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Social Security Pop Quiz.

Social Security is a stunningly complex government program. The issues involved in its reform are even that much more complex. Almost all of the polling on Social Security, highly simplistic and vague, does not reflect just how detailed these issues are.

As any student of public opinion polling will tell you, it is worthless to take a respondent's word for it on whether or not he or she is informed on an issue. People often tell pollsters they follow the news very closely, when in fact they never do.

The only way to accurately determine whether someone is truly informed is to give them an actual pop quiz on the issues. There is also very little way to know whether someone is offering an entirely random answer, an answer based on a partisan cue (they heard their party leader come out for or against it), an honestly mistaken answer (someone really tried to inform themselves, but came up short), or an answer truly based on complete (or close to it) information.

One talking point on the left is that the more people know about Social Security reform, the more they oppose it. This is code for "the more survey respondents are scared by pollsters about reform, the more they oppose it."

We'd like to test this phenomenon. We'd like to understand how tainted information, or complete lack thereof, can change someone's position on reform. We'd also like to understand the gap between those who believe they are informed on Social Security and those who really are informed on Social Security.

Our hunch is that most people know very little about this behemoth of a program.

Thus, we've created a pop quiz to include in Social Security polling to determine whether someone is actually informed on the subject:

1. When will Social Security begin paying out more than it takes in?
(Answer: 2017)

2. When will the Social Security "trust fund" run out of money?
(Answer: 2041)

3. In President Bush's proposal for reforming Social Security, would an individual's contribution to a personal account be... A) mandatory; B) a choice; C) don't know.
(Answer: B) a choice)

[note: this question was asked in a recent poll we noted, and only 39% knew that individuals would have a choice, while 12% believed it would be mandatory, and 49% weren't sure or had not heard enough]

4. What have Congressional Democrats such as Harry Reid proposed to do about solving Social Security's looming insolvency?
(Answer: nothing)

5. What is the current total Social Security payroll tax percentage?
(Answer: 12.4%)

6. Under President Bush's principles for reforming Social Security via personal accounts, would someone be able to take out the money early, spending it all irresponsibly, potentially leaving him or her without any retirement safety net?
(Answer: no)

7. If no changes are made to Social Security, by how much would benefits have to be cut?
(Answer: 26%)

8. There's been discussion about transition costs in Social Security. If no changes are made to Social Security, will the transition costs be new (or added) costs, or would they be the recognition of existing obligations?
(Answer: recognition of existing obligations)

9. For every year we put off reforming Social Security, by how much does the burden grow each year?
(Answer: 600 billion dollars)

10. Under President Bush's reform proposals, would those born before 1950 see any changes?
(Answer: no)

11. How many workers supported an individual Social Security beneficiary in 1950?
(Answer: 16)

12. How many workers support an individual Social Security beneficiary today?
(Answer: 3.3)

13. Under President Bush's reform proposal, would personal accounts include a choice of a series of diversified, conservative bond and stock funds, much like the retirement plan available to government employees (called the Federal Thrift Savings Plan); or, would an individual be required to research and select his or her own portfolio, potentially investing the entire personal account in a stock like Enron?
(Answer: more like the Thrift Savings Plan)

14. Is the Social Security "trust fund" a series of government IOUs, or is there an actual account with the money sitting in it?
(Answer: government IOUs)

15. In 1960, the Supreme Court ruled on Social Security in a case called Flemming v. Nestor. Did the Court rule: A) Social Security benefits are a contractual obligation, and if an individual has paid into the system, he or she is guaranteed to receive benefits; B) paying into the system does not make receiving benefits a contractual right; the government could take away benefits at any time; C) don't know.
(Answer: B)

...and so on.

There would be an acceptable range of correct answers on some of the more technical questions (for example: give or take a few years on the what year the trust fund will run out).

Typically, a good way to determine whether someone actually knows what they are talking about is to ask about five to twenty questions, depending on the survey's budget (these things can cost millions of dollars).

If a respondent gets enough correct (which can depend on the survey and issue), it is safe to assume he or she understands the issue. If too many questions are missed, it might indicate a lack of knowledge on the subject.

There is nothing inherently bad about not knowing a lot about Social Security, but it would just be interesting to learn how people with high and low levels of knowledge on the subject respond to the labrynthine Social Security reform proposals.

In polling, it is also possible to frame questions in such a way as to measure the level of "mal-information" a respondent has received. In other words, it would be possible to take common mistruths on the issue of Social Security coming from left-wing groups and individuals such as the DNC, AARP, Rock the Vote, Paul Krugman, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, et al, and test to see if someone has been taken in by that "mal-information."

Posted by Will Franklin · 3 April 2005 06:29 PM


I agree that Social Security is complex. Check out what I had to say on the subject friend! It's on the April 3 post on my site. Cheers!

Posted by: Joseph (Advocate of Democracy) at April 3, 2005 06:39 PM


Looking at your Social Security solution at your site, you are a prime example of a victim of mal-information.

Posted by: Will Franklin at April 3, 2005 06:54 PM

Dear Mr. Franklin,

I never claimed that my suggestions would provide a permanent fix to the SS problem, only that they would do much more good than Mr. Bush's little scheme.
You said that every President takes loans out of the SS Trust. I agree. However, Bush (Jr.) and Reagan took out the largest and most.
In regards to revoking the loans, my suggestion is to first of all prevent further loans in future and second of all return the deficits the loans guarantee to their appropriate department of government since, ofcourse, our government works on a credit base in the first place. That would provide a way to look at the deficit as it truly is and rearrange expendatures and cutbacks in the appropriate places instead of to public well being.
As the what a Neo-Con is, I know exactly what the definition states and exactly what it means in practice. If you would like to debate this, I will be glad to oblige you. And what state do you live dear sir?
Joseph (AOD)

Posted by: Joseph (Advocate of Democracy) at April 3, 2005 06:55 PM

I am honestly not all that interested in debating those who use juvenile terms like "Bush (Jr.)" If you want a serious discussion, make a reasonable post on your blog and trackback one of my posts. And stop making stuff up.

Posted by: Will Franklin at April 3, 2005 07:20 PM

Hi again Mr. Franklin. I am sorry if I have offended you friend. I do wonder what it is you think I made up though. I am all about serious discussion, even if the way I worded my comments did not strike you as such. In any case, I appreciate that you took the time to read what I said and seriously consider it. That's what politics is supposed to be about. If I never accomplish another thing in this field, making people think will be victory enough. Cheers!

Posted by: Joseph (Advocate of Democracy) at April 3, 2005 09:08 PM