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The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a well-thought-out way to measure inflation from month to month, and to assign a number to it. The U.S. government has many, many reasons – in both fiscal policy and monetary policy – to measure inflation, so the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has created the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the Producer Price Index (PPI).  There are various other indices to measure prices of raw materials (such as metals or chemicals) or to track the costs of specific items like gasoline or avocados or even the cost of renting an apartment in San Francisco). Most major countries around the world have some version of the Consumer Price Index.

I find it interesting that the European Central Bank doesn’t include the cost of owner-occupied housing in their Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP), because they consider buying a home to be an investment, not a cost of living. Also it’s interesting that the European HICP includes prices from rural areas, whereas the U.S. CPI only measures prices in urban areas. To some degree, all measures of inflation are artificial inventions created by statisticians and economists. These indices are either close to or far away from reality.

What is the difference between the CPI and the chained-CPI? What’s the best way to measure inflation?

I’ll say more below the orange biscuit of cream-cheesy deliciousness.

I have three points to make:

1) In the traditional (non-chained) CPI, we’re comparing apples with apples. You have a standard (albeit fictional) market basket of maybe 200 items, you check the prices in maybe 200 cities and everything is weighted and turned into statistics and when the calculations are done, the BLS announces that “the cost of living went up by 0.3% over last month (3.6% on an annual basis).” Maybe there was a drought in the corn states, so corn prices went up. There was a bumper crop of asparagus (from wherever-the-fuck that’s grown), so that price went down. Gasoline went up (so everything that had to be trucked to market went up a little). The value of the Peruvian currency (the sol) went down, so imported Peruvian grapes were cheaper. There are a zillion reasons the individual prices fluctuate in the different cities.

Maybe the price of buying or renting a house went down in Detroit and Atlanta, but went up in Boston and Salt Lake City, so the local CPIs might be a little higher here or there.

This is important: As long as you’re comparing exactly the same market basket in exactly the same cities over a period of time, you’re tracking the same prices for the same items. You’re comparing apples to apples and asparagus to asparagus and Boston to Boston. This way of measuring inflation makes a lot of sense to me.

Sometimes the BLS adjusts the market basket. People are buying digital cameras instead of film cameras. People are disconnecting their land lines and switching to cell phones. People have stopped buying horse-and-buggies and getting automobiles. Whatever or whenever. The index gets adjusted a little bit.

So that’s one method to figure out inflation. But on the other hand…

2) At some point, some economist said, “You know what? That market basket of goods isn’t the way real consumers buy things. They don’t buy 2 apples and a banana and a can of corn and half a pound of hamburger every single week. If lettuce is expensive, they’ll buy raw spinach instead. If lentils are cheaper than navy beans, people might buy lentils.”

That’s a good point. I went to the store on Friday and bought grapes at 99 cents a pound because that’s relatively cheap compared to two months ago when they were $2.50 a pound (I like grapes, but I won’t pay that much). The week of St. Patrick’s Day, I bought cabbage and corned beef because it was on sale. The day after Easter, I bought Easter candy at reduced prices. It was shaped like eggs and bunnies, but my mouth loves the taste of delicious chocolate of any shape.

So that chained-CPI idea makes sense to me, too. It’s closer to what happens in the real world. When toilet paper goes on sale, I buy enough to last a month or two. When grapes are cheap but apples are regular price, I buy grapes. I’m taking advantage of price fluctuations.

But the problem with the chained CPI is that it’s comparing apples to oranges.  Comparing Wheat Thins to Triscuits. Comparing hamburger to tuna. I understand the concept, but I think it’s designed to deliberately understate inflation.

3) Here’s where reality slaps you in the face and things get political. There are lots of people who have a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA): from union contracts, pensions, food stamps, social security, and so on.  If politicians can figure out a way to understate inflation (via the chained CPI),then in the long run the government or companies will pay out less money (and it will hurt people who have a COLA adjustment, bit by bit).

That’s why I think chained-CPI can be justified (as an abstract economic concept) but it’s wrong (as a government-mandated COLA policy).

Personally, I think the two biggest sources of inflation are the cost of energy and the cost of health care. The way to keep inflation in check is move away from oil-based energy to renewable green energy. And to figure out how to remove the profit motive from health care. It’s oil and health care that are raising prices, not the price of hamburger or asparagus.

And that’s my opinion.

Originally posted to Dbug on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 05:06 AM PDT.

Also republished by Social Security Defenders.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (17+ / 0-)

    "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

    by Dbug on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 05:06:08 AM PDT

  •  Is CPI used to set monetary policy? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Onomastic, Dbug, DavidW

    I hope not, because interest rates etc. set under chained CPI would surely tend to  be more inflationary than otherwise.  Today, of course, nobody cares; interest rates are close to zero already, and the economy is so sluggish that it doesn't matter.

    But imagine what would have happened had chained CPI been in effect during the Ford and Carter administrations.

    •  No. Well, yes and no. (0+ / 0-)

      The Fed tends to look at all sorts of different measures, but they like "core inflation" a lot. Since the prices of food and fuel can fluctuate, they're subtracted out to figure out the core inflation.

      Here's an explanation by Paul Krugman: Core Logic.

      "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

      by Dbug on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 05:22:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Well, for the last few years, prices (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Onomastic, Dbug, Roger Fox

    haven't risen much at all. On average, CPI has been less than 2% per annum since the beginning of 2008. And with interest rates approaching zero, and commodities prices back to where they were in 2008, it doesn't look like inflation is going to be a problem for some time in the future.

    •  I think prices have been going up a whole lot more (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DavidW, pittie70, Onomastic

      than you think.  Just as an example, 4-5 weeks ago I purchased a bag of chips manufactured by Frito-Lay.  It was 20.5 ounces and labeled 'family sized'.  The price stamped on the bag is $4.99.  About 2 weeks ago I purchased another bag of the same chips and it was the same price.  However, it was labeled 'party sized' and weighed only 18.5 ounces.  That is a .03 cent per ounce, or roughly a 9% per ounce, increase in price.

      This has been a stealthy way of increasing prices and hoping consumers won't notice for decades.

    •  Agreed, in the near term, absolutely. (0+ / 0-)

      .................expect us......................... FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 10:04:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  chained CPI (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Onomastic, Dbug, jabney, DavidW, pittie70

    is akin to post-hoc data mining - messing with the data to get the answer one wants. It will surely understate inflation because it will always buy whatever is on sale. Some people can only buy apples because they are allergic to oranges.  A large market basket without meddling gives a truer picture.

    As is the CPI is already questionable and seems to understate inflation, at least that is my impression.

  •  The problem with chained CPI is that (11+ / 0-)

    it tends more accurately  to reflect the effect of price increases in our society as a whole.  Where it breaks down as a social policy is that, in using it to determine COLAs for senior, it is LESS accurate than the current methodology, which, in turn, is even less accurate CPI-E, a "market basket" which has been designed to more accurately reflect the kinds of purchases made by senior.  
    Thus, the use of chained CPI for our society as a whole may be justified, assuming that it more accurately reflects general economic behaviour.  So, for example, it might be more accurate to use it to determine indexing in the tax code, since those effect almost all people in the country.  But, its use in determining COLAs for seniors is economicly flawed, and can only be justified by a desire to reduce expenditures for that cadre of our society, and NOT to more accurately reflect how that cadre spends their fixed income.

    •  Yep Seniors Are Already Chained nt (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Onomastic, Dbug, joedemocrat

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 06:42:09 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Heisenberg uncertainty principle? (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dbug, Onomastic, Roger Fox, joedemocrat

      Chained CPI seems to accelerate a race to the bottom, rather than just measuring it.

      "Michael Moore, who was filming a movie about corporate welfare called 'Capitalism: A Love Story,' sought and received incentives."

      by Bush Bites on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 07:12:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  If I read what you're saying correctly, then (2+ / 0-)

      why isn't the CPI-E being proposed?

      Social Security is not part of the deficit. It is not going to  run out of funds in the near term. What will be there once the Boomers go through it for the next generations I'm not clear on at all. And I need to be.

      Does C-CPI do anything to extend the life of the program for future generations or not? Is that the goal?

      Does it do so without harming this generation of SS recipients? Even with "safeguards," cuts in health care costs for Seniors from the ACA, and other measures to offset the slow down in inflation increases, just what is the C-CPI supposed to accomplish?

      And what is the context in which this is happening?

      "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

      by Onomastic on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 07:26:44 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Because, the discussion with regard to ` (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        nchristine, Onomastic, joedemocrat

        Social Security is about how to "save" it from the fiscal cliff it is leading us over.  :~}

        Seriously, the use of Chained CPI came out of Simpson-Bowles, an attempt to reduce expenditures and conflate the national debt with the long-term fiscal issues which will, in a quarter century, affect SSI payments.  It was touted as "a more accurate measure", except that it isn't for the subject population.  CPI-E has not been on the table because the discussion on the table is how to "reform" (read: reduce) entitlement spending, rather than being on how do we more fairly deal with our senior.  "Serious People" would never propose CPI-E because it does not "solve" Social Security's problems -- problems which, of course, can truly be solved for the next 75 years simply by lifting the cap on wages subject to FICA.

        •  Oh, the very same serious people who never (3+ / 0-)

          say "Boo" about Republican hostage taking?

          I may be loathing them more than Republicans these days.

          Thanks so much for this, ItSCS.

          Been longing to have a place where it was all right to ask questions and engage in a respectful discussion.

          Need to thank the diary writer for that too.

          Speaking of questions, was reading a piece on the budget last night and lifting the cap came up. One of the responses to doing so was that it was a none starter as it would obviously push taxes higher.

          Given Republican hostage takers no taxes BS, I just don't see that as being an avenue open to us, at this point anyway. Do you? If we can take back the House next year that could change, but that doesn't help us now, though I think we should be pushing it hard.

          Deeply frustrating all around.

          Need to go do some reading on the sequester. Those cuts are really supposed to start ramping up this fall and I'm not clear on a few things, including how that may or may not tie in with the budget.

          Ezra Klein has a very good piece on the $4.6 trillion dollar difference between the President's and the Republican's budget. The difference and it what it reveals is more than telling.

          That $4.6 trillion represents a stark choice. If used as Obama hopes, it means tens of millions more Americans with health insurance, a more generous food stamp program, more college aid, and more investments in biomedical research, among others. If used as the Republicans hope, it means less debt and lower taxes on the wealthy.

          Both budgets bring the deficit down to more-than-manageable levels. Republicans, of course, are looking to eliminate the deficit entirely. But the White House brings the deficit down to 1.7 percent of GDP. Achieving that goal would mean America’s debt load would be falling as a percentage of GDP, which is the measure most economists look to to see if our finances are stable.

          The Republican budget argues that its cuts aren’t so much a choice as a necessity. “Unless we change course,” reads the introduction, “we will have a debt crisis.” But that’s incomplete. The truth of the Republican budget is that it’s only necessary if you refuse to raise taxes and if you insist on balancing the budget within 10 years.

          "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

          by Onomastic on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 08:22:19 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  It is being proposed for a much wider group than (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Dbug, Onomastic, joedemocrat

          just seniors. The problem with proposing it with seniors, though, is that the fund from which seniors are paid SS is not the same pool as most other non seniors use for anything, and the profile of purchases is also different because of medical and health charges, housing, and the peculiarity that we forget that other expenses of seniors, such as food, are less fungible than most because of dietary restrictions and the like - no salt. dubious on red meat because of cholesterol, dubious on a lot of starches because of diabetes and thelike.   SS is the outlier which needs to be treated differently because it is paid from a segregated already paid in fund. And BLS has been keeping CPI-E for over two decades but has never, ever allowed it to be removed from the 'experimental' status.

    •  The point you raise is what basket of goods to use (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      not whether CPI or chained CPI calculation is more accurate.

      A chained CPI can be calculated for a basket of goods seniors buy.

      The most important way to protect the environment is not to have more than one child.

      by nextstep on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 08:44:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  The impact of chained CPI on SS income (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      nchristine, Onomastic, Dbug, joedemocrat

      is bad enough but the tax code situation is more of a concern for me.  Thresholds for standard deductions, exemptions and the like would get indexed to chained CPI.  Over time everyone in lower brackets pays more.

      However the REALLY big problem with tax code wrt Social Security is one NO ONE is talking about.  In 1983 we started taxing SS income yet we did not tie the those thresholds to any inflation index.  It's been 25k for singles, 32k for married ever since.  So while back then maybe 5% of recipients got their SS taxed, now it's more like 45%.  I haven't done the math but it seems to me that this is a stealth reduction in benefits that may be more drastic than Obama's budget.

      I'm still not ready to accept chained CPI as a reasonable measure of inflation until the BLS can explain to all of us how the substitutions work - using detailed examples.

      I'm not liberal. I'm actually just anti-evil, OK? - Elon James White

      by Satya1 on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 09:43:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  And if things get really expensive, people will... (5+ / 0-)

    ....start eating out of dumpsters, and inflation will be negative.

    Sorry, that's always been my response to the "flexible basket" thing.

    "Michael Moore, who was filming a movie about corporate welfare called 'Capitalism: A Love Story,' sought and received incentives."

    by Bush Bites on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 07:04:00 AM PDT

  •  I haven't studied this well enough (5+ / 0-)

    to converse on it intelligently, but you've added some food for thought.

    If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

    by marykk on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 07:04:19 AM PDT

  •  How do you figure HC costs cause inflation? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dbug, Onomastic, joedemocrat

    They've been going up double digits for years and inflation's been pretty tame.

    "Michael Moore, who was filming a movie about corporate welfare called 'Capitalism: A Love Story,' sought and received incentives."

    by Bush Bites on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 07:08:50 AM PDT

  •  Thank you for this thoughtful post. (2+ / 0-)

    It's much appreciated.

    "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

    by Onomastic on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 08:36:22 AM PDT

  •  Good point about how (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Onomastic, Roger Fox, Dbug, joedemocrat

    vanilla CPI-U also has substitution adjustments from time to time.  Swapping cell phones for land lines for example.  I would love to see how they account for the improvements in computer technology ala Moore's Law, where by capacities double every 1.5-2 years.  One could pay half for a computer today than 3 years ago and it would still be twice as fast with twice as much storage.

    I REALLY wish we could see the range of examples of substitution they do for chained CPI.  We all tend to fear the worst and I think looking at some specifics would be informative.  In particular I  want to know if they ever account for shopping behavior when a consumer actually substitutes something MORE expensive because it may be on sale, relatively cheaper and it's a chance to enjoy a "splurge"?  Like buying sirloin steaks instead of ground round when there is a sale.  Most of the time we may be focused on saving a buck but often we're looking at food quality or something nice for special occasions, etc.

    And there have to be some strict rules about how substitutions can be done.  What are they specifically.  I've looked all over the BLS site and can't find some clear, detailed examples of how this works.

    I also want to say we should also be looking at having the CPI-E be used for elderly focused programs since it more accurately reflects the greater share of medical care and other aspects of spending by retired folks.

    And in terms of inflation we need to open up our scope to the parts of the revenue code that aren't indexed but should be - such as the tax on SS benefits.  Back when it was created in 1983 maybe 5% of people had their benefits taxed.  But because the thresholds don't rise with inflation, now about 45% of people  have their SS benefits taxed.  I believe this takes away as much as the chained CPI adjustment would.

    Missing the CPI-E and inflation indexing the tax on SS income to me shows us that the Fed government is already screwing the elderly by obfuscating what these SS incomes really return.

    I'm not liberal. I'm actually just anti-evil, OK? - Elon James White

    by Satya1 on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 09:26:11 AM PDT

    •  Your comment is just the what I was hoping (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roger Fox, joedemocrat

      to see in this discussion.

      Thank you.

      "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

      by Onomastic on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 09:59:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks but its really nice to have a diary (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Onomastic, Dbug

        that is about discussion of facts. By the way, the BLS had this interesting blurb on their FAQ about housing.  It fits with what you're saying about the  HICP:

        The CPI used to include the value of a house in calculating inflation and now they use an estimate of what each house would rent for -- doesn't this switch simply lower the official inflation rate?

        No. Until 1983, the CPI measure of homeowner cost was based largely on house prices. The long-recognized flaw of that approach was that owner-occupied housing combines both consumption and investment elements, and the CPI is designed to exclude investment items. The approach now used in the CPI, called rental equivalence, measures the value of shelter to owner-occupants as the amount they forgo by not renting out their homes.

        The rental equivalence approach is grounded in economic theory, receives broad support from academic economists and each of the prominent panels, and agencies that have reviewed the CPI, and is the most commonly used method by countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Critics often assume that the BLS adopted rental equivalence in order to lower the measured rate of inflation. It is certainly true that an index based on home prices would be more volatile, and might move differently from other CPI indexes over any given time period. However, when it was first introduced, rental equivalence actually increased the rate of change of the CPI shelter index, and in the long run there is no evidence that the CPI method yields lower inflation rates than some other alternatives. For example, according to the National Association of Realtors, between 1983 and 2007 the monthly principal and interest payment required to purchase a median-priced existing home in the United States rose by 79 percent, much less than the rental equivalence increase of 140 percent over that same period.

        I'm not liberal. I'm actually just anti-evil, OK? - Elon James White

        by Satya1 on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 10:25:03 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  link (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I'm not liberal. I'm actually just anti-evil, OK? - Elon James White

          by Satya1 on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 10:25:43 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Thank you so much. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            And the reading list keeps growing, as it should. :)

            "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

            by Onomastic on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 10:38:47 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  As long as we're talking reading... (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              As near as I can tell the significant difference between cpi-u and c-cpi-u is that the chained index employs a formula that accounts for shoppers substituting between categories.  What level of category I don't know.    It doesn't work via rules or actual swapping commodity items in the data.
              I need to dig deeper and try to  resurrect some dusty math and statistics skills but this page looks like the real  place to start:


              I'm not liberal. I'm actually just anti-evil, OK? - Elon James White

              by Satya1 on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 11:01:33 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Thanks (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                Looks like I'm reading with you. :)

                But right off the bat, the c-cpi-u seems to only consider urban dwellers and I see that as a problem in some ways, not in others.

                Just off the top of my head, those who live in rural areas are more car dependent due to the lack of public transportation.

                Everything can cost a bit more because everything is shipped further.

                On the other hand, housing is more expensive in urban areas so perhaps there is a trade off.

                Off to read but I'm still curious why there rural areas are not included.

                "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

                by Onomastic on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 11:16:24 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

              •  Woops. (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                Disregard previous question. Was reading to fast and missed the obvious.

                Need to slow down a bit.

                Sorry about that.

                "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

                by Onomastic on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 11:18:33 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

        •  That happened in 1983 (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I remember hearing a story on NPR about it (24 years ago, so no link).

          As I recall, the argument for removing the price of a house was that "people buy groceries every month but they don't buy a house every month," which makes some sense. And because the price of housing had been going up faster than other things, removing it had the effect of holding down the rate of growth, which meant that (magically) inflation measured by the CPI was less than it was before.

          Because of this change, the Social Security COLA was smaller after 1983 than it had been in previous years.

          "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

          by Dbug on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 05:07:38 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  BLS publishes thousands of consumer price indexes (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Here is a little reading material.

    There can be quite an honest debate about which one would be best to use. There are many thousands of hard working Americans who don't get a CPI because nationally we haven't chained the minimum wage to any available CPI. I do get a CPI, tied to the CPI-U, because of my Union contract.

    A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward. Franklin D. Roosevelt

    by notrouble on Tue Apr 16, 2013 at 04:31:43 PM PDT

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