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WASHINGTON — If only beleaguered motorists and shoppers could make their gas pains and food sticker shock go away with the ease that the government can.
How can government data say inflation seems tamer when milk and gas both cost almost $4 a gallon? Wednesday's Consumer Price Index showed overall prices edging up a smaller-than-expected 0.2 percent even though food prices shot up by 0.9 percent, the biggest one-month gain in nearly two decades.
It makes you wonder if the government is performing a statistical sleight of hand. The same Labor Department report showed that gasoline prices fell 2 percent in April _ after seasonal adjustments _ when motorists were paying a lot more at the pump.
While it almost looks like the government's number crunchers are cooking the books so that the politicians don't get blamed for soaring prices, the real answer lies more in economics than politics. It reflects how the Bureau of Labor Statistics goes about gathering and then presenting the thousands of prices of goods and services that it collects every month.
The BLS must not only check to see if a price has changed but also compare that change to what the price normally does for any given month _ a process known as seasonal adjustment.
It was that process that turned a 5.6 percent rise in gasoline prices in April into a 2 percent decline.
The explanation: gasoline prices usually soar in April, the start of the driving season. For that reason, the government only recognizes as a price increase any jump larger than what the statistical adjustment expects. And if prices fail to go up as much as expected, then the government counts that as a price decline.