How to Measure Changes in the Cost of Living

Additional Price Indices: PPI, GDP Deflator, and More

The basket of goods behind the Consumer Price Index represents an average hypothetical U.S. household's consumption, which is to say that it does not exactly capture anyone’s personal experience. When the task is to calculate an average level of inflation, this approach works fine. What if, however, you are concerned about inflation experienced by a certain group, like the elderly, or the poor, or single-parent families with children, or Hispanic-Americans? In specific situations, a price index based on the buying power of the average consumer may not feel quite right.

This problem has a straightforward solution. If the Consumer Price Index does not serve the desired purpose, then invent another index, based on a basket of goods appropriate for the group of interest. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a number of experimental price indices: some for particular groups like the elderly or the poor, some for different geographic areas, and some for certain broad categories of goods like food or housing.

The BLS also calculates several price indices that are not based on baskets of consumer goods. For example, the Producer Price Index (PPI) is based on prices paid for supplies and inputs by producers of goods and services. We can break it down into price indices for different industries, commodities, and stages of processing (like finished goods, intermediate goods, or crude materials for further processing). There is an International Price Index based on the prices of merchandise that is exported or imported. An Employment Cost Index measures wage inflation in the labor market. The GDP deflator, which the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures, is a price index that includes all the GDP components (that is, consumption plus investment plus government plus exports minus imports). Unlike the CPI, its baskets are not fixed but re-calculate what that year’s GDP would have been worth using the base-year’s prices. MIT's Billion Prices Project is a more recent alternative attempt to measure prices: economists collect data online from retailers and then put them into an index that they compare to the CPI (Source: http://bpp.mit.edu/usa/).

What’s the best measure of inflation? If one is concerned with the most accurate measure of inflation, one should use the GDP deflator as it picks up the prices of goods and services produced. However, it is not a good measure of the cost of living as it includes prices of many products not purchased by households (for example, aircraft, fire engines, factory buildings, office complexes, and bulldozers). If one wants the most accurate measure of inflation as it impacts households, one should use the CPI, as it only picks up prices of products purchased by households. That is why economists sometimes refer to the CPI as the cost-of-living index. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics states on its website: “The ‘best’ measure of inflation for a given application depends on the intended use of the data.”