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Michael Hiltzik: Social Security and the life expectancy myth

July 20, 2010 |  4:38 pm

Social Security must be in great shape. If it weren't, then its critics wouldn't have to resort to myths and misrepresentations to attack it.

The life expectancy myth is one of its crowd's favorite chestnuts, carried recently, the way Mary Mallon carried typhoid fever, by such supposed friends of the program as former Sen. Alan Simpson. As with many myths, the opportunity for mischief is embedded in the proposed solutions to the mythical problem -- in this case, raising the normal retirement age in a way that blows the Social Security disability insurance fund to smithereens.

There are few useful studies of disability and life expectancy rates across occupations, something that would help underscore the potentially discriminatory effect of a wholesale rise in the retirement age. Some researchers have relied on such proxies as family income or educational attainment; a paper using the latter methodology can be found here. And here's a brief from the advocacy group Social Security Matters explaining the dangers of raising the retirement age.

The column begins below.

Every politician worthy of the name knows that the easiest policy changes to put over are those that don't kick in until well into the future. The idea, of course, is that by the time their dire ramifications become evident, they'll be someone else's problem.

That must be why it has become so fashionable in Washington to propose raising the Social Security retirement age.

This nostrum is an element of the "Roadmap for America's Future" promoted by GOP Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin (who calls it, with Orwellian duplicity, "modernizing" the retirement age). In recent weeks it has also been embraced by such Democrats as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who says "we should consider a higher retirement age or one pegged to lifespan," and Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, who proposes raising the retirement age by one month every year.

President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission is believed to be toying with the retirement age change as part of its Social Security plan. We don't really know, because the deliberations of its Social Security working group are taking place behind closed doors. So much for "open government."

Read the whole column.