated as compared with real-world experience. The Grocery Price Index puts the overall three-year number at 35 percent, closer but still not in keeping with most people’s experiences.

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