May 09 2008

Exactly what does inflation measure?

All of Inflation’s Little Parts – The New York Times

This is really cool… The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases monthly data on prices to let Americans know just how much inflation affects their livelihoods. The Consumer Price Index, which is studied in both AP and IB Economics, consists of a “basket of goods”, that when bundled together represent the “typical” American consumer’s expenditures. The CPI is broken into a few broad categories:

  • Health care
  • Apparel
  • Housing
  • Education/communication
  • Recreation
  • Food/beverages
  • Transportation
  • Miscellaneous

Here’s the cool part, though… within each broad category the BLS tracks the prices of dozens of specific categories, around 200 to be precise. Each of these is then broken down into individual products, around 84,000 in total! The task of tracking the prices of 84,000 individual goods and services every month is daunting, and just thinking about the tedium of this job makes me glad I’m a teacher!

The New York Times has assembled what can only be described as a mosaic of consumption, organizing the 200 specific CPI categories into what looks like an ornate stained-glass window, in which the size of each piece of glass represents the percentage of Americans’ income that go towards each specific category. Some of the categories represented in this mosaic include items such as:

  • Oils and peanut butter (0.1%)
  • Gasoline (5.2%)
  • Garbage collection (0.3%)
  • Internet (0.3%)
  • Nursing homes (0.1%)
  • New cars and trucks (4.6%)
  • DVDs (0.2%)

This graphic is a great tool for teaching and understanding the Consumer Price Index, not to mention a beautiful pattern for any stained-glass artist looking for inspiration!

About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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