Why is the chained CPI (chained Consumer Price Index) so attractive to such people? As we reported a couple of weeks ago, it cuts spending and raises revenue. The Congressional Budget Office Office estimates it could produce some $217 billion in savings over ten years, with about $145 billion coming from cuts to Social Security benefits and other government pensions.
It’s a juicy target for another reason, too: the public knows next to nothing about it. Its obscurity may have led Slate to characterize it as “the sneaky plan to cut Social Security.” The headline on a blog post by The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson called it “The Sneaky, Complicated Idea That Could End the Fiscal Cliff Showdown.”
Whether that will happen is very much up in the air at the moment. Some Washington writers and columnists aren’t keen on the idea. The idea behind “chaining” is to allow for the way people substitute cheaper goods and services when prices rise. Timothy Noah, writing for The New Republic blog, gave a good description of why the Chained CPI may not measure the cost of living with as much accuracy as its advocates promote. “Would chaining really bring Social Security benefit increases in line with spending patterns? Actually no,” he argues, pointing out that the proposed index doesn’t deal with healthcare spending very well. Healthcare is the biggest expense for many of the elderly, and consumes a larger share of their budgets than does for the rest of the population. If you need a heart bypass, you can’t substitute a hernia operation, the way someone might substitute chicken for steak.
While it didn’t take a position on the proposed formula, the National Journal’s good reporting clearly explained what the new index was all about. It noted the drawbacks of making a change, even quoting Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and former principal deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration, who expressed serious doubts about switching over to the chained CPI. “One reason is, it’s not based on the purchasing habits of the elderly,” Biggs said. “The consumption patterns of a working household aren’t the same as the consumption patterns of, say, an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient living on a fixed income.”
The advocacy group Social Security Works estimates that a person age 75 in the future will get a yearly benefit that’s $653 lower after ten years of chained CPI than that person would get under the current formula. An 85-year-old will have $1,139 less to live on. While this doesn’t seem like a princely sum to an investment banker, it is to the very old.