Universal Translator

Thursday, July 7, 2011

And Speaking of Robert A. Heinlein Getting it Wrong . . . .

I cross-posted yesterday's entry over at The Great Orange Satan and had to explain to at least one person who commented that I actually do like most of Robert A. Heinlein's work.  But Hey! when RAH got things wrong he really got things wrong.

The first of Heinlein's "Howard Families" stories, Methuselah's Children, originally published in 1941 when Heinlein was only about 34, introduced readers not only to Lazarus Long but also to the entire Howard Families concept.  Essentially, the premise was that a man named Ira Howard got amazingly wealthy during the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800's but died in his 40's of old age.  You see, Heinlein explained, back in the 1800's the average lifespan was only about 38 or so and therefore - even with all his wealth -- poor Ira was dying in his 40's.  Ira Howard deeply resented this, and so created a foundation for the purpose of persuading people with extraordinarily long-lived ancestors (all four grandparents had to be alive at the time of marriage) to marry each other.  It was a program of selective breeding intended to extend human longevity.

Now, even as a kid I knew something was wrong about this.  Sure, I knew that average lifespans had been increasing for years, but I also was pretty sure that nobody in the 1800's died of old age when they were only 40.  It took me a while to reconcile these facts, but I eventually worked out that "average life span" doesn't mean how long individual people could expect to live, it only denoted how long a generic baby born into a society was expected to live.  This statistic was heavily skewed by the high rates of infant mortality and the then fatal nature of many childhood illnesses, but -- generally speaking -- once an individual reached adulthood the promised Biblical span of "three score and ten" was at least within his or her reach.

The sad thing is that this erroneous thinking -- something that I, as a child, could eventually put together -- still informs a large part of our Social Security discourse.  It's even sadder now that we are getting reports that Social Security benefits may be on the table as part of the "Grand Bargain" that President Obama seems to be negotiating with the Republicans in order to get them to raise the nation's debt limit and not crash the world economy.

I'm sure many people remember Alan Simpson's outright embarrassing interview with the HuffPost's Ryan Grim:

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 the 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. 
Understanding life expectancy rates at age 65 in 1940 is central to understanding Social Security itself. If the very nature of the population has changed dramatically since the program's creation, it stands to reason that the program itself requires dramatic changes: Means testing, creating private accounts and further upping the retirement age for the program have all been proposed by its opponents. 
But if the population is largely similar today, then only modest changes would be needed to maintain Social Security. Critics of the program therefore have an incentive to dramatize life-expectancy stats. 
But those dramatic claims aren't buttressed by the data: A man who turned 65 in 2010 has a life expectancy of 83.1 -- barely five years more than he had in 1940. Women have increased their life expectancy at roughly the same rate. Since 1940, the retirement age for drawing Social Security benefits has been lifted from 65 to 67, meaning that people are receiving a net of only three extra years of benefits than they were 70 years ago.
I really don't mean to pick on Heinlein; I actually consider myself something of a fan.  But at least when Heinlein got stuff like this wrong it just meant you had to ignore a little backstory to read what was still a pretty good science-fiction yarn.  But Alan Simpson is one of the leading proponents of Social Security reform, and every time he opens his mouth about this sort of stuff he misinforms a large swath of the American people who think what he is saying makes sense.  (Believe me . . . I've had my share of discussions trying to convince others that just because "average life span" may have increased dramatically, that doesn't necessarily mean that people are living dramatically longer.)

Allowing someone as ignorant about our Social Security program as is Alan Simpson to help set the terms of our national debate over Social Security is just pathetic, and only adds weight to those calling for Social Security benefits to be shredded.  Regardless of what Obama's real game plan regarding Social Security "reform" he deserves to be excoriated for that alone.

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