Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Bella English set me off on a tangent today with this seemingly innocent throw-away:

When Social Security was put into place in 1935, people generally retired by age 65. The average life expectancy then was about 62 years. Today, it's about 78.
She was writing about mutton dressing up as lamb. (While she was writing for women, I make the same calculation: Can I wear that without looking ridiculous?)

Her line was meant to prove that we're all living longer, but it's a point that misunderstands the leverage on an average that extreme numbers can have. Throw in a few zeroes and any average looks much lower.

Life expectancy at birth has changed a lot in the past hundred years. Life expectancy at retirement? Not nearly as much. The Social Security Administration even acknowledges this:
Increases in life expectancy are a factor in the long-range financing of Social Security; but other factors, such as the sheer size of the "baby boom" generation, and the relative proportion of workers to beneficiaries, are larger determinants of Social Security's future financial condition.
Why do I care? When public policy gets debated, the lack of honest facts practically guarantees bad decisions, and the Social Security debate has been filled - by dishonest Republicans - with myth and bullshit.

The truth: Men live less that three additional years after 65, women about 5. Further, full retirement age has already been adjusted upward to account for half this increase.

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