Lies, damned lies, and Olivia S. Mitchell’s statistic

Posted: 14 April 2016 in Uncategorized
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CBO-SS1

The Social Security system, now in its 81st year, is (according to the Congressional Budget Office [pdf]) solvent until 2029. In that year, the trust fund will be exhausted—but, still, even without any changes, the program will be able to pay out at least 71 percent of mandated benefits. And all it would take is eliminating the earnings cap (currently $118,500) to make the program fully financed for the foreseeable future.

But you wouldn’t know that from Wharton economist Olivia S. Mitchell, who like many others who have attempted to propose “reforms” to the system attempts to gin up the numbers. Her particular version is to get people to delay taking their monthly payments by promising them a lump-sum payout at the later date.

The problem, of course, is we should be doing exactly the opposite—lowering the retirement age and expanding benefits (which we could do by eliminating the earnings cap).

Even more, as Michael Hiltzik explains, Mitchell cites a particular statistic in order to create the specter of a system facing imminent crisis, to which she can then offer a “painless solution.”

The questionable part of her article appears near the bottom, where she writes:

“The Social Security shortfall is enormous. Actuaries have estimated that it’s on the order of $28 trillion in present value. That’s twice the size of the gross domestic product of the U.S. So a small delay in claiming won’t solve the problem. We’re also going to have to change the benefit formula. We’re going to have to make changes in the retirement age.” (Emphasis added.)

Most Social Security experts view that $28-trillion figure as a red flag. That’s because many people who cite it are ideologues aiming to scare the public into thinking the program’s finances are far worse than they really are. Let’s see what makes the statistic, and Mitchell’s use of it, so misleading.

The figure is an estimate of the present value of Social Security’s unfunded obligation not as it exists today, but as if it were calculated out to infinity. Economists find the so-called infinite horizon model useful in some contexts. But as it’s typically applied to Social Security it’s beloved by ideologues because it produces a really big, and really scary, estimate of the accumulated deficit.

The infinite projection appears in the annual Social Security Trustees Report, but its placement there is controversial. The Social Security Advisory Board’s 2015 technical panel of economists, actuaries and demographers recommended dropping the infinite projection from the trustees reports altogether, for two reasons. One is that it incorporates enormous uncertainties. Estimating costs, revenues and policy changes for Social Security’s conventional 75-year forecasts is hard enough; the influences playing on the program hundreds or thousands of years into the future are literally unimaginable. That makes the infinite projection “unhelpful as a guide to policy-making,” the panel reported.

The second reason is that it’s so vulnerable to misinterpretation. As an earlier technical panel observed, the projection is sometimes “quoted in policy discussions without including its relation to corresponding GDP, which is both misleading and shifts the focus from more useful metrics.”

Interestingly, that’s exactly what Mitchell does. (We should mention in passing that Mitchell actually gets her numbers wrong. The infinite projection deficit, as published by the trustees in their most recent report, was $25.8 trillion as of Jan. 1, not $28 trillion; U.S. GDP, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, was $18.2 trillion as of the end of 2015, not $14 trillion as Mitchell implies.)

In her MarketWatch article, Mitchell doesn’t disclose that the figure she’s citing is the infinite projection, which could lead some readers to think she’s talking about Social Security’s current deficit. (In current terms, Social Security actually runs an annual surplus and is expected to do so until 2020.) Even worse, she juxtaposes it with current gross domestic product by stating that it’s “twice the size” of GDP today. The unwary reader might be led to think that a Social Security “crisis” is on the verge of bankrupting the U.S. in the here and now. . .

Mitchell’s lump-sum plan might be a useful element in a Social Security fix if it were entirely clear that a fix was necessary. But the fact that she relied on an exaggerated statistic to make her case suggests that there may not be such a strong case, after all.

The CBO’s projection of the 75-year actuarial deficit of the Social Security program as a share of GDP is only 1.45 percent—not nearly as dramatic as Mitchell’s statistic. It’s a number that doesn’t conjure up crisis or induce panic. All it suggests is that “tweaking” the system (by, as I suggested, raising the earnings cap) will make the program solvent and create the space for what we should really be doing, lowering the retirement age and expanding benefits for American workers.

Lies, damned lies, and Mitchell’s statistic serve a very different purpose.

Comments
  1. Christina Trees says:

    I teach this every semester in macro and traditionally aged students are unusually attentive during the lecture. They may have a way to go before retirement, but they need and want the tools to understand this issue beyond the sound bite lies that echo through the media.

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