Feelings don’t care about your facts!

Feelings don’t care about your facts! February 6, 2019

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Yes, I know, the Ben Shapiro meme is “facts don’t care about your feelings.”  But here’s the deal:

Retirement is back as a topic of discussion in Congress, so, yay, me, I guess, since I have lots to write about, anyway, and today there was a hearing at the House Ways and Means Committee, which I had thought was narrowly about the new “expand Social Security” bill which the Democrats have great hopes for, but turned out to be a hearing on retirement issues more generally speaking, including questions of retirement savings, and how prepared Americans are, or aren’t, for retirement, and multiemployer plans as well, though my the time I started watching the livestream, 1 1/2 hours in, there really wasn’t much said about that.  There were experts from both ends of the spectrum, namely, Nancy Altmann, head of a group pushing expansion of Social Security benefits funded by eliminating the cap; and Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, who writes that the “retirement crisis” really isn’t that bad because the Golden Era of defined-benefit plans wasn’t that Golden for many people, and that data shows people are, on average, doing better now.  There was a representative of a large employer, and there was a small businessman who was one of the first participating employers in OregonSaves, and there was a woman who, near as I could tell, was a widow of a multiemployer plan participant, whose plan must have gone insolvent or else she’s just worried it will, who got involved in an advocacy group, and there were one or two others.

So it was interesting, and I’ll be using some of the prepared testimony as source material for articles at Forbes, but I wanted to share a little about the hearing itself first, because it was the first time I really set out to watch one of these suckers at length (and it was loooong, starting at 9 and still going on at 1:00 when I moved on to other things, though I was multitasking and dividing my attention between this — on my tablet — and my computer).

Some of the Congress-questioners were actively keen on using this session to learn things.  They had prepared, but they also asked questions to which they genuinely did not know the answer.

Others grandstanded.

Now, when I first started watching, I was babysitting a macro on my upstairs computer, while watching on the downstairs computer, so I tried to use the grandstanders’ 5 minutes to run upstairs and back down, once it was clear that what they were doing was ranting.  But it would have been useful for the session to have been split up, with everyone who wanted to use their time to make little speeches to do so, followed by the questions, or, better yet, the reverse.

And some of the grandstanding was nominally in the form of a question, for instance, a long discourse on how many workers have physically demanding jobs (weird example:  kindergarten teacher) so that an increase in the retirement age causes hardship for them.  It’s a fair concern.  But instead of asking, “are there ways we can increase the retirement age for those who can handle it with creating burdens for those who can’t?” for instance, she asked a question which was directed at the expand-Social-Security witness, Altmann, to the effect of, “do you agree with me?”  And the answer, of course, was “yes” (though Altmann did add some color, such as the fact that disability approval can take so long people will commence their retirement benefits with early-retirement reductions instead).  And another example:  “gosh, will increasing immigration help Social Security funding?”  “Why, yes, it will.”

But, man, early on (relative to when I started watching), Biggs said something reasonably level-headed and measured.  But then it was the next Congressman’s turn.  I don’t remember who it was.  But his remarks — well, he brought on the outrage.  To paraphrase him very loosely, he thundered something to the effect of, “oh, sure, you have your fancy statistics.  But I know better than that.  My feelings don’t care about your facts.”

To be sure, he was followed (and I don’t really know if any of this is planned out) by someone with a wholly different approach, saying, “this is a math problem,” and coming with Ross Perot-ian graphics on the old-age dependency ratio, the increasing share of federal spending going to old folks via Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and miscellaneous other programs, and so on.

And a third Congressman, a Republican, directly addressed Altmann, saying (again paraphrased, from memory), “we know we need a solution to all of this.  We also know that we need a true bipartisan solution, one that comes from the center, which means that there will be some parts of the outcome that you won’t like.  Will you still support it?”  And she answered “Yes,” but then qualified her yes with a statement that she conceived of the issue not as “center vs. right and left” but “elites vs. the common people,” which raised warning bells that she might not really be ready to accept an outcome that doesn’t conform to her expectations.

So in one sense, it’s not really a retirement issue per se; it’s a challenge, in general, in any case where the statistics around a topic are hard to grasp and don’t intuitively feel right compared to other data points and anecdote and personal experience.  How do you persuade people to trust math and analysis that doesn’t line up with what they expect?

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