Lately there seems to be some dispute as to what defines inflation. I define inflation the traditional way, that it is an undue expansion of the currency or money supply of a Nation. There are those who are far better equipped to expand on this. I recommend starting with What You Should Know About Inflation by Henry Hazlitt (free/pdf)1, or from Amazon What You Should Know About Inflation (1960)Using this affiliate link will help support our efforts to serve you..
This is not professional investment advice.2
While inflation may simply be an inevitable product of our current financial system, understanding the changes in the rate of inflation and how trends affect our lives are important to be able to make good financial decisions.
Information about the direct expansion of the money supply is more difficult to obtain than information about the price increase on selected items. The Federal Reserve no longer publishes all of the money supply numbers, the reasons being outside the scope of this article. What is published can be found here. The United States Government provides financial reports including those that describe the change in consumer and producer prices. The question is how meaningful and reliable are those reports, and other reports provided by the U.S. Government?
Numbers in isolation are of little value, but when compared against the results of many prior years, trends can emerge. Lets look at how this might work for weather. Knowing that it is cold today is fine. Knowing that it is cold today and has been continuing to cool for an entire month is more useful. The value of such information is useful when the numbers are computed the same way over time.
If meteorologists measured temperature in one scale, say Fahrenheit for one hundred years, then switched scales to Kelvin, you could expect some confusion when comparing the recorded values from the Fahrenheit scale to the values recorded from the Kelvin scale. I can just imagine how people might react if they were not well informed of the change or were unable to evaluate the numbers recorded in the new scale with the numbers recorded using the scale familiar to them.
Seventy degrees Fahrenheit is a pleasant temperature, whereas at 273 degrees Kelvin would feel rather cold. Water is frozen at 273K. To provide context for the 273K number one would need to know that 237 degrees on the Kelvin scale is roughly 32 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. Both the Kelvin and Fahrenheit scales are useful for measuring temperature, but to establish trends one must be consistent so the computed values can be properly compared.
The specific ways that the computation of inflation has changed, is beyond the scope of this article but U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is a good starting place if you want to fully understand the changes. Why do you think that the method of finding the increase in consumer prices was changed? Do you think there are organizations that would substantially benefit from maintaining an appearance of a lower increase in the rate of inflation?
I am reminded of a quote from Mark Twain.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
If you have not seen this video or would simply like a refresher on growth rates, Professor Albert Bartlett does a great job.
Here is the good news, the folks at Shadow Government Statistics have taken the time to assemble some really useful charts that can help make sense of the Government reports. These charts even take into account changes in the computation methods.
Are you being lied to about inflation? That is for you to decide. What can you do about it? Well to start with you can get another way of looking at the data, such as can be found at Shadow Government Statistics . They have other useful charts too.
You can also find out more about inflation in general. The Mises Institute has some very good resources.