March 23, 2005

Better Living Through Data-Crunching

Max and Matt say get the wonk knives ready! The 2005 Trustees' report on Social Security is due out tomorrow, and liberal number-crunchers everywhere will be poring over the data tables, looking for signs that the books have been unduly cooked so as to make the program's long-term health look really, really dire. Dire projections, of course, favor the privatizers and their "crisis"-mongering. The main reason for suspicion: five of the six current Trustees are pro-privatization hacks.

But okay, are there any grounds for concern that these folks would actually cook the books? Well, maybe. Earlier today, I stumbled across this site by Bruce Webb, suggesting that book-cooking has perhaps gone on for some time. His numbers are a bit confusing, but they seem perfectly sound, and the basic story is this: ever since the Bush administration came to office in 2001, the Social Security Trustees' have been projecting lower and lower future growth each year, even though actual economic growth has recently been increasing at a faster-than-expected clip. In other words, the Trustees' "intermediate cost" predictions—i.e. the ones everyone uses—are proven too pessimistic each year by actual facts on the ground, but nevertheless the reports continue to be even more pessimistic about future growth.

To offer another example, in 2003 the Trustees "intermediate projections"—i.e. the ones in which the program goes slightly out of balance in 2042—projected 2.1 percent growth in 2005. Okay, seems a bit low, but whatever. But the next year, the Trustees' revised that prediction downward to 1.8 percent growth for 2005, even though the economy had obviously been humming along quite nicely.

So there seems to be some funny business, though I'll be happy to hear a plausible explanation for all of this.
-- Brad Plumer 3:25 AM || ||