Against Actuariocracy

I really love this point that Matt Yglesias makes:

Instead of trying harder to improve our long-run budget forecasts, what we ought to be doing is discounting long-run budget forecasts much more in our evaluation of what belongs on the policy agenda. People in Washington treat it as obvious that a CBO projection of Social Security outlays in the year 2065 is a very serious subject to talk about, but that the legality of banning genetically engineered super-sprinters from Olympic track & field events in the year 2065 is frivolous. But I’m much, much, much more certain that we’ll have genetically engineered sprinters in the future than I am about the future productivity growth rate.

I can’t really speak to the pressing issue of future Olympic sprinters, but…yes!

Look, it makes sense to run long-term projections for things like Medicare and Social Security. But — and Yglesias has made this point before — the margin of error for those projections is going to be just huge. Maybe health care costs will crash in the future, with Dr. McCoy type treatments available at low cost, yielding long productive lives followed by a quick, quiet death from “old age”…or maybe most of us will live well past 120 but spend our last 50-75 years or more in terrible physical shape, unable to work and draining all the resources that the under-70s can produce. Or maybe we’ll be pretty much like we are now, only more so. Who knows? CBO sure doesn’t. Yes, it makes sense to project and pay some attention to the “like now, only more so” possibility, but if either of the others happens the policies we enact now based on that possibility won’t make any sense at all in retrospect.

(That includes if the dystopian answer is our future — if that’s what’s coming, it’s not going to make any practical difference that our actuaries in 2011 said everything would be great in 2080. And of course if the utopian future is on its way, we’re just punishing ourselves now for no good reason).

So, no, I’m not going to say that the answer is to ignore the future entirely, but for public policy planning purposes as far as I’m concerned it’s real important to pay attention to the present, somewhat important to keep track of where we’re heading for the next decade or so, and worth keeping an eye on anything beyond that. If you think that’s shortchanging the future, then the answer isn’t to pay more attention to the actuaries; the answer is to pay more attention to long-term research and development (however you believe that’s best accomplished).

By the way: how much did a good medical tricorder cost in Kirk’s time, and how widely available were they anyway? We’re totally ahead of pace on that one, right?

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.