Dead on arrival… When President Obama released his budget recently, Congressional Republicans immediately shot it down. This was no surprise because the budget called for tax increases, which Republicans vehemently oppose. However, I was puzzled by the negative reactions of a few Democrats; after all, President Obama’s budget included many progressive ideas, such as more stimulus spending. What could have caused such dissent from his party? Well, the budget called for the adoption of Chained CPI to measure future inflation; a move that Democrats and Republicans condemned as an assault on seniors and a severe benefit cut.
Shifting to Chained CPI entails updating and improving the way the federal government measures inflation for various government programs. The government indexes benefits (such as Social Security), in order to keep up with inflation, so that both rise at the same rate. The government has not changed the way it calculates inflation in quite some time. Since the 1990s, Chained CPI has been viewed as a more accurate measure of inflation than our existing policy because current estimates overstate inflation and, hence, benefits paid.
This brings me to the first myth about Chained CPI. Chained CPI is NOT a benefit cut. Chained CPI slows down the rate of growth of social security payments. Seniors will not wake up next month and receive any fewer dollars in Social Security benefits than they are used to. Chained CPI would shave only 0.3% off inflation estimates or about $9 annually for the average couple that retired in 2010. Under Chained CPI, Social Security benefits would keep up with cost of living, rather than increase faster than inflation as they do now.
In fact, moving to Chained CPI actually helps strengthen Social Security. By 2033, the Social Security trust fund will be depleted and will require a massive increase in the payroll tax or a 25% across-the-board decrease in benefits. As the Baby Boomers retire over the next two decades, more and more pressure will be put on the Social Security trust fund. The worker-to-retiree ratio has fallen from 5:1 in 1960 to 3:1 in 2010 and will only continue to decline, which means less revenue to support beneficiaries. In two decades, Social Security will no longer be solvent. Imagine the horrors if the checks actually stopped coming! The shift to Chained CPI will help maintain social security for current and future retirees.
Another prevalent myth claims Chained CPI is a hidden tax increase that will hurt the poor, the disabled, and the elderly. Chained CPI will slow the growth rate for income tax brackets. Individuals right on the cusp of a higher tax bracket may suddenly be “bumped up” into a higher one. However, it is important to remember two points. First, due to our marginal income tax system, only the small portion of above the threshold will be taxed at a higher rate, and second, Chained CPI should be viewed as only one part of comprehensive tax reform.
Chained CPI alone will not solve our budget deficit problem nor will it close the Social Security funding gap, but Chained CPI or a similar policy will play an integral role in any budget deal between Democrats and Republicans. The switch has already been a part of most major bipartisan deficit-reduction plans (Simpson-Bowles, Domenici-Rivlin, Obama-Boehner). Fix the Debt, a non-partisan movement to fix America’s finances, states that the switch to Chained CPI will reduce the social security funding gap by 1/5 and reduce deficits by more than $300 billion over the next decade.
Chained CPI is not just smart policy; it is also smart politics. Congress and the President can easily find a way to make this happen and doing so will prove that both Democrats and Republicans are serious about solving America’s deficit crisis. Furthermore, Chained CPI does not just kick the can down the road to future generations. It asks all Americans, old and young, Democratic and Republican, to be willing to exchange a small amount of personal sacrifice for a whole lot of societal benefit.