Tag Archives: Innovation

Improving the Accuracy of the Consumer Price Index

We are in the “hot stove” months of the baseball year, when teams make trades and other decisions to improve their prospects for next season. Even the best teams, like the World Champion Washington Nationals, can’t rest on their laurels. In much the same way the Nationals continue to tinker with a good thing to make it better, we constantly work to improve our gold standard products, including the Consumer Price Index (CPI). There’s a lot going on with the CPI these days, and we’ll use this blog and other publications to share the latest information. You’ll read about how we reflect changes in consumer spending patterns, (including new goods), how we’re using other rich sources of data on prices and spending, how we’re accounting for changes in the quality of goods and services, and much more. So let’s get started.

The CPI is designed to measure the average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services. The CPI is used to determine annual cost-of-living allowances for Social Security beneficiaries. The CPI also is used to adjust the federal income tax system for inflation and as the yardstick for U.S. Treasury inflation-indexed bonds. These are just a few of the many uses of the CPI.

The CPI dates back to 1912, when the Washington baseball team was called the Senators and Walter Johnson ruled the mound. Throughout the history of the CPI, there has been debate about the concepts the CPI should measure and whether it might overstate or understate changes in consumer living costs. The CPI has undergone methodological changes both in response to these discussions and to reflect the changing economic environment. If we hadn’t made these changes, transportation, medical care, recreation, and other goods and services would still be combined into one “miscellaneous” category. Taking the long view, we can track major shifts in consumer inflation for more than a century.

Chart showing 12-month percent change in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), 1914 to 2019

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in our database at data.bls.gov/timeseries/CUUR0000SA0

In the 1960s, a committee commissioned by Congress recommended that BLS move the CPI closer toward a cost-of-living measure. We responded to those recommendations by creating the CPI for all urban consumers (CPI-U). The former index for urban wage earners was relabeled as the CPI-W. Today, the CPI-U represents the spending patterns of about 93 percent of the population, while the CPI-W represents the spending patterns of about 29 percent.

Here are a few more recent milestones in the history of the CPI:

  • In 1988, following direction from Congress, BLS began calculating the CPI for Americans age 62 and older—called the CPI-E—as an experimental index.
  • In the early 1990s, Congress directed another study of the CPI, popularly referred to as the Boskin Commission. This commission estimated the CPI was overstating the rise in the cost of living and recommended changes in the way the CPI is designed and estimated.
  • In response, BLS sponsored a project in 2002 with the National Academy of Sciences, Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) to investigate conceptual, measurement, and other statistical issues in the development of cost-of-living indexes. At this point, we have adopted completely, partially, or experimentally almost all of the CNSTAT recommendations. This includes developing and publishing the Chained CPI, which broadly accounts for consumer substitution of goods and services.

But we can’t stop researching and improving. Today, consumers buy goods and services that weren’t even known a decade ago. And we buy things in many different ways, including from the living room sofa. The growth of e-commerce has created enormous opportunities, but also challenges, for measuring inflation. We continue to work on improvements in response to these developments, and we will talk more about them in future blogs and other publications. In addition, we recently sponsored another CNSTAT panel to investigate three key methodological issues for the CPI:

  1. How best to incorporate data on transactions?
  2. How best to integrate other data sources in the indexes for health insurance, owner-occupied housing, and durable goods?
  3. How to lessen certain types of substitution bias, such as when consumers purchase chicken when the price of steak increases? (Our methods already do a good job accounting for shifts between more similar items, such as between steak and ground beef.)

CNSTAT will convene an expert panel and hold a workshop. Both the panel kickoff and the workshop will be open to the public and will be announced in advance on the BLS website. The panel will then spend about a year in internal discussions and preparing a written report for our consideration.

We expect the CNSTAT report in May of 2021—new ideas, to go with the start of a new baseball season. I’ll be back to blog about the results, so be sure to check back here.

Meet Our New Science and Technology Fellow at BLS

Samantha Tyner
Samantha Tyner

Seeing that we are the U.S. Bureau of LABOR Statistics, we go the extra mile to attract the highest quality labor to accomplish our mission. This includes over 2,000 permanent staff scattered around the country. We also partner with state employees on several BLS programs, and we work with contractors and others to get the job done. Further, we look for opportunities to bring in specialized talent to help with some projects, such as the Civic Digital Fellows who joined us this past summer. Today I want to recognize the first-ever Science and Technology Policy Fellow to spend time at BLS — Samantha Tyner.

The Science & Technology Policy Fellowship is a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). To understand this program in a nutshell, let me quote directly from their website:

“AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) provide opportunities to outstanding scientists and engineers to learn first-hand about policymaking and contribute their knowledge and analytical skills in the policy realm. Fellows serve yearlong assignments in the federal government and represent a broad range of backgrounds, disciplines, and career stages. Each year, STPF adds to a growing corps over 3,000 strong of policy-savvy leaders working across academia, government, nonprofits, and industry to serve the nation and citizens around the world.”

This is the first year BLS has worked with AAAS to bring on a Science and Technology Fellow. We are so fortunate that Samantha (Sam) Tyner started in September and will be with us over the next year. Sam, one of about 200 fellows in the current class, earned her Ph.D. in statistics from Iowa State University and was most recently a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence. She is working in the BLS Office of Survey Methods Research (OSMR), focusing on interactive data visualization, text mining, and effective communications to wider audiences.

Let’s find out a little bit about Sam and her fellowship. I asked her what drew her to the federal government. She said she knew pretty early on in graduate school that she didn’t want to go the traditional professor route. She also wasn’t particularly interested in working in one of those internet giants, where the statistics are interesting but the focus is on getting people to click more. She wanted to find ways to use her statistical skills to solve real world problems, and government seemed like a good place for that.

Her first impressions of BLS have been positive. “It’s like hanging out with a bunch of professors, but the staff in OSMR is much more laid back.” One of her current projects involves text mining of BLS mentions on Twitter — what are people saying about us. We’ll use this research to learn how we can better serve our customers.

Another project involves BLS data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. There is so much data each quarter, down to the county level. She is developing an R Shiny app that will graph these data and allow users to do quick searches. I got to see a quick demo — impressive work after only 2 months on the job.

She is an expert in data visualization, so I asked her what she thinks of some of the charts that BLS produces. I think she was a bit reluctant to criticize, but the comment “you do have a lot of bar charts” was very telling. She describes her goal as to “take a sad chart and make it better.” We certainly welcome her guidance and look forward to producing fewer sad charts in the future.

Beyond all the work Sam is doing at BLS, she also provides posts on the AAAS blog, focusing on some practical aspects of her research. A recent blog taps into her expertise on data visualization. She writes about a problem that can sometimes occur when charts provide too much information. We hope we are not making this mistake with BLS charts.

I’m glad that Samantha has gotten a good start to her Fellowship. We are planning to take full advantage of her research and skills to improve BLS products. I asked her what will make this year a success. Her response — a job offer. Maybe at BLS, or at one of many government agencies where she can use her skills. She will be an asset anywhere she goes.