The CPI (Chicken Price Index)

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Well, Alan Greenspan didn’t do it again. Our Fed chairman, whose roar rattles the marketplace like the Wizard of Oz terrifies Dorothy, did nothing this summer. We had awaited his ministrations like the vulgarati awaited the debut of the Anna Nicole Smith Show. Vulgarati and investors were both disappointed. And that’s okay.

I just wish that Mr. Greenspan paid as much attention to the price of chicken leg quarters as he does to all those e~o­ nomic indices like JOLT (jobs), VIX (volatility), and CPI (inflation, sort of). I wish he would sit down to a plate of these cluckers instead of bending over funny numbers all day.

After all, our Fed chairman like! the so-called Wizard of Oz is only a 163- pound central banker. No match for the 500-pound gorilla who rules the Marketplace of Money. The Friday before Chairman G’s at-bat, the gorilla playfully slapped down the ten-year treasury note by 14 basis points – a significant event in the eyes of interest-rate obsessions. The stock market yawned. So why were investors all bubbly over the possibility of a puny one-quarter-point cut in the rate? It’s the religion of economics; the numbers game. The chairman and his fellow seers divine the health of the economy and its prognosis with a hatful of funny numbers.

Personally, when it comes to numbers, I prefer the price of leg quarters. So simple and verifiable. By leg quarters I mean those chicken parts – drumstick and thigh – that typically come in ten-pound bags. When the sign above the counter says 39 cents a pound, as it often does, there can be no misinterpretation of the price of chicken unless the scale is rigged, which is not near as common as the inflation of Merck’s co-pay revenue or the hot-air ballooning of Enron profits or the hiding of WorldCom’s capital expenses. The price of chicken leg quarters answers that age-old question first posed by Adam when he was expelled from the Garden to the land of toil: how long do I have to work for a decent meal?

Now let’s historically digress. For ten years the astute observer of ducker quarters has noticed that their bargain price usually hovers around 39 cents. That’s the typical, full-colored grocery-ad price. Imagine! Roughly five minutes of minimum-wage labor gets you a pound! A generous helping of chicken. That’s a banner economic headline. Bargain hunters like me load up our cart. Sometimes, leg quarters go for 29 cents a pound. Consider; you do not have to slaughter the chicken. You don’t even have to dismember, pluck, and dean it. Or pull out those sharp pin feathers. Two dollars and 90 cents gets you a 10-pound bagful. Ten pounds of poultry protein for a half-hour of the lowest-paid labor. If you’re a Wall Street analyst, those ten chicken dinners might cost you two blinks of your eye over the WCOM P&L sheet.

But wait. Don’t gorge on 29-cents-a-pound duckers because maybe once a year the grocery ads shriek – ” nineteen cents a pound. This is not a misprint.” That price is literally cheaper than the fertilizer that comes out of a cow.

At this price you should disregard Purina Cat Chow and the scrapings off your plate. Feed duckers to your cat.

At this price you should burn them in the fireplace instead of wood and enjoy the warmth as well as that delightful smell of roasted chicken.

At this price some scientific wizard is going to design a six-cylinder automobile engine fueled by guess what?

Nineteen cents for 16 ounces of nourishing protein! You’re young, untrained, maybe even dumb. You stock the shelves at a convenience store, you sweep floors, you babysit, but you can bring home a meal for about a minute of work! Only in America!

So, don’t worry about capitalism. Forget about crooked bookkeepers who play hide-and-seek with expenses and cookbooks instead of battered chicken parts. All is well because the system still churns out cheap chicken dinners for us tired, poor, and huddled masses – just like the Lady in the harbor promised.

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