Little Black Lies

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

January 28, 2005

Social Security privatization really is like tax cuts, or the Iraq war: the administration keeps on coming up with new rationales, but the plan remains the same. President Bush's claim that we must privatize Social Security to avert an imminent crisis has evidently fallen flat. So now he's playing the race card.

This week, in a closed meeting with African-Americans, Mr. Bush asserted that Social Security was a bad deal for their race, repeating his earlier claim that "African-American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people." In other words, blacks don't live long enough to collect their fair share of benefits.

This isn't a new argument; privatizers have been making it for years. But the claim that blacks get a bad deal from Social Security is false. And Mr. Bush's use of that false argument is doubly shameful, because he's exploiting the tragedy of high black mortality for political gain instead of treating it as a problem we should solve.

Let's start with the facts. Mr. Bush's argument goes back at least seven years, to a report issued by the Heritage Foundation - a report so badly misleading that the deputy chief actuary (now the chief actuary) of the Social Security Administration wrote a memo pointing out "major errors in the methodology." That's actuary-speak for "damned lies."

In fact, the actuary said, "careful research reflecting actual work histories for workers by race indicate that the nonwhite population actually enjoys the same or better expected rates of return from Social Security" as whites.

Here's why. First, Mr. Bush's remarks on African-Americans perpetuate a crude misunderstanding about what life expectancy means. It's true that the current life expectancy for black males at birth is only 68.8 years - but that doesn't mean that a black man who has worked all his life can expect to die after collecting only a few years' worth of Social Security benefits. Blacks' low life expectancy is largely due to high death rates in childhood and young adulthood. African-American men who make it to age 65 can expect to live, and collect benefits, for an additional 14.6 years - not that far short of the 16.6-year figure for white men.

Second, the formula determining Social Security benefits is progressive: it provides more benefits, as a percentage of earnings, to low-income workers than to high-income workers. Since African-Americans are paid much less, on average, than whites, this works to their advantage.

Finally, Social Security isn't just a retirement program; it's also a disability insurance program. And blacks are much more likely than whites to receive disability benefits.

Put it all together, and the deal African-Americans get from Social Security turns out, according to various calculations, to be either about the same as that for whites or somewhat better. Hispanics, by the way, clearly do better than either.

So the claim that Social Security is unfair to blacks is just false. And the fact that privatizers keep making that claim, after their calculations have repeatedly been shown to be wrong, is yet another indicator of the fundamental dishonesty of their sales pitch.

What's really shameful about Mr. Bush's exploitation of the black death rate, however, is what it takes for granted.

The persistent gap in life expectancy between African-Americans and whites is one measure of the deep inequalities that remain in our society - including highly unequal access to good-quality health care. We ought to be trying to diminish that gap, especially given the fact that black infants are two and half times as likely as white babies to die in their first year.

Now nobody can expect instant progress in reducing health inequalities. But the benefits of Social Security privatization, if any, won't materialize for many decades. By using blacks' low life expectancy as an argument for privatization, Mr. Bush is in effect taking it as a given that 40 or 50 years from now, large numbers of African-Americans will still be dying before their time.

Is this an example of what Mr. Bush famously called "the soft bigotry of low expectations?" Maybe not: it isn't particularly soft to treat premature black deaths not as a tragedy we must end but as just another way to push your ideological agenda. But bigotry - yes, that sounds like the right word.

E-mail: krugman@nytimes.com