Economists who hold the popular view that expanding the money supply will provide the best medicine for our ailing economy dismiss the inflationary concerns of monetary hawks, like me, by pointing to the supposedly low inflation that has occurred during the current period of rampant Fed activism. In a recent blog post aimed specifically at me, Paul Krugman noted that the sub 2.5% increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the past few years are all that is needed to prove me wrong. In fact, Krugman and others have even suggested that the CPI itself overstates inflation and that the Fed would be better able to help the economy if less strict methodologies were used. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the CPI is essentially meaningless as it woefully under reports rising prices.
Magazines and newspapers provide a good case in point. The truth has not been exposed through the economic reporting that these outlets provide, but in the prices that are permanently fixed to their covers. For instance, from 1999 to 2002 the Bureau of Labor Statistic's (BLS) "Newspaper and Magazine Index" (a component of the CPI) increased by 37.1%. But a perusal of the cover prices of the 10 most popular newspapers and magazines (WSJ, Washington Post, Time, Sports Illustrated, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People, NY Times, USA Today, and the LA Times) over the same time frame showed an average cover price increase of 131.5% (3.5 times faster than the BLS' stats). This is not even in the same ballpark.
Some defenders of the BLS may conclude that prices were held down by the availability of free online news content or the convenience of digital delivery. But that is beside the point. Prior to the digital age, the BLS could have claimed that newspaper costs were held down by public libraries that provided free access. It's also true that online publications deliver less value on some fronts. Not only do many people enjoy the tactile process of reading physical newspapers or magazines, but they offer the secondary value in helping to kindle fires, housebreak puppies, pack dishes, and line birdcages.
Another stunning example is found in health insurance costs, which is a major line item for most families. According to the BLS we can all breathe easy on that front because their "Health Insurance Index" increased a mere 4.3% (total) in the four years between 2008 and 2012. Interestingly, over the same time, the Kaiser Survey of Employer Sponsored Health Insurance showed that the cost of family health insurance rose 24.2% (5.5 times faster). But even if the BLS had reported higher costs, it wouldn't have made much of a difference in the CPI itself. Believe it or not, health insurance costs are assigned a weighting of less than one percent of the overall CPI. In contrast, the Kaiser Survey revealed that in 2012 the average total cost for family health insurance coverage was $15,745, or almost one third of the median family income.
If the BLS could be so blatantly wrong in reporting the prices of newspapers and health insurance, should we believe that they are more accurate on all other sectors? If the inaccuracy of these two components were consistent with the rest of the CPI's components, inflation could now be reported in double-digits!