next time your boss offers you a payrise based on CPI argue for more based on the REAL CPI. from an economic newsletter i receive (for free) by John Mauldin. "Cooking the Inflation Books Just for the record, I want to state that I know as does nearly everyone else who pays attention to the CPI statistics that they are bogus. They do not reflect the real world that you and I, gentle reader, live in. So, while it may look like I take them at face value, I do so only because the Fed pays attention to the number, (nod, nod, wink, wink) and makes policy based upon it. So, let's look at how the calculation of the CPI has been politicized and how much of a difference it makes, and then go on to the expectation for statistical inflation in the near future. John Williams writes an excellent monthly letter on all types of government statistics called the Shadow Government Statistics at www.shadowstats.com. One of the things he points out that during the Clinton administration, the way the BLS calculates inflation was changed. He calculates his own inflation number using the old pre-Clinton inflation model. Using that methodology suggests that inflation is at 7%. And if you use other methods, inflation might even be substantially higher. Look at the chart below. Since the CPI is used to calculate the increase in Social Security payments and a host of other items, calculating inflation is important. I the early 1990s the arguments in the press was that inflation was over-stated. Michael Boskin, chief economist in the first Bush administration and Alan Greenspan were among the chief proponents for a new methodology of accounting for inflation. Quoting Williams: "Up until the Boskin/Greenspan agendum surfaced, the CPI was measured using the costs of a fixed basket of goods, a fairly simple and straightforward concept. The identical basket of goods would be priced at prevailing market costs for each period, and the period-to-period change in the cost of that market basket represented the rate of inflation in terms of maintaining a constant standard of living. "The Boskin/Greenspan argument was that when steak got too expensive, the consumer would substitute hamburger for the steak, and that the inflation measure should reflect the costs tied to buying hamburger versus steak, instead of steak versus steak. Of course, replacing hamburger for steak in the calculations would reduce the inflation rate, but it represented the rate of inflation in terms of maintaining a declining standard of living. Cost of living was being replaced by the cost of survival. The old system told you how much you had to increase your income in order to keep buying steak. The new system promised you hamburger, and then dog food, perhaps, after that. "The Boskin/Greenspan concept violated the intent and common usage of the inflation index. The CPI was considered sacrosanct within the Department of Labor, given the number of contractual relationships that were anchored to it. The CPI was one number that never was to be revised, given its widespread usage. "Shortly after Clinton took control of the White House, however, attitudes changed. The BLS initially did not institute a new CPI measurement using a variable-basket of goods that allowed substitution of hamburger for steak, but rather tried to approximate the effect by changing the weighting of goods in the CPI fixed basket. Over a period of several years, straight arithmetic weighting of the CPI components was shifted to a geometric weighting. The Boskin/Greenspan benefit of a geometric weighting was that it automatically gave a lower weighting to CPI components that were rising in price, and a higher weighting to those items dropping in price. "Once the system had been shifted fully to geometric weighting, the net effect was to reduce reported CPI on an annual, or year-over-year basis, by 2.7% from what it would have been based on the traditional weighting methodology. The results have been dramatic. The compounding effect since the early-1990s has reduced annual cost of living adjustments in social security by more than a third." Then to confuse the process even more, the BLS uses something called hedonics, from the root word hedonism. Essentially, the adjust the price of an item based on the "pleasure" or increased value you get. Thus, they don't price automobiles based on the sticker price, but on what you get for your money. If the manufacturers load in more items like new electronics or anti-locking brakes that were not standard the year before that means you are getting more value for your dollar, so therefore the price in terms of inflation goes down even though you may be paying the same or even more to get out of the car show room. The same is true for computers. We clearly get more power every year, so for the BLS the price of computers are going down, although it seems to me that the price I pay for a top of the line computer is about the same as it was five or ten years ago. If the government mandates an additive to gasoline that costs 10 cents more, that is not included in the inflation numbers, because we get a new, improved gasoline that pollutes less. Supposedly the pleasure of breathing cleaner air reduces the costs to our pocket book, or something like that. My health insurance costs have tripled over the last ten years, and I know that is the experience of many of my readers. Yet, the BLS has medical costs rising by less than 50% for the last ten years. Their data suggest the cost of housing has risen by about 30% over the last ten years. Again, that is not the experience of many of my readers. Social Security expenses are $657 billion per year. If Williams is right (and I think he is) that under the old methodology that expenses would have risen by a third, then that means we are spending $200 billion a year less. Add $200 billion to the deficit. And then watch politicians panic. I am not one to suggest conspiracy, but if the CPI reflected the real world, the US government would be spending far more money on Social Security and a host of other pension programs. The crisis we will be experiencing in about 8 years would have already hit us. Thus, there was an incentive for leaders to find economists who could argue for new, more "progressive" methods for calculating inflation. Notice that this was done by the BLS without any protest from Congress. None of this was done behind closed doors. The BLS, to its credit, is extremely open about how it calculates CPI, and you can get an enormous amount of detail on their web site about prices of things like tomatoes in very part of the country going back for decades. But the way we calculate the CPI is not going to change. No administration will want to go back and add in an extra 4-5% a year to Social Security and other government pension programs. So, let's return to the prospects for a rise in the CPI in the near future, which will have policy implications for the Fed.