The Secret Life of a Government Inflation Agent

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The next time you’re at the mall, the supermarket, or perhaps even a used car lot, you might run across a shopper meticulously taking note of the prices of everything from Red Delicious apples to women’s undergarments. This consumer could be the most careful, price-obsessed shopper on earth. Or he could be an agent of the government whose job it is to track the prices (and rates of inflation) for almost every purchase in the marketplace.

The Boston Globe offers an insider’s look at just such an agent, in the form of Dan Dugan, a silver-haired gentleman who browses for a living. On the job, he hits stores with a thick black latop to collect pricing data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics—specifically for the Consumer Price Index, which regularly reveals rates of inflation across a broad range of goods.

For a shopaholic or an extreme couponer,” this may seem like a dream job. Mostly, though, it’s pretty boring. Three times a month, Dugan gets a list of 15 to 20 stores he must visit. He’s told specifically what goods to track—mouthwash, peanut butter, caskets, even things like haircuts—and prices out roughly 100 items or services per week.

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While BLS agents do their price-checking anonymously, sometimes simply by doing his job Dugan draws attention to himself—as an oddball, if not a creep:

[One] time, he was pricing expensive women’s lingerie at an undisclosed location when two security guards, watching him handle too many skimpy undergarments for a little too long and unaware of his role, tried to force him out of the store.

That’s your tax money at work, paying the salary of an older man who sometimes spends afternoons examining women’s underwear. But it’s because of the work of Dugan and the BLS that consumers—as well as the Federal Reserve, small and large businesses, and investors around the world—know when prices rise and fall, and by how much.

What’s Gotten More Expensive
Thanks to data collected by the likes of Dugan and his colleagues at stores around the country, we know that peanut butter now costs 12.3% more than it did 12 months ago. (A bad crop of peanuts last summer is to blame, though considering that some forecasts called for price increases of as much as 40%, PB&J lovers should feel lucky prices aren’t higher.) Apples are also more expensive (10% higher), as are chips and snacks (up 7.1%) and steak (9%). Bacon prices are on the rise as well.

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What’s Gotten Cheaper
While food prices overall have risen 1.2% in U.S. cities, some foods have gotten cheaper—like potatoes, down 8%. Natural gas is also less expensive: Thanks partially to decreased demand during the mild winter, prices are down 12.7%. Lower demand and a highly competitive marketplaces for TVs has meant that TV prices have gotten cheaper as well, decreasing nearly 20% in the past year.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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