Monday, July 14, 2008

LA Times on McCain Social Security Stance

The LA Times Peter Wallsten writes on Sen. McCain's views on Social Security reform.

McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, spoke several times last week about changing how the popular retirement program is funded, at one point calling it a "disgrace" that younger workers are forced to pay for a plan that, in his view, is unlikely to benefit them when they retire.

Democrats are gearing up to turn McCain's stand on Social Security, and his willingness to consider a privatization plan, into a key campaign issue. They say changing the program in that way would undermine retirees' benefits, and they hope to use the issue to harm the Arizona senator's support among a set of voters who tilt toward him -- seniors.

The story is more politics than policy, but worth reading for that angle.


Bruce Webb said...

I saw that earlier and sent the reporter a sharp e-mail because the following crossed the line to journalistic malpractice.

"A government report in March painted a gloomy picture of the program's future, estimating that its costs will surpass payroll tax revenue in 2017 -- forcing the system to rely on a trust fund that, the report said, will go broke in 2041.

After that, workers' payroll taxes would cover only a fraction of the benefits promised to retirees."

While the tone of the Press Release which accompanied the 2008 Report suggested some urgency, I don't think you could really describe the Commissioner's tone as 'gloomy', and the Report itself is pretty straightforward and certainly no more 'gloomy' (and perhaps no less) than previous Reports. To imply that it marked some change in outlook is to overstate the case. But that while annoying this didn't elevate the piece to the level of malpractice. What did was the use of the word 'fraction'.

In normal usage the word 'fraction' implies a small amount and more often than not a very small amount of the total. Whether or not people buy into the logic of 78% of 160% = 125%, few people would think of 78% as being particularly fractional to start with. They might consider a 22% gap in benefits 'steep' or 'heavy' but 'fractional'? And while the language is technically correct, after all 999/1000 is a fraction, it seemed to validate McCain's (in the reporter's characterization) "at one point calling it a "disgrace" that younger workers are forced to pay for a plan that, in his view, is unlikely to benefit them when they retire." Which is exactly what 'fraction' implies.

It was not suprising but still disheartening to see reporters on Social Security who never seem to get past the Press Release even into the Summary of the Report. It may be too much to expect people to pore through the data tables, but some of these guys need to step up and do some work and stop simply dialing in their copy on this issue.

Andrew G. Biggs said...

Agreed. A fraction can be, say, anywhere between 1/10th and 9/10ths, and the numerator definitely matters!