lies, damned lies, and statistics
Just finished reading the Boskin Commission report from 1996, which is titled "Toward a more accurate measure of the cost of living". Let's quote some excerpts in this blog.
1. The American economy is flexible and dynamic. New products are being introduced all the time and existing ones improved, while others leave the market. The relative prices of different goods and services change frequently, in response to changes in income and technological and other factors affecting costs and quality. This makes constructing an accurate cost of living index more difficult than in a static economy.
2. Estimating a cost of living index requires assumptions, methodology, data gathering and index number construction. Biases can come from any of these areas. The strength of the CPI is in the underlying simplicity of its concept: pricing a fixed (but representative) market basket of goods and services over time. Its weakness follows from the same conception: the "fixed basket" becomes less and less representative over time as consumers respond to price changes and new choices.
Translation: we don't like the old methodology because it offers little room to fiddle with the data. We need something better.
3. There are several categories or types of potential bias in using changes in the CPI as a measure of the change in the cost of living. 1) Substitution bias occurs because a fixed market basket fails to reflect the fact that consumers substitute relatively less for more expensive goods when relative prices change. 2) Outlet substitution bias occurs when shifts to lower price outlets are not properly handled. 3) Quality change bias occurs when improvements in the quality of products, such as greater energy efficiency or less need for repair, are measured inaccurately or not at all. 4) New product bias occurs when new products are not introduced in the market basket, or included only with a long lag.
Translation: Under the old system, improvements in energy efficiency were counted only once: when consumers enjoyed lower energy costs over the long term. We need some pretext to count them a second time.
4. While the CPI is the best measure currently available, it is not a true cost of living index (this has been recognized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for many years). Despite many important BLS updates and improvements in the CPI, changes in the CPI will overstate changes in the true cost of living for the next few years. The Commission's best estimate of the size of the upward bias looking forward is 1.1 percentage points per year. The range of plausible values is 0.8 to 1.6 percentage points per year.
Translation: we don't want to reduce Social Security by a fixed amount, say, 10%, and call it a day. What we really want is to keep cutting benefits by 1.1% a year for the next 100 years. "Percentage points per year" is the right terminology for the purpose.
5. Changes in the CPI have substantially overstated the actual rate of price inflation, by about 1.3 percentage points per annum prior to 1996 (the extra 0.2 percentage point is due to a problem called formula bias inadvertently introduced in 1978 and fixed this year). It is likely that a large bias also occurred looking back over at least the last couple of decades.
Translation: let's throw a bone to the people at the BLS. They will probably find it easier to do their current job if we tell them that their 1982 base was overindexed to begin with. Not that they will bother to check it.
6. The upward bias creates in the federal budget an annual automatic real increase in indexed benefits and a real tax cut. CBO estimates that if the change in the CPI overstated the change in the cost of living by an average of 1.1 percentage points per year over the next decade, this bias would contribute about $148 billion to the deficit in 2006 and $691 billion to the national debt by then. The bias alone would be the fourth largest federal program, after social security, health care and defense. By 2008, these totals reach $202 billion and $1.07 trillion, respectively.
Translation: fast forward to 2008. Budget deficit will be 600 Bln and public debt stand at 10.2 trl unless we do something about our statistics today. Even with our best effort, poor George W. will have enough trouble handling a 400 Bln deficit and 9.2 trl debt, so let's not complicate his task even further.
7. Some have suggested that different groups in the population are likely to experience faster or slower growth in their cost of living than recorded by changes in the CPI. We find no compelling evidence of this to date (in fact just the opposite) but further exploration of this issue is desirable.
Translation: we don't have any supporting data (for an obvious reason), but we are still going to state out case that millionnairs are the real victims of inflation.
8. The commission is making over a dozen specific recommendations to the BLS. These include the following:
i. The BLS should establish a cost of living index (COLI) as its objective in measuring consumer prices.
ii. The BLS should develop and publish two indexes: one published monthly and one published and updated annually and revised historically.
iii. The timely, monthly index should continue to be called the CPI and should move toward a COLI concept by adopting a "superlative" index formula to account for changing market baskets, abandoning the pretense of sustaining the fixed-weight Laspeyres formula.
Translation: maintaining the old living standard is unnecessary. Just switch from Swiss cheese to American cheese, and you'll be fine.
iv. The new annual COL index would use a compatible "superlative-index" formula and reflect subsequent data, updated weights, and the introduction of new goods (with their history extended backward).
Translation: Oh, these new goods with their history extended backward! What an opportunity for BLS statistitians to apply their talents!
v. The BLS should change its procedure for combining price quotations by moving to geometric means at the elementary aggregates level.
vi. The BLS should study the behavior of the individual components of the index to ascertain which components provide most information on the future longer-term movements in the index and which items have fluctuations which are largely unrelated to the total and emphasize the former in its data collection activities.
Translation: Oh yeah, and let's give them the opportunity to throw out the uncomfortable data points.
vii. The BLS should change the CPI sampling procedures to de-emphasize geography, starting first with sampling the universe of commodities to be priced and then deciding, commodity by commodity, what is the most efficient way to collect a representative sample of prices from which outlets, and only later turn to geographically clustered samples for the economy of data collection.
Translation: Sure, mechanical averaging is an impersonal process, we need some room for human interference.
viii. The BLS should investigate the impact of classification, that is item group definition and structure, on the price indexes to improve the ability of the index to fully capture item substitution.
Translation: the tricks we've tried so far do not go far enough. Please, BLS, help us, you know what we mean!
ix. There are a number of additional conceptual issues that require attention. The price of durables, such as cars, should be converted to a price of annual services, along the same lines as the current treatment of the price of owner-occupied housing. Also, the treatment of "insurance" should move to an ex-ante consumer price measure rather than the currently used ex-post insurance profits based measure.
x. The BLS needs a permanent mechanism for bringing outside information, expertise, and research results to it. At the request of the BLS, this group should be organized by an independent public professional entity and would provide BLS an improved channel to access professional and business opinion on statistical, economic and current market issues.
Translation: we are not of the factinistas. Inflation numbers should be based on expertise and opinion.
xi. The BLS should develop a research program to look beyond its current "market basket" framework for the CPI.
xii. The BLS should investigate the ramifications of the embedded assumption of price equilibrium and the implications of it sometimes not holding.
xiii. The BLS will require a number of new data collection initiatives to make some progress along these lines. Most important, data on detailed time use from a large sample of consumers must be developed.
9. The Commission is making several recommendations to the President and Congress. These include the following:
xiv. Congress should enact the legislation necessary for the Departments of Commerce and Labor to share information in the interest of improving accuracy and timeliness of economic statistics and to reduce the resources consumed in their development and production.
xv. Congress should provide the additional resources necessary to expand the CES sample and the detail collected, to make the POPS survey more frequent, and to acquire additional commodity detail from alternative national sources, such as industry surveys and scanner data.
xvi. Congress should establish a permanent (rotating) independent committee or commission of experts to review progress in this area every three years or so and advise it on the appropriate interpretation of then current statistics.
Translation: we need to put some administrative pressure on the BLS. Otherwise, these lazy slobs wouldn't move fast enough.
xvii. Congress and the President must decide whether they wish to continue the widespread substantial overindexing of various federal spending programs and features of the tax code. If the purpose of indexing is accurately and fully to insulate the groups receiving transfer payments and paying taxes, no more and no less, they should pass legislation adjusting indexing provisions accordingly.
Translation: Ideally, we would like to reduce those benefits that we are paying already. Just say: "excuse us, we made a mistake when we promised you $600 a month, we'll pay you $400 instead, the rest is hedonic pleasures and substitution choices". If only those politicians had guts!
This could be done in the context of subtracting an amount partly or wholly reflecting the overindexing from the current CPI-based indexing. Alternatively, a smaller amount would need to be subtracted from indexing based on the new revised annual index if and when it is developed and published regularly, to more closely approximate the change in the cost of living.
Translation: OK, we recognize political limitations. So we're on hook for large payouts this year. Even more reason to underreport inflation in the future years.
We hasten to add that the indexed programs have many other features and raise many other issues beyond the narrow scope of a more accurate cost of living index. We also wish to express our view that these findings and their implications need to be fully digested and understood by the BLS, the Congress, the Executive Branch and the public.