Mapping Out the Arguments Against Chained CPI

By Mike Konczal |

Reports started coming in late last week that President Obama’s budget, to be released early tomorrow, will include a change to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security. Specifically, it will adopt a “chained CPI” (consumer price index) measure.

Many people have been writing stories about why this is a bad idea. I want to generalize them into four major categories of critique of moving to a chained CPI (with one aside). As you read stories about the pros and cons of this change in the weeks ahead, hopefully this guide can provide some background.

Accuracy, or Lack Thereof

Economists like the idea of chained CPI because they think it’s more representative of how people behave when they substitute among goods. In this story, we have been over-correcting for inflation in the past decades.

However, as a letter from EPI, signed by 300 economists and social insurance experts, explains, it is just as likely as we are under-correcting. EPI notes “it is just as likely that the current COLA fails to keep up with rising costs confronting elderly and disabled beneficiaries.” The current adjustment is based on an index of workers excluding retirees.

If you look into the data, the elderly spend a lot more of their limited money on housing, utilities, and medical care. Health care costs have been rising rapidly over the past several decades, and it is difficult to substitute on other necessary, fixed-price goods like utilities. With the notable exception of college costs, the things urban wage earners spend money on haven’t increased in price as quickly as what the elderly purchase. As a result, the CPI-E (the index tailored to the elderly) has increased 3.3 percent a year from 1982 to 2007, while the CPI-W (tailored to wage earners) has only increased 3 percent a year. Definitionally, through the way it is calculated, chained CPI-W will always be lower than CPI-W. [Edit: This will almost certainly be lower, but it isn’t definitionally true.]

As Dean Baker has noted, if accuracy were the only motive for changing COLA, it would be relatively easy to get a full, chained version of the index of prices faced by the elderly and use that. That has not been proposed.

Hedging Unexpected Longevity

Another argument is that this is a relatively small cut, or that a slower rate of growth shouldn’t really be thought of as a cut. But there’s a big problem with this.

There are many nice things about the design of Social Security, but one of them is that it is a form of insurance against the downsides of living longer than expected. Let’s say you retire at 65, believe you’ll live to 85, and save enough to make it to 88 just in case. And then you live to 92. Are those last five years absolutely miserable, with your savings completely depleted and an inability to earn market wages except through begging and charity? No, because my man Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Social Security got your back. Social Security helps hedge against two risks that are very difficult to manage: when you were born (and thus the years into which you’ll retire) and how long you’ll live.

Notice how chained CPI cuts, though. In the same way that compounding interest grows quickly over time because you get interest on what you’ve saved, a lower cost-of-living adjustment creates a lower baseline for future adjustments, so the cuts grow over time.

This means that the real cuts come from people who happen to live the longest. Which is precisely one of the risks Social Security is meant to combat. This is one reason why women, who live longer than men, are much more at risk from these chained CPI cuts.

Aside: Can’t We Balance the Downside?

You’ll notice liberals who support moving to chained CPI have complicated “swallow a bird to catch the spider who’s catching the fly” policy proposals to go along with it. If we swallow Obama’s chained CPI proposal, we’ll need to swallow an age “bump” to catch chained CPI from falling heavily on the very old. But after we swallow the age bump, we’ll need to swallow some sort of exemption for Supplemental Security Income to catch the fact that the change would still fall heavily on the initial benefit level for the poorest elderly and disabled people. And so on.

Doing all these fixes, of course, eliminates much of the savings that people are hoping to get. And it is unlikely that these clever ways of balancing the worst effects of the change will get even a single Republican vote. And of course, in spite of all this effort, Republicans could still call out the president for proposing to cut Social Security.

Neither Grand nor a Bargain

You’ll hear arguments that a Grand Bargain is necessary, so it’s better to bring Social Security into long-term balance now, with Democrats at the helm, than in the future, when there will be less time and an uncertain governance coalition. You can get fewer cuts and more revenue than you would otherwise and take the issue off the table for the foreseeable future to concentrate on other priorities.

But if that’s your idea, then this is a terrible deal and sets a terrible precedent, because this deal would accomplish none of your goals. You’d cut Social Security without putting in any new revenue. And it wouldn’t be sufficient to close the long-term gap, so the issue would stay on the table. Indeed, the deficit hawks would probably be emboldened, viewing this as a “downpayment” on future cuts, and require any future attempts to get more revenue for Social Security, say by raising the payroll tax cap, to involve significant additional cuts.

We Need to Expand Social Security

As Michael Lind, Joshua Freedman, and Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, along with Robert Hiltonsmith of Demos, expertly document, Social Security should be expanded in the years ahead, not cut.

Retirement security is meant to be a three-legged stool of Social Security, private savings, and employer pensions. The last two legs of that stool have been collapsing in the past few decades, and there is no reason to believe that this will change in the near future. 401(k)s have been a boon for the rich to avoid taxes and save money that they’d be saving anyway, while it isn’t clear that average Americans have saved enough to offset declining pensions. Median wages have dropped in the recession and are likely to show little growth in the years ahead, which makes building private savings harder. There isn’t a ton to cut – even the middle income quintile of retirees, making only around $20,000 a year, get 62 percent of their income from Social Security.

There are many ways to boost Social Security, and the New America paper introduces one. But as the authors note, “[a]ny strategy that expands the reliable and efficient public share of retirement security in America would be an improvement over today’s system, which is biased toward the affluent and skewed toward private savings.” And the best way to do programs is to build out programs that already work well.

Any other stories out there that require a new category?

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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.