From the Left




Susan Estrich on

The answer is almost always $20.

As in, how much do you think this turkey sandwich cost? Hint: it used to be $10.

Extra points: Remember, we're in California, where there is an extra 10% tax on everything.

Extra reminder: There's a tip jar on the counter, a tip reminder on the app and an actor ready for their close-up (LA joke: When you want to get your waiter's attention, you say, "Actor! Actor!"), meaning that a $15 sandwich is actually $20. And were you really planning on drinking tap water? No fries? Cup of coffee? Decaf latte? Did someone say $30?

How do regular people do it, we ask each other, multiple times each day.

Answer: There are no regular people, if by "regular," you mean people like my parents, both of whom worked and worried about taxes every year but didn't talk about the cost of turkey sandwiches as a lively topic of daily, or nightly, conversation. In fact, for my father, the very definition of "middle class" meant we ate meat more nights than not and never talked about how much it cost.

Grocery shopping is not much better. Checked out the price of cereal lately? Or the frozen dinners that I lived on in law school? We thought we were slumming it, with fried chicken and spinach souffle. Now you find them in the "gourmet" section, which means they cost $10 apiece. And they've gotten smaller. Do they (whoever they are) really think we don't notice?

The inflation numbers confirm what we've been talking about since the early months of the pandemic. The cost of everything has gone up. We are not quite running in place, if by "we," you mean poor slobs like yours truly who live on earned income.

Month after month, as the turkey sandwich has increased in price, as the gig economy that almost all of us are part of, one way or the other, has faltered, as Jeff Bezos gets richer and goes looking for new solar systems to conquer, we keep being told that the economy is basically sound.


"Nothing has changed," the pundits declare. The fundamentals are solid, guys in ridiculously expensive suits and women in miniskirts proclaim. Just supply chain issues, people mouth to each other, as if that means nothing's wrong.

With some help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, not to mention the kindergarten cops in Congress, we've all gotten painfully used to not trusting what anyone tells us and not believing whatever reassurance is on offer.

It isn't just the supply chain. And if you're old enough to remember, it isn't "malaise," the condition former President Jimmy Carter rather fatally ascribed to voters before they sent him back to Plains, Georgia, where he has been a fine ex-president.

Inflation is real, and it is being fueled by a sense that no one is in control. What professor James Q. Wilson termed "incivilities" -- the apparent breakdown in social controls reflected in broken windows and gang graffiti -- have simply grown in scale.

It was the catalytic converter. Yes, it was a Toyota. Yes, it was a Prius. We were the last to know. It wasn't $20. It was $1,800. That was the lowest price we could find. For a used one. Probably stolen from somebody else. It's an epidemic, the adjustor said wearily. You need to buy a protector. Not: We need to stop this. Not: Call the police. Buy a protector. Four hundred at the dealer, less if you can find it online. Protect yourself, always at a price. And the price is going up.


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