Fix CPI, Reap Big Savings

By / 6.13.2011

Erskine BowlesU.S. elected leaders are desperately searching for ways to reduce the nation’s colossal debt without casting career-damaging votes for hiking revenues and slashing spending. Policy-makers are now turning to a technical fix in how the government measures inflation not only to fight the deficit, but also to circumvent political backlash.

Currently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics accounts for changes in the cost of living through the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The traditional CPI measures the overall average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services. But there’s a hitch: many economists say CPI overstates inflation, resulting in higher cost-of-living adjustments for people who receive public benefits, especially Medicare and Social Security, while simultaneously increasing federal deficits unnecessarily.

The problem with the traditional CPI is its dubious assumption that consumers continue to purchase the same basket of goods regardless of relative prices. That is where the so-called “Chained CPI” comes in. Many economists believe it more accurately measures inflation by taking into account something called “consumer substitution bias.” Simply, what this means is that when the price of food or some other good rises, people will look for a cheaper alternative.

According to a new paper by The Moment of Truth Project, a bipartisan effort focused on overcoming the nation’s debt problem, switching to the Chained CPI would save the government serious money — $12 billion in Social Security, $33 billion in other federal retirement plans and $23 billion in deficit reduction from other areas of the budget. Chained CPI will conserve another $87 billion in a ten-year period, because it slows the growth of tax bracket thresholds and other factors. All told, using Chained CPI to gauge inflation and index the federal budget would reduce the deficit by $300 billion total over the next decade.

No wonder the switch to the Chained CPI has been endorsed by both the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform’s and the Domenici-Rivlin deficit reduction plans. The fiscal commission’s co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, set up Moment of Truth to advocate for the Bowles-Simpson commission’s plan.

According to the authors of the Moment of Truth report, Adam Rosenberg and Marc Goldwein, Chained CPI can fully account for the substitution bias that arises from consumer behavior by using market baskets from two successive months. The combination of baskets creates a chaining effect that links price changes to shifts in consumption.

Even though it is a technical fix, Congress still needs to approve adopting Chained CPI. In today’s hyper partisan times, fixing the CPI would be a less painful way politically to reap budget savings while providing a more accurate understanding of how inflation changes consumer behavior.

Photo Credit: Medill DC