Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I do not come to bury Ruth Marcus.  I come to praise her.

Somewhat.  A few of the questions the Washington Post syndicated columnist recommends be posed to the two major presidential candidates tomorrow night are well-informed, probing, and worthy of answers for the American people.   Two others, however, reflect disturbing ignorance.

She critically prefaces one of her questions by stating

President Obama, you have been criticized for not supporting the recommendations of your own fiscal commission. Why didn't you? Do you regret that choice?

You have offered what you describe as $4 trillion in debt reduction over 10 years. Yet your $4 trillion is $2.3 trillion short of what the Simpson-Bowles commission said was essential.

It's not entirely, or even primarily, her fault, of course.   Dean Baker noticed that even the august, paper-of-record New York Times has referred to "the proposal by President Obama’s fiscal commission led by Erskine B. Bowles, the Clinton White House chief of staff, and former Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, a Republican."   It is common throughout the media to refer to the "Simpson-Bowles report" or, in shortened form, "Simpson-Bowles," as if the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform actually had issued a report.   The Commission by-laws, as Baker notes, read

The Commission shall vote on the approval of a final report containing a set of recommendations to achieve the objectives set forth in the Charter no later than December 1, 2010. The issuance of a final report of the Commission shall require the approval of not less than 14 of the 18 members of the Commission.

Baker notes, however, "there was no vote on anything by December 1, 2010 and there was never a report that received the approval of 14 of the 18 commission members. Therefore, there was no report of the commission. That's pretty simple, isn't it?"

Marcus unknowingly propagates another faulty premise when she asks

you promised in Charlotte to take “responsible steps” to strengthen Social Security. Yet in your acceptance speech four years ago you said that “now is the time ... to protect Social Security for future generations,” and then did nothing on Social Security during your first term. What do you plan to do if re-elected? Would you support Gov. Romney’s proposal to raise the retirement age to reflect increases in longevity? To lower the rate at which benefits grow for higher-income seniors?

Paul Krugman, recognizing that the increase in longevity cited by Marcus and so many others is well overstated, explains

Consider, in particular, the proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age, supposedly to reflect rising life expectancy. This is an idea Washington loves — but it’s also totally at odds with the reality of an America in which rising inequality is reflected not just in the quality of life but in its duration. For while average life expectancy has indeed risen, that increase is confined to the relatively well-off and well-educated — the very people who need Social Security least. Meanwhile, life expectancy is actually falling for a substantial part of the nation.

These less well-off and lesser-educated individuals are not likely to capture the imagination of most of the news media, generally relatively well-off and more highly educated.  There has been little attention paid, in fact, to the news reported on September 21 by The New York Times:

For generations of Americans, it was a given that children would live longer than their parents. But there is now mounting evidence that this enduring trend has reversed itself for the country’s least-educated whites, an increasingly troubled group whose life expectancy has fallen by four years since 1990.

Researchers have long documented that the most educated Americans were making the biggest gains in life expectancy, but now they say mortality data show that life spans for some of the least educated Americans are actually contracting. Four studies in recent years identified modest declines, but a new one that looks separately at Americans lacking a high school diploma found disturbingly sharp drops in life expectancy for whites in this group. Experts not involved in the new research said its findings were persuasive.

The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance.

The steepest declines were for white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008, said S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator on the study, published last month in Health Affairs. By 2008, life expectancy for black women without a high school diploma had surpassed that of white women of the same education level, the study found.

Perhaps there would be consideration of this large, though declining, group of Americans if one of those awful cliches stereotyping voters would emerge.  We have had "soccer moms," "NASCAR dads," and "Walmart moms."
But unless "diner women" or some other hideous term trivializing this segment of the populace is popularized, it's hardly likely that many journalists will pay attention.   The elites might even find some solace in the statistics, for the racial disparity between relatively uneducated white women and black women has declined or apparently, reversed.  But the drop in life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma reflects yet another instance in which the American economy has left a lot of people behind, even if it's inconvenient to notice.

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