Fixing Inflation Adjustments Is the Smart Way to Shrink the Deficit

Limiting future increases in government spending will be less painful than making sudden deep cuts in current programs.

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Let’s face it: There’s no way to reduce America’s budget deficit that won’t hurt someone, and that pain can’t be limited only to the rich. A payroll tax, passed in 2010, is scheduled to expire at the end of this year, for example, and that will cost middle-class households anywhere from $600 to $1,200. In addition, more than 20 million taxpayers could become subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT), adding several hundred dollars to their annual tax bills on average. On the spending side, budget cuts would not only reduce government services but could also eventually cost tens of thousands of Americans their jobs.

But there are other ways to make progress on the deficit over the long term that would be a lot less painful and would also be politically viable. In my last column, I wrote about the estimated $30 billion a year that the Federal government could save by getting really tough on fraud. Even more could be done, though, by changing the inflation adjustments for government spending.

Cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) are used throughout the U.S. economy – for union contracts and income tax brackets, as well as for government entitlements. It may seem only fair to adjust contracts and government programs for inflation – otherwise recipients would see their standard of living steadily erode over time. But there are a lot of ways to adjust for inflation. Moreover, the most commonly used gauge, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), may overstate the adjustment needed. Switching to a more conservative measure could save as much as $200 billion over the coming decade.

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The most commonly proposed change is to replace the CPI with another index called the “chained CPI.” Basically, inflation is calculated based on putting together a basket of commonly bought goods and services and then tracking the price increases for them. In reality, though, people don’t consistently buy the same things. If one particular item – steak, for example – gets very expensive, people will typically buy something cheaper instead, such as chicken. The chained CPI takes into account the substitution of cheaper items for things that get too expensive, and is therefore arguably more accurate than the regular CPI. It also rises a little bit more slowly.

The result of replacing the regular CPI with the chained CPI would be slightly slower increases in monthly Social Security payments and some other government benefits. The new measure would also modestly boost tax revenues. The reason: tax brackets are indexed to inflation and would ratchet up more slowly if the chained CPI were used to adjust them. For many taxpayers, that would mean that some of their income would fall in a higher bracket.

Further savings could come from changing the formula used to calculate initial Social Security benefits. Because Social Security was originally designed to mimic a pension plan rather than look like a welfare entitlement, initial benefits are pegged to retirees’ earnings over their working lives. Because the general standard of living improves over time, wages and salaries normally outpace inflation – and so do initial Social Security benefits. (After benefits have begun, further increases are based on a more usual cost-of-living adjustment.) Some economists have long argued for altering the formula for initial benefits. Keeping the current more generous earnings-based calculation for lower-income retirees but switching to an inflation-based calculation for the more-affluent half of the population could eliminate half of the Social Security deficit over the next 75 years.

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Such fixes to benefit plans are not uncontroversial. When a recent Republican budget proposal included changes to the way the Federal government calculates inflation, the idea was swiftly rejected by some Democrats. Opponents of the idea objected that retirees face higher inflation than the average American because of health-care costs and that some of the tax increases would fall on the middle class. It’s true, of course, that altering inflation adjustments will limit future benefit increases and cause an upward creep in income taxes. But the idea that the Federal deficit can be brought down to sustainable levels without anyone giving up anything is simply unrealistic. Hiking tax rates on the rich alone will raise enough revenue to cut the deficit only by about 8%. In the end, simple arithmetic ensures that the bulk of deficit reduction will come from the middle class – the challenge is to minimize the pain.

Unfortunately, tinkering with inflation adjustments will be little help with other runaway costs – most significantly health care, which presents even greater long-term budget problems than Social Security does. Advances in medicine often make treatment more expensive. In addition, health care is labor intensive, and in all service sectors it’s hard to offset rising labor costs with the sort of productivity gains that can be achieved in manufacturing. Doctors can only see so many patients an hour, teachers can only correct so many papers, and there’s a limit to how fast a pianist can play the minute waltz.

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But where rising costs are chiefly the result of inflation adjustments, fine-tuning those mechanisms may be the least painful way to start bringing down the long-term deficit. The spending cuts that are currently scheduled to go into effect next year in the absence of a budget deal look horrific and could result in 7% to 9% reductions in a broad range of Federal programs. Surely it seems more rational to minimize the need for such sudden, deep, and indicriminate cuts in the near term by accepting smaller increases in government spending over the coming decades.