How bad is it?

Pretty damn bad.

What Chained CPI Means, and Why a Cut in a Time of Inadequate Social Security Benefits Makes No Sense

By: David Dayen, Firedog Lake

Monday December 17, 2012 2:45 pm

Let’s just make clear what chained CPI is all about. The idea here is that you should not measure the cost of living simply based on the consumer price index, and then raise the costs accordingly with the rise in prices. Instead, economists say, you have to account for the substitution effect in response to price shifts. When someone cannot afford steak, maybe they buy more chicken, the theory goes. By “chaining” the CPI to account for the substitution effect, you’re really shrinking the inflation in the index, because you’re assuming that the individual will spend less by changing their lifestyle. As a result, cost of living adjustments based on a chained CPI will rise more slowly that COLAs based on an unchained one.

(T)he idea of chaining medical treatment, as if you can just substitute a hip replacement with something cheaper, is silly. Overtreatment does exist, but the concept of a senior citizen shopping for cheaper medical care is actually kind of cruel.

Shifting to CPI-E would actually reflect the real costs of seniors, and would have their cost of living adjustment keep up with their actual needs. But of course, that’s not the goal of public policymaking. It’s to “save money,” in this case at the expense of the elderly, particularly those over the age of 80.

Chained CPI only makes sense if you think Social Security benefits and the cost of living adjustment are currently adequate enough for seniors. The fact that 15.1% of seniors are in poverty, according to the newest measure, shows that this is not at all the case. We need higher, not lower, Social Security benefits, as retirement security outside of the program withers. But adequacy is not the goal of those who want to slash benefits. And Democratic enablers call it something they can “live with.” Obviously none of them are 80 or older.

Obama’s Latest Fiscal Slope Offer: I’m Missing the Part Where Republicans Give Up Something

By: David Dayen, Firedog Lake

Tuesday December 18, 2012 6:00 am

From where I’m standing, this is a deal for the President to break his promise on tax rates, allow half of the fiscal slope to go forward, probably cut as much as 2% from GDP in 2013, and enact permanent benefit cuts to Social Security (and other government benefits) as well as unspecified cuts to health care programs, in exchange for…

  1. a routine extension of unemployment insurance;
  2. no more than $50 billion in infrastructure, probably less;
  3. a permanent extension of things Congress does annually like clockwork (making them permanent is good public policy, but doesn’t functionally change much);
  4. the chance to do this again in two years.

Meanwhile, Republicans give up tax rates that were going up anyway, an unemployment extension that they have yet to fail to pass, and a bit of infrastructure. That’s it, in exchange for cuts that will put discretionary spending well below traditional levels, cut Social Security benefits and basically ensure smaller government through caps and cuts.

More on Chained CPI, the Benefit Cut for Social Security on the Table in Fiscal Slope Discussions

By: David Dayen, Firedog Lake

Tuesday December 18, 2012 6:45 am

First of all, this is a benefit cut of about 0.3% a year, as Dean Baker points out. He adds that “This loss would be cumulative through time so that after 10 years the cut would be roughly 3 percent, after 20 years 6 percent, and after 30 years 9 percent.” Actually if we started using chained CPI in 2002, we’d be 3.6% behind today. That’s well over $1,000 a year, and the situation grows worse over time. So the greatest impact would be on the oldest seniors, which happens to correlate with the poorest.

If you think that senior citizens have had it too good for too long, getting that sweet sweet cost of living adjustment to make them unfairly wealthy, then maybe you think chained CPI is a solid idea. If you think that the highest expense for a senior is medical costs, that seniors don’t exactly comparison shop when they need medical care, that they cannot substitute along those lines, and that a cost of living index that features that substitution effect prominently doesn’t correspond to the real costs seniors face, well, you would be right.

(A)s supporter of a Social Security deal Kevin Drum says, adopting chained CPI for Social Security by itself is a terrible deal. Even if all of the savings from it get plowed back into reducing the long-term income gap, it doesn’t do enough by itself to eliminate that. It reduces the trust fund gap by about 1/3. Which means that fiscal scolds would still be clamoring for a deal to “fix” Social Security, and the fact that the solutions were entirely on the benefit side this time around won’t matter. This is just an invitation to more cuts down the road.

Paul Krugman tries to rationalize and bargain and basically gives a lifeline to cutting these benefits, at a time when senior poverty is on the rise. Ask yourself: are Social Security benefits, which average around $13,000 a year, currently adequate to serve this population, especially when 40% of seniors rely on it for over 90% of their income? Is the solution to 15.1% of seniors in poverty to cut their benefits slowly over time? Should the centerpiece of a deal to reduce the budget contain a benefit cut to a program that has its own dedicated funding stream and no budgetary impact?

UPDATE: First, Krugman has a new post up, saying he is now “marginally negative” on the deal after being “marginally positive.” He ignores the $800 billion in extra budget cuts in the deal.

Also, if anything I undersold the impact of chained CPI, since it would affect federal employee benefits that are tied to COLA, like postal workers.

Here is what Atrios (trained economist BTW) says-

To The Phones

White House


Your senators

Your House member.

No cuts to Social Security.

Gaius Publius @ Americablog offers this helpful digest-

What are we protecting?

We’re protecting three social insurance programs. These are:

    ■ Social Security

    ■ Medicare

    ■ Medicaid

What are we protecting them from? Anything that:

    ■ Reduces benefits

    ■ Turns the program from insurance to welfare (which only the “deserving” have access to)

How are these programs being threatened?

As near as I can tell, these are the threats. Note to foxes – this is the hands-off list. Each of these seven items is a benefit cut:

Social Security

    1. Raising the retirement age

    2. Chained CPI instead of current COLA

    3. Means-testing benefits


    4. Raising the eligibility age

    5. Increasing Part B premiums

    6. Increasing “cost-sharing”


    7. Shifting costs to the states by any means, such as “federal blended rate,” etc.


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