Brent Meyer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland has a nice interview with Mark Bils of the University of Rochester, focusing on the subject of price measurement. Here are some comments from Bils:
On why price measurement matters: "My interest in price measurement really came out of discussions I had with [Stanford economist] Pete Klenow. Our interest was always less in thinking about inflation and prices. It was rather on the fact that whatever you mismeasure on prices affects how you measure real incomes and economic growth. ... Because if you overestimate inflation by 1 percent, then instead of being, say, 1 percent per year real growth, it is really 2 percent per year. Well, that means the growth rate is doubled!"
On inflation and quality change in health care prices: "If I compare healthcare costs today versus in the year 1800, well, I could go out and buy a bunch of leeches today for almost nothing. And I could have the healthcare I had in 1800. If you had a certain condition and you had $10,000 to get treated at today’s health prices, or $10,000 to get treated at 1960s prices with 1960s technology, I don’t think it’s so obvious that people would want to go back in time to get their important health conditions dealt with. In that sense, you say, I don’t know if there’s inflation. It’s pretty hard to say that there’s been a lot of inflation over the long haul in healthcare."
On quality improvements and car prices: "My first car was a 1983 Accord, which cost $9,600. It was a great car, but it didn’t have any of the safety equipment that you have today. It didn’t have power windows. It didn’t have air conditioning. It didn’t have many features. If you took that same car—it did get good gas mileage, actually—and you tried to sell it as a new car today, I don’t think you would get $9,600 for it, if you had to compete with what’s out there."
On why some changes in consumer prices affect macroeconomic national income more than others: "A consumer price index isn’t an ideal measure of what’s happening to real income. That’s partly why I think that gasoline is a problem—because it’s so much an imported good. When its price goes up, that’s really a big loss in real income. Whereas when it’s a good that’s produced here, the loss in real income is that it takes more resources to produce it. If our efficiency drops in producing food, and then the food prices go up, that’s a real loss in income. If there’s an upward shock in prices, then the farmers—the people selling the food—do at least get some benefit from the price increases."
On the imprecision of hedonic adjustments to price measurements: "There’s a classic example for vehicles. If you look at gas efficiency, miles per gallon, everything else equal, people would rather get better gas mileage. There’s not much question about that. But if you’re using a hedonic equation, and you say everything else that I observe, how much more are people willing to pay for better fuel efficiency? You actually get a negative number. If I take two vehicles, the characteristics I enter for them, plus miles per gallon/fuel efficiency, I’ll see the one that gets better miles per gallon tends to go for a lower price. ... [T]here are very limited characteristics that we’re entering about the vehicle. So all these unmeasured characteristics that people like in their cars tend to be in a luxury car, and we’re not recording all those. They may not care so much about the fuel efficiency; they want performance of the engine. So when I, as a price measurer, look just at this, I’ll price fuel efficiency negatively. That means that if all the cars in the country got more fuel efficient, and we employed the hedonics literally, we would say inflation went up. Even with computers there are problems like this. These hedonic coefficients jump around a lot."