The Agenda

Ryan Grim on Rob Woodall

Ryan Grim is a smart reporter with an instinct for gotcha questions. Sometimes I fear his political sympathies lead him astray. Recently, he gained some attention for confusing former Sen. Alan Simpson by conflating different kinds of life expectancy, as Charles Blahous has explained:

 

Point #2: Life expectancy growth even at age 65 (the measure emphasized in the HuffPo piece) has far surpassed the rise in Social Security’s eligibility age, supporting the commission view rather than its critics’. Through today, Social Security’s Normal Retirement Age (66) has risen by only one year since 1940. According to the SSA figures cited, life expectancy at age 65 has simultaneously grown by over five years, both for men and for women. By the time the NRA reaches 67 under current law, life expectancy at 65 will have grown by over six years. By the distant time Simpson-Bowles would increase the NRA to 69 (four years total increase since 1940), life expectancy at age 65 will have grown by over nine years.

Point #3: The article covering the issue conflates two different measures of life expectancy, likely accounting for some of the mutual confusion.

Two different measures of life expectancy are provided in the Trustees’ report. “Period” life expectancy is observed life expectancy for a particular year. “Cohort” life expectancy by contrast takes into account future longevity increases affecting all people alive in a particular year. Thus, “period” life expectancy tells you that by 1940, males who had reached the age of 65 werealready living an average of 11.9 more years. “Cohort” life expectancy instead tells you that 65-year-old males alive in 1940 could expect to live another 12.7 years, that is, a bit longer due to improvements during those following 12 years.

For life expectancy at age 65, the differences between these two measures aren’t that big. But for life expectancy at birth, the differences are substantial. It seems obvious that Senator Simpson was citing “period life expectancy” whenever he made his repeated observation that Social Security’s original eligibility age was set higher than total male life expectancy (period life expectancy at birth for males in 1940 was 61.4, whereas cohort life expectancy was 70.1). But the reporter not only shifted the reference frame from life expectancy at birth to life expectancy at 65, but also shifted from period to cohort life expectancy as well (as can be demonstrated by matching up the article’s figures with the SSA tables).

I contacted Grim to share Charles’s article with him, but I haven’t received a reply as of yet. 

More recently, Grim wrote an article on a recent exchange Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia had with a constituent:

 

“The private corporation that I retired from does not give medical benefits to retirees,” the woman told the congressman in video captured a local Patch reporter in Dacula, Ga.

“Hear yourself, ma’am. Hear yourself,” Woodall told the woman. “You want the government to take care of you, because your employer decided not to take care of you. My question is, ‘When do I decide I’m going to take care of me?’”

Large portions of the crowd responded enthusiastically to the congressman’s barb, with some giving him a standing ovation, underscoring the fierce divisions within the electorate.

Not content to just report the incident, Grim proceeds to add value:

 

William Robert Woodall III, who goes by “Rob,” doesn’t appear to have been referring literally to himself, but rather speaking figuratively. It’s a good thing, because financial records show the 41-year-old congressman has done very little to take care of himself in his retirement. Woodall’s 2009 financial disclosure forms, filed with the House of Representatives, show that his two largest IRAs have between $15,000 and $50,000 worth of assets, hardly the type of nest egg that would be able to cover the health care costs associated with aging absent government health care.

Woodall was chief of staff to former Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), a job taxpayers shelled out more than $100,000 a year for in 2002, rising to more than $150,000 in 2009, plus gold-plated health and retirement benefits. Woodall, who has taken his former boss’s seat, now makes $174,000 a year with generous benefits.

In traditional societies, women and men provided for their retirement by having children and by maintaining extended kinship networks. Some retirees move to low-cost regions of the country. Another strategy embraced in recent years has been to extend one’s attachment to the labor force beyond the Social Security retirement age, and acquiring assets that can be sold and converted to cash that could then be used to purchase an annuity. Retiring late in life isn’t easy for everyone. People in physically demanding jobs might have a difficult time working past the age of 70. Fortunately, the job of a Hill staffer and member of Congress isn’t particularly physically demanding, It could be that Woodall is engaging in a form of consumption smoothing: he’s not standing in front of a blast furnace now, but perhaps he will continue with some kind of office job for several more decades.

Again, this strategy won’t for for everyone! But perhaps it makes sense to distribute resources to those who need them most, and not to people like Rob Woodall. A quick look at TPC’s chart of income breaks for 2011 suggest that there are many Americans with incomes in Woodall’s range, and paring back entitlement spending for this group and encouraging members of this group to take greater responsibility for their own retirement might yield considerable savings. 

I think I preferred it when Ryan Grim was writing on the history of psychedelics

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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