The True Rise in Cost of Living

For more than eight decades, some of the smartest people in the economics business have worked on index-number theory.  The basic issue is how to measure price inflation.  A few years ago the government (Bureau of Labor Statistics) started publishing measures (chain-weighted price indexes) that no longer fail to account for consumers constantly shifting the bundle of goods they buy toward those whose prices are rising less rapidly, as the standard CPI does.  Consumers do substitute when relative prices change, and the new measures recognize this.

This issue is technical, but it has become crucial in the “fiscal cliff” discussion.  Republicans wish to use the new measure to index (link to inflation) benefits of transfer programs, particularly Social Security (OASDI).  Liberals don’t like this — it will slow growth of incomes among Social Security recipients (me included).  I hate to say it, but the Republicans have it right on this one: using a chain-weighted price index better reflects the true rise in the cost of living.  If we are indexing benefits, as we have now for many years, it should be done properly.  And here’s a case where economic theory, coupled with careful applied research by a government agency, has produced the right answer.  It’s time to use it.

The Inflation of Everything

Inflation is a term most often employed to describe prices.  A too-high inflation rate results in a devalued currency. But what about the inflation of other things in our world? The Economist reports on this trend:

Price inflation remains relatively subdued in the rich world, even though central banks are busily printing money. But other types of inflation are rampant. This “panflation” needs to be recognised for the plague it has become.

Take the grossly underreported problem of “size inflation”, where clothes of any particular labelled size have steadily expanded over time. Estimates by The Economist suggest that the average British size 14 pair of women’s trousers is now more than four inches wider at the waist than it was in the 1970s. In other words, today’s size 14 is really what used to be labelled a size 18; a size 10 is really a size 14. 

Time for a "Brave New Math"?

Channeling some of the logic in our "Health of Nations" podcast, Peter Marber argues in World Policy Journal that it's time for a "brave new math." Marber takes issue with economists' ongoing reliance on old measures of economic health -- GDP, inflation, and unemployment:

Traditional measures point to an American economy that’s up even when Americans are feeling down. Across Europe and in Japan, there is also a sense of confusion over current economic directions—a universal sense that the numbers that have been our staples are increasingly meaningless to everyday people.

Newspapers, radio, and television routinely spout headlines about key statistics on GDP, inflation, and employment—astonishingly influential indicators computed in the United States by the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and in capitals around the world. Most seem to have little correlation with the realities on the street. 

AARP is Wrong About Inflation

I’m getting a 3.6 percent increase in my Social Security retirement benefits on January 1. This reflects the rise in the “cost of living.” I’m happy for the money, but it’s wrong: every economist who has studied the issue knows that the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) used for this adjustment overstates inflation by failing to account for the fact that people substitute away from goods and services whose prices rise relatively rapidly.

For a decade the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has published a measure that accounts for this substitution, the chained CPI (C-CPI-U). Over the last 10 years it has risen 24.4 percent, while the CPI-U has risen 27.4 percent (and 3.7 instead of 3.9 percent this past 12 months). The C-CPI-U is a better measure of the cost-of-living, and it should be used (although even it overstates inflation because it doesn’t account fully for improvement of products).

Unsurprisingly, groups claiming to represent us greedy geezers are vehemently against even this change, "This so-called 'chained CPI,' through compounding, would cut seniors' benefits by thousands of dollars over their lifetimes ….," said AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond.

Of course, nobody’s benefits would be cut. Rather, their future benefits would rise less rapidly and would reflect better the prices of the goods they consume. My advice to other geezers: suck it up—this is the right thing for society and the right thing logically.

The Costco Effect: Why Does the Wholesaler Cause Inflation?

There's a lot of data showing that Walmart causes prices to decline when it enters a local market (see here, here and here). Why then, according to a new study, does Costco have the opposite effect, and cause competitors to raise their prices? The answer boils down to the complex ways that stores choose to compete against each other, and shows that not all big box retailers are created equal. Here's the abstract:

Prior research shows grocery stores reduce prices to compete with Walmart Supercenters. This study finds evidence that the competitive effects of two other big box retailers – Costco and Walmart-owned Sam's Club – are quite different. Using city-level panel grocery price data matched with a unique data set on Walmart and warehouse club locations, we find that Costco entry is associated with higher grocery prices at incumbent retailers, and that the effect is strongest in cities with small populations and high grocery store densities. This is consistent with incumbents competing with Costco along non-price dimensions such as product quality or quality of the shopping experience. We find no evidence that Sam’s Club entry affects grocery stores’ prices, consistent with Sam’s Club’s focus on small businesses instead of consumers.

Is The Fed Responsible for Higher Oil Prices?

Vincent R. Reinhart thinks so. Reinhart, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute and a former director of the Federal Reserve Board's Division of Monetary Affairs, argues that the Fed's quantitative easing program has raised the price of oil for American consumers:

Since the Fed firmly signaled in August its intent to launch the latest round of QE, oil prices have risen from $76 to around $100 per barrel.

Why does the Fed's balance sheet matter for oil prices? The producers of oil as well as other commodities typically sell their output in a worldwide market priced in U.S. dollars. Thus, they care about the current and expected future purchasing power of the dollar and how that will translate into goods and services back home. But QE has been associated with higher inflation and dollar depreciation, which combines to erode the purchasing power of the foreign producers of commodities. Thus, some of the rise in the nominal price of oil has been to catch up with that erosion.

Income Inequality: A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts

Joe Stiglitz writes an excellent jeremiad on growing income inequality in the U.S in a recent issue ofVanity Fair. Most of what he said is factually correct, although claims about the average American being worse off (his claims, but more noisily those of various leftie groups) are simply wrong because of upward biases in inflation measures.

But so what? Comparisons matter, and it’s not just an issue of envy. Even though the average American is better off in real dollar terms than 20 years ago (despite our American national pastime of “bitching”), the concentration of economic power is growing most among a very few fragments of society. And, with the Supreme Court having handed the rich carte blanche to subsidize political candidates, the institutional framework for the economy can be changed in ways that disproportionately help the rich. Even though a rising tide may lift all boats, if giant yachts are lifted higher, the political backwash can make us paddlers of rowboats worse off!

Social Security and Inflation

We "Greedy Geezers" will not be getting an increase in our monthly Social Security benefit payments in January, because the CPI is still below what it was in 2008.

The Quiet Danger of Non-Inflation-Adjusted Stock Returns

In today's Wall Street Journal, E.S. Browning has written a quietly important article (gated) about the fact that stock-market returns are almost never adjusted for inflation. While most shrewd investors factor in this omission, my sense is that a great many people never think about it, and therefore significantly overestimate their investment gains.

The Cost of Really Bad Government

When does a press pass cost $27 billion? When you’re a local reporter in Zimbabwe working for a foreign news outlet. Foreign Policy‘s Passport Blog reports that the government in Zimbabwe will begin assessing local journalists a fee of between $1,000 and $3,000 U.S. for the right to send news out of the country. Considering […]