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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Will Blogosphere Competition Inspire MSMers to Use Computer Model for Deeper Social Security Reporting?

Social Security reform is starting to heat up a bit in the Blogosphere, too, thanks largely to Hugh Hewitt. As usual, Hugh zeroes in on the gut issues in the debate, with particular emphasis on the extreme disparities in the rate of return for minorities, compared to the majority population.

Now Social Security reform might not seem like a topic that would fall under the usual purview of Tapscott's Copy Desk. I mean after all, it says right there on top that TCD is "tracking the internet revolution in media and government."

In fact, however, I have a hunch that a blogosphere milestone is ahead in the coming debate in Congress on President Bush's proposals to reform Social Security by allowing younger workers to contribute a portion of their Social Security taxes to a private investment account. The Baby Boomer generation-led MSM for the most part is horrified by the prospect of such reforms and much of the reporting and analyses one reads in the pages of publications like The New York Times exhibits a studied refusal to look at contrary facts.

But with the Blogosphere awakening to the debate, we might see the MSM being forced to widen its reporting perspectives sufficiently to at least acknowledge that there is a factual case for reforms like Bush is expected to propose and that all of the demographic and actuarial data makes the sorry state of an unreformed Social Security system a national embarrassment.

One way that could happen would be widespread knowledge of the facts about Social Security's lousy rate of return for everybody, but especially for minorities. The Heritage Foundation, (for which I work, though not as an analyst) has had a Social Security Calculator up on its web site for more than a year. Anybody can go to it, enter a few basic facts about themselves and get a projection of their likely Social Security benefits, compared to their likely returns with a conservatively invested private account.

National Review Online's "The Corner" mentioned the Heritage Social Security Calculator a few days ago and traffic skyrocketed. The value of the Calculator is that it is methodologically transparent and based upon the same demographic and actuarial data used by the Social Security Administration.

In effect, the Calculator is a computer model that could be a valuable reporting tool for any journalist willing to drop the preconceived notions about the viability of an unreformed Social Security system and look at the facts as the first step in some truly valuable reporting. For example, any journalist can enter a zip code and get data on likely Social Security returns for
any reader or listener.

To date, though, there seems to be a reluctance to use computer models like the Calculator in MSM reporting of major public policy issues like Social Security reform. It will be fascinating to see if pressure from the Blogosphere results in more MSMers looking for new edges and angles in their reporting and thus results in more interest in the Calculator. I'll keep you posted on that score.