Social Security mess: a game of numbers

Social Security debate, I hate you.

You not only created this fear in me that my future is in jeopardy, that some giant monster is currently chomping away not necessarily at my retirement because I currently make $0, but at the potential for my future happiness and the opportunity for me to retire if I ever start working! Jerk.

To quell my fears, I go to NYTimes.com and peruse the articles highlighting the debate. The first one that catches my eye is about a 9-year-old from Texas who is going to campaign for Social Security reform. At this point, I realize that my first problem is that I don’t really know what Social Security is or does. I just know I have a Social Security number, and it’s really easy to remember, 46…wait, that’s not smart.

Then, I find an article by Roger Lowenstein called a “Question of Numbers.” It’s nine pages long, compared to the one-page 9-year-old article, but I decided to give it a read anyway. It’s anti-privatization, if you’re curious. The largest impact on me was that it made me realize how I’ve framed the Social Security debate based on my limited knowledge.

I learned that there are a lot of numbers involved with this issue. There are 15-year to 75-year deficit projections mixed with payroll tax percentages, mixed with projected stock market benefits, mixed with who knows how many private bank accounts. What scares me the most is how easy it is to report a figure that’s been tweaked by statistical sleight of hand. Yes, both figures are accurate, but in different ways. Like how on The Simpsons Lionel Hutz the real estate agent explained to Marge about the truth and the truth.

The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner first made me aware of the potentiality for statistical tinkering. While the material in the book is a bit dated since its 1999 publication, the argument is still applicable. I can say that I’ve drunk two times the coffee I did during this February compared to last year, but that could very well mean that I drank one cup last year and two cups this year. The point is that while numbers and figures are a good way of illustrating and measuring, they aren’t really as concrete as they seem to be.

Which means there still needs to be argument with the numbers. Not apocalyptical-type arguing, more like the type I learned in high school debate: claim, warrant, impact. This leads me to my second point: I think that this debate, in addition to large numbers of other debates in politics, is not as much economic as it is ideological. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, or that it’s a fact that isn’t already widely acknowledged. However, I do think it is a principle that is easily lost in something as numbers dependent as the Social Security debate.

But seriously, they want to create how many personalized bank accounts?

Elaine Ayo can be contacted at e.ayo@umiami.edu.

March 1, 2005


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