Thanksgiving: Is the holiday cheaper this year?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Thanksgiving
Vox website charts Thanksgiving inflation 2014

Click on this chart compiled by Vox to visit the Vox website and read the entire story about the relative cost of Thanksgiving dinner.

Gas prices are down, so if you’re driving this year, you’ll be spending a bit less on gas for your vehicle.

What about food? Is the cost of Thanksgiving dinner higher, lower, or about the same this year as last year?

It depends on what you’re having for dinner. Butter and margarine are a lot more expensive now than last year—16% higher, according to CPI data compiled by Vox. Steak and bacon are more expensive, too.

But a traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year is less than 1% higher than it was last year. Compared to the cost of Thanksgiving dinner in the past, this year is about average. The lowest cost for Thanksgiving dinner occurred in 1987, about 15% cheaper than it is this time. Expensive years include 2011, 2007, and 1989.

Despite these holiday fluctuations, there’s been a long term decline in food spending over the decades, according to data by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Americans spent a much bigger share of their disposable incomes on food in the 1930s, 19040s, and 1950s than they do now.

Cheaper food doesn’t mean that millions of Americans are not going hungry. Over 49 million people lived in food insecure households in 2013, according to Feeding America. This includes almost 16 million children.

Are you spending less, more, or about the same on Thanksgiving this year, compared to last?

What’s happening in your community to alleviate hunger this season?

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You can share this with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

Civil Dialogue: Is it OK to use your cell phone during dinner?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
Girls with cell phones

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When you see civil behavior, what does it look like? How would you define it?

In a recent survey, Americans were asked to define civility in their own words. The most frequent responses were variations of “treat others with respect.” This can take many forms.

How about when someone uses a cell phone during dinner? Almost nine of ten Americans (86%) say that it is uncivil when someone you are eating with is on the phone, according to the Civility in America report. Almost as many agree that it is uncivil behavior when someone talks loudly on a cell phone in public. And, a third of Americans believe these problems will get worse over time.

Turning off you cell phone during dinner with family or friends is an example of what I call civility writ small. It’s a small thing, yet meaningful. Civility writ large is the Belfast Dialogue I talked about on Monday—a formal, facilitator-led dialogue across the political divide. Both levels of civility—small and large—are essential.

Treating others with respect is how we live the core American value of respect for others, one of the 10 core values. It’s the behavior that puts the principle into action. What does this mean, specifically?

My colleague Jane Dutton has written extensively about “respectful engagement” as a way to build high-quality connections. (See her Energize Your Workplace.) These connections are examples of civility writ small—everyday interactions that exhibit civility. One way to do this is by “conveying presence.” This means that you focus your attention on the other person. You can’t do that at dinner while having a cell phone conversation.

Another way is through “communicating affirmation.” Examples are “affirming someone’s situation” (empathizing with another’s situation and expressing it) and “looking for the value in the other.”

The point is that civil dialogue can be big or small. It can occur in everyday interactions, conversations, and meetings.

Do you use your cell phone during dinner?

What examples have you experience of civility writ small?

What about incivility writ small—or large?

United America, Core Value 8: Pursuit of Happiness

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series United America

Coca Cola Great Happyfication animated filmAre you seeking happyfication?

You might find it in “The Great Happyfication,” an animated short film that’s one of Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Factory” series. It’s depicts a happy land devoted to producing and delivering happiness “one bottle at a time.” Since 1923, the company has associated the consumption of its cola drink with enjoyment, pleasure, and happiness.

Does a bottle of Coke make you happy?

The pursuit of happiness is one of America’s 10 Core Values, as I document in United America. It’s one of the principles enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Americans have pursued happiness with a passion, but often it has proved elusive. When the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the country in the 1800s, he observed that many Americans were restless and anxious despite possessing ample material goods.

These days, happiness is a serious field of study. There are happiness psychologists and economists. In my new book United America, I discuss the practical advice proffered by happiness psychologists like Sonja Lyubomirsky and the father-son team of Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.

Today in our series on the 10 core values, we are exploring Core Value 8: “Pursuit of Happiness”—“enjoyment, leisure, pleasure.”

Take a look at Coke’s video and see what you think … (If you see no video screen in your version of this story, try clicking on the headline to reload the column.)

What’s your opinion of marketing campaigns that link happiness and products?

For you, what is the secret of happiness?

Income Inequality: Busting a common myth about the minimum wage

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Inequality in America
Fast Food Burgers, photographed by Jef Poskanzer and released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Fast Food Burgers, photographed by Jef Poskanzer and released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Does an increase in the minimum wage increase unemployment? That’s one of the key arguments against increasing the minimum wage. Rather than closing the gap between rich and poor, it has the paradoxical effect of increasing unemployment because employers will choose to cut hours or hire fewer workers.

But, does this argument hold water?

The employment effects of the minimum wage have been widely studied but results are mixed and inconclusive. A recent novel study of fast-food restaurants, conducted by a team of economists, casts light on the debate. This team studied 81 fast-food restaurants over the course of three increases in the minimum wage.

You may wonder why they studied this issue among restaurants. One reason is that a lot of the national debate on minimum wage policies revolves around food-service workers. Federal records show that more than 4 million Americans now work in food service, including fast-food restaurants, and the median age of these laborers is 28. So, we’re talking about a huge number of people—and this work force is far from the stereotype of a teen-age burger flipper.

So, these researchers asked: Will raising the minimum wage for these workers also raise unemployment? Here’s what the researchers found—when hikes in the minimum wage occur:

  • The impact on the number of people employed is negligible; so is the impact on employee hours.
  • Partly, the increase in labor costs is passed on to customers through higher prices.
  • Part of the increase is absorbed by making operations more efficient, setting higher employee performance standards.
  • In part, the increase in labor costs is offset by intensifying marketing efforts to bring in new customers.
  • In bad economic times, the increase in labor costs depresses profits; in good times, it does not.

Differences in opinion about the minimum wage are less about the facts, the authors say, and more about values and ideology. Those who believe the government can and should regulate labor markets are in favor of the minimum wage. Those who believe in free markets (and a small, weak government) are opposed.

Do you support or oppose an increase in the minimum wage?

Are you surprised to learn that an increase in the minimum wage does not increase unemployment?

Could an increase in the minimum wage be a good thing because it compels businesses to be more efficient and workers to work harder?

Inequality in America: Could a “thrive-able wage” really go viral?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Inequality in America
Click this Zingerman's illustration to jump to the company's site and read Paul Saginaw's entire statement.

Click this Zingerman’s illustration to jump to the company’s site and read Paul Saginaw’s entire statement.

Income inequality is the U.S. is gargantuan. It is the highest ever since 1928, right before the Great Depression.

One proposal to narrow this gap is to raise the minimum wage. Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour for most sectors. For restaurant workers, it’s only $2.13 per hour, with the expectation that tips will make up the rest. Could you live on this wage—even with tips? The unlivable wages in the fast-food industry have spurred protests, proposals to raise the minimum wage, and talk of unionization.

Now, a handful of the nation’s most innovative restaurateurs are pushing a manifesto to encourage a “thrive-able wage” in the food-service industry. You can read the entire text, written by Paul Saginaw, who co-founded Zingerman’s cluster of Ann Arbor-based businesses 31 years ago. But here are three of the most provocative sections:

“I reject the argument put forth by many in the restaurant industry that livable wages and profits are mutually exclusive. Our experience at Zingerman’s proves exactly the opposite and I am not convinced we are exceptions to any rule. …

“Our success stands in direct opposition to the false claims about livable wages and profits that have dominated the debate for decades. We are uniting to prove to the rest of the industry investing in our employees has been a driving force to our growth and success, not an impediment. To those who argue raised menu prices will result in loss of customers and diminished profits, I question the scale of your profit margins and wonder who is shorted to maintain those margins—is it your employees? …

And finally: “We would be irresponsible employers if the jobs we provided could not support housing stability and health security. So we are motivated to gradually raise wages to a ‘thrive-able level’ for all of our lowest-paid employees across the board. A living wage is the path to a living economy and the antidote to the current suicide economy trajectory we find ourselves on. We don’t own this approach. Nothing would please me more than for it to go viral, industry wide.”

Outspoken! Even inspiring? Perhaps naive? And that’s my question today:

What do you think of the idea of providing all workers a “thrive-able wage”?

Do you think Paul Saginaw’s manifesto could go viral?

Body Weight: Is obesity contagious?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Body Weight
Grocery bag of junk foods

The National Cancer Institute provides this stock photo to illustrate the problem of poor shopping in households that regularly bring too much junk food into the home. Photo now in public domain.

Body weight seems like an individual decision, doesn’t it? It’s something that’s under individual control, right?

Well, it is—and it isn’t. Our body weight is influenced by those around us. Could it be that body weight is contagious?

Americans are gaining weight, on average, though the desire to do something about it has not changed much over time. As we’ve discussed this week, the majority of Americans are concerned about body weight, some occupations are more susceptible to obesity than others, avoiding the dentist is a predictor of obesity, and healthy eating habits have declined during the course of 2013.

Body weight is contagious, argue researchers Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler. But a biological virus is not the agent; a social virus is the cause of contagion. We are influenced by those around us—members of our social network who influence our values and norms about appropriate body weight. This research was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

Using data collected over three decades in Massachusetts, the researchers documented some startling facts. Here are a few:

  • Your risk of becoming obese increases by 171% if a close friend becomes obese. This effect is much stronger for men than for women.
  • If your brother or sister becomes obese, your risk increases by 40%.
  • If one spouse becomes obese, the other spouse is 37% more likely to become obese as well.

Now, all this works in reverse as well. If your close friend, or sibling, or spouse achieves ideal weight, your changes of doing the same are much greater, too.

Are you surprised by the social influences on body weight?

Is your body weight considerably different from the body weights of your close friends, your siblings, or your spouse?

Body Weight: Are eating habits getting better or worse?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Body Weight
CLICK on this chart of Gallup results to visit Gallup's website and read the whole report.

CLICK on this chart of Gallup results to visit Gallup’s website and read the whole report.

QUICK: Did you eat healthy all day yesterday?

Got your answer? Then read on …

If you did eat healthy yesterday, your chances of being overweight are lower than if you said no. Not eating healthy is a major factor linked to obesity, as we discussed in Part 3 of this week’s series. So, trends in eating habits are important to consider.

Is that trend up or down this year? Our eating habits have worsened over the course of this year compared with 2012, according to Gallup. This year, Americans are also eating fewer servings of fruits and vegetables per week, compared to last year.

Fast food is still popular among Americans, says Gallup. About 80% of Americans eat at fast-food restaurants at least once a month. About 20% eat there several times a week or every day.

What percent of American say they never eat at fast-food restaurants? Only 4%. At the same time, three of four Americans (76%) say that fast food is “not too good” or “not good at all for you.” Only 2% say is it “very good” for you. Among different age groups, young Americans (ages 18–29) eat fast food more frequently than any other age group. As people age, they are less likely to eat fast food.

Fast food is cheap—but Americans with the lowest incomes are the least likely to buy fast food. Americans with annual incomes of $75,000 or more are actually more likely to eat fast food, compared to Americans in the lowest income group.

Have your eating habits improved or worsened this year?

Are you are a habitué of fast-food restaurants?

What is your prescription for healthy eating?