A Dry, Incredibly Important Story

Apr 25, 2012

This post will not have a single number in it. Yesterday morning’s edition of The Washington Post ran a story headlined, “Social Security’s financial forecast gets a bit darker.” The sub-headline adds that Medicare is not looking much better. The story reviewed the annual forecast of the trustees overseeing the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, a forecast that looks ahead to the funds’ solvency as far out as the end of this century.

What’s interesting about this story is that there is virtually no editorializing or posturing, either by the reporter (N.C. Aizenman) or by the people she cites. The gloomy forecasts cited are driven by demographics — birth rate and life expectancies — and very long-term trends in markets (especially with respect to healthcare costs), economic growth, and immigration. There is not much to argue about. (In fact, the only questioning of the underlying assumptions came from impartial sources, who suggested that the healthcare cost savings from the 2010 law might be overstated.)

I make this observation because the whole question of the adequacy of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds is an issue that lends itself beautifully to clear, understandable quantation. If the numbers underlying the conclusions cited in this article were properly laid out before the citizenry, I’m confident they would understand them, and recognize that there is no more important issue facing the U.S. electorate. The one thing that disappointed me was this story’s placement on p. 3 of the print edition, especially when I compare the significance of this story to that of every story appearing on p. 1.

I commend this excellent, important story to your attention. I also encourage you to demand a clear, honest presentation of the numbers from our public servants and our journalists.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people talking about financial statements and other numbers in ways that we can all understand. I welcome your interest and your feedback.

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