Alan Simpson Angered By Math

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JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 10, 2011

Alan Simpson Angered By Math

Alan Simpson has been arguing that longer life expectancy since 1935 requires a fundamental rethinking of Social Security. Ryan Grim gets Simpson on the phone and tries to explain the statistics to him. Hilarity ensues:

HuffPost suggested to Simpson during a telephone interview that his claim about life expectancy was misleading because his data include people who died in childhood of diseases that are now largely preventable. Incorporating such early deaths skews the average life expectancy number downward, making it appear as if people live dramatically longer today than they did half a century ago. According to the Social Security Administration's actuaries, women who lived to 65 in 1940 had a life expectancy of 79.7 years and men were expected to live 77.7 years.

"If that is the case -- and I don’t think it is -- then that means they put in peanuts," said Simpson.

Simpson speculated that the data presented to him by HuffPost had been furnished by "the Catfood Commission people" -- a reference to progressive critics of the deficit commission who gave president's panel that label.

Told that the data came directly from the Social Security Administration, Simpson continued to insist it was inaccurate, while misstating the nature of a statistical average: "If you’re telling me that a guy who got to be 65 in 1940 -- that all of them lived to be 77 -- that is just not correct. Just because a guy gets to be 65, he’s gonna live to be 77? Hell, that’s my genre. That’s not true," said Simpson, who will turn 80 in September.

Get yer damn numbers outta Alan Simpson's face before he whacks ya upside the head with his cane!

I also enjoyed Simpson's complaint about the interview:

Simpson said that questioning his data wasn't helping to solve the underlying problem.

"This is the first time, the first time -- and Erskine [Bowles, the deficit commission co-chair,] and I have been talking for a year and many months -- that anyone’s going to sit around and play with statistics like this," he told HuffPost. "Anything I tell you, you repudiate. You’re the first guy in a year and a half who’s stood out here with a sharp pencil playing a game that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with: 'What the hell are you going to do with the system?'"

I'm actually in favor of some kind of technical fix to fill in Social Security's long-term deficit, though I don't see any special urgency to handle it right away. I do have some qualms about placing such power to resolve a technical issue in the hands of a man who seems so uncomfortable with the concept of using statistics to understand problems.

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posted in: jonathan chait, alan simpson, ryan grim, social security administration

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