23/2/20: Fake Data or Faking Data? Inflation Statistics

As economists and analysts, almost all of us are trying - at one point or another - make sense of the, all too often vast, gap between the reality and the economic statistics. I know, as I am guilty of this myself (here's a recent example: https://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2020/02/18220-irish-statistics-fake-news-and.html).

An interesting and insightful paper from Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute dissects the extent of and the reasons for the official inflation statistic failing to capture the reality of the true cost of living changes in the U.S. over recent years (actually, decades) here: https://www.manhattan-institute.org/reevaluating-prosperity-of-american-family). It is a must-read paper for economics students, analysts and policymakers.

His key argument is that: "Economists and families see three things differently:

  • Quality Adjustment. Products and services that rise substantially in price but in proportion to measured quality improvements can become unaffordable, while having no effect on inflation.
  • Risk-Sharing. New products and services can increase costs for the entire population yet deliver benefits to only a very small share, while having no effect on inflation.
  • Social Norms. Society-wide changes in behaviors and expectations can alter the value or necessity of a good or service, while having no effect on inflation."
In other words, over time, official inflation starts to measure something entirely different than the real and comparable across time consumption expenditure. As the result, you can have a paradox of today: low inflation is associated with falling affordability of life. 

An example: "In 1985, ... it would require 30 weeks of the median weekly wage to afford a three-bedroom house at the 40th percentile of a local market’s prices, a family health-insurance premium, a semester of public college, and the operation of a vehicle. By 2018, ... a full-time job was insufficient to afford these items, let alone the others that a household needs."

To address some of the shortcomings of the inflation measures, Cass offers a different metric, called COTI - Cost of Thriving Index - which basically amounts to the number of weeks that a given line of expenditure requires in terms of median income. Or "Weeks of Income Needed to Cover Major Household Expenditures". Two charts below illustrate:

And here is a summary table:

Excluding food, other necessities and looking solely at Housing, Health Insurance, Transport and College Education, the number of weeks of work at an overall median wage required to cover the basics of the necessary expenditure is now in excess of 58.4 weeks. For female workers' median wage, the number is 65.6 weeks. 

Which means that even before you consider other necessities purchases, and before you consider taxes, you are either dipping massively into debt or require a second income to cover these. 

Note: these do not account for income taxes, state taxes, property taxes, dental insurance. These numbers do not cover payments for water, gas, electricity. There is no mandatory car insurance included. No allowances for deductibles coverage savings (e.g. HSAs). No childcare, no children expenditures, no food purchases, and so on.

And even with all these exclusions, median income cannot afford the basics of living in today's America. 

A word from Fed, anyone?