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Prices just keep going up, up, up

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When I was a teenager, one of my most dreaded people encounters was with someone who was old, like me now.

Why was that, you ask? How kind of you to inquire. It was because to me at that age most oldsters seemed interested in only one thing: The price of goods and services.


"I remember when I was your age and I could get an ice cream cone, gallon of gas, loaf of bread, pair of socks, shoes, hair cut, bag of groceries, glass of beer, candy bar, cap gun, tooth pulled for four bits!"

It wasn't that I had no sympathy for these elders, I did. Lots and lots. I just flat didn't believe them. A gallon of gas for a few pennies? Impossible. A hair cut for a dime? Inconceivable. Work all week for one dollar? What! Were you stupid? No sales tax? Obviously senile.

So the other day, I had to call a plumber for a rental unit. "Here's the bill," he said. I looked at it. $88! When asked what he had to do, thinking he must have replaced the entire toilet, he replied, "I had to adjust the float ball."

I had to adjust my float ball, too. A lot. I started to say, "I remember wh--." And then stopped myself. He smiled at me. He knew what was coming. He saw the wrinkles, the gray hairs, the glasses I had to put on to read his bill.

Prices keep going up. So does the accompanying sticker shock.

Thanks to the electric bill I just opened up from my rural electrical cooperative, they've showed me a way that is going to help save us from sticker shock.

Oh, they're pretty slick, these sellers of invisible goods. Really, when was the last time you ever saw electricity? Or propane? Or natural gas? Can you check to see if there really was a thousand little bitty watts in their kilowatt? BTUs are invisible, but the bills for them sure aren't.

I remember first moving up to this area, back in the 1970s. We met the chief of police here, who seemed nice enough, and who kept us talking in his office while someone else ran our license plate through the wanted files. Surely these two hippies are bank robbers, or something, he must have thought.

When I told him that I was going into refrigeration, he responded with a remark I've never forgotten. "It's darned hard for a refrigeration guy not to get 60 pounds of refrigerant out of a 30-pound jug." I took that for approval, and years later got the chance to demonstrate to his wallet just exactly how that worked.

Back to my electrical bill. I'm certainly not questioning the veracity of my electrical bill, or of the provider (well, maybe a little), just of their slight-of-hand new billing method. Why give me, they seem to be saying, a pair of shoes for $75, when it's much more painless to sell them to me at $37.50 each.

See? Much more humane.

So, instead of charging me for a whole kilowatt of invisible stuff all at once, they charged me for one part of it first, by calling it "COST TO DELIVER ENERGY TO YOUR LOCATION" -- 0.042000. No penny symbol. No dollar symbol. A couple of extra zeroes just to fog matters up even more. (That part was 4.2 cents.)

Look. I teach technical subject matter to today's youth. I happen to know that very few of them have the slightest clue what 0.042000 really means. As for you? We're 25th in the world at math. I don't have a whole lot of faith in you, either. Sorry.

Next: "COST TO GENERATE ENERGY YOU USE." This part was 0.066000. Come on. Admit it. All those zeroes. A decimal point.

Well, it's hard, I'm sure, to get two kilowatts of energy out of a one-kilowatt container, so they're doing what they can to keep me from spending my last dime on the heart attack I'd be sure to have if they'd just went ahead and put 10.8 cents per kilowatt on the bill. (Never mind the monthly "FACILITY CHARGE," 18.00.) By the time I added these subdecimals of a dollar up, I had calmed down a bit, enough to calculate that my electricity rate, despite their hidden math, had gone up 12.5 percent since last month.

This technique will work all over. Soon, store windows will have: "Rake handle, $10; rake teeth, $8." "Overshoes, left one, $40, right one, $42." (They'll give them both to you for $40; they're sorry, really. The sign painter charged more for the word "right" because it had more letters."

Get ready. The next place you'll see this will be at the pumps: "GAS: $1.99!"

Per quart!