RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Some of you may have noticed that prices at the pump are going down a bit. And that was reflected in new economic numbers out this morning. The Labor Department just announced that in November, the rate of inflation inched down; helped by those falling gas prices. It was the first decline in six months. Consumer prices had been growing slowly, at an annual rate of about 2 percent.
Now, the Consumer Price Index, or CPI, is one of the most familiar measures in economics. It can move markets; it can affect our lives, including the money we put away for retirement. But these days, some in Washington want to change the way the index is calculated; and some say that could cut the federal deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade
To get a handle on all this, NPR's Scott Horsley went to the source of the CPI data.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: When I dropped by the Bureau of Labor Statistics yesterday, the workers who calculate the consumer price index were getting ready for this morning's release, so parts of their building were on lockdown.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOCK TURNING)
HORSLEY: Even though it's a small number, the inflation measure can make big waves. It's used to adjust Social Security, and other retirement benefits. And like any government statistic with the potential to move markets, it's a closely guarded secret until the official announcement.
JOHN GREENLEES: The areas where the people that produce the CPI work, are - certainly - sealed off from everyone else during this period.
HORSLEY: John Greenlees heads the Division of Price and Index Number Research for the government. He says behind that little number, there's an army of consumer lookouts who roam the country, looking for changing prices.
GREENLEES: They visit stores and doctors' offices and barbershops and hospitals, collecting prices throughout the month.
HORSLEY: These part-time government shoppers compare the same basket of goods and services every month; to see which prices have gone up, and which have gone down. And they crunch those numbers together, to get the consumer price index. The only problem, say critics, is that's not how consumers actually shop.
MARC GOLDWEIN: If the price of turkey goes up, and I buy more ham; or if the price of oranges go up, and so I buy more apples; that's not accounted in the current price index. It thinks I continue to buy those oranges, no matter how expensive they get.
HORSLEY: Marc Goldwein wants to adjust the inflation measure. So instead of comparing the same basket month after month, analysts would make substitutions - just the way real shoppers do. Goldwein stresses he's not talking about customers who reluctantly switch to an inferior product.
GOLDWEIN: It's not as if everyone was always going from steak down to chicken. Sometimes, people are going from chicken to steak.
HORSLEY: The federal government actually already calculates this alternative measure of inflation. It's called chained CPI. And over the last decade, it's typically shown prices rising a little more slowly than the regular consumer price index - about a quarter to a third of a percent slower, each year. That might not sound like much but over time, it adds up. If the government switched to chained CPI for cost-of-living adjustments, Social Security payments and other benefits would grow more slowly. And tax revenue would go up because parts of the tax code are also indexed to inflation.
Goldwein, who worked for the Simpson-Bowles Commission, estimates the switch would shave more than $200 billion off the deficit over the next decade. Because most of the savings would come in later years, it wouldn't be an immediate drag on the economy.
GOLDWEIN: Given that the economy is still weak, we don't want massive amounts of deficit reduction right now. That's the whole reason we're avoiding the fiscal cliff. It's too much deficit reduction, too fast. The chained CPI sort of is the best of all worlds because it gives you a very credible way to reduce future deficits, but with barely any effect in the short term.
HORSLEY: But some seniors are up in arms over the idea. Cristina Martin Firvita, of AARP, says if Social Security payments grew more slowly, the very elderly would suffer the most. She also complains that chained CPI doesn't reflect the actual cost of living for seniors.
CRISTINA MARTIN FIRVITA: Obviously, more of their money goes to health care; health care grows faster than inflation. And if folks want to have a conversation about accuracy, we would welcome an adoption of a more accurate market basket; and one that really reflects the spending patterns of the retired and the disabled.
HORSLEY: The government actually has another inflation measure that's specially tailored for seniors. Unlike chained CPI, it tends to show more inflation rather than less. That measure is based on a smaller sample, though, and it's not officially recognized. Congressional Republicans call for switching to chained CPI, in their deficit-cutting proposal. So far, President Obama has been noncommittal.
Goldwein says despite the controversy, chained CPI is one of the least painful deficit-cutting moves the government could make. If there is any big budget bargain, he says, the new inflation measure is likely to be part of it. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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