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Thursday, October 26, 2006

One Track Mind

The Oregonian's Betsy Hammond continues in classic Oregonian (one track mind) tradition of repeating the misleading canard that the "typical PERS retiree" with 30 years of service retired between 2000 - 2004 with a monthly benefit of 106% of Final Average Salary. I don't dispute the statistic, but would object strongly about its relevance to anything. Ms. Hammond claims that her conclusions derive from the 2005 Replacement Ratio Study commissioned by PERS. If you wish to read this document, you can download it from my web site here. Ms. Hammond told retirees, who complained about her misleading statistics, that this document was more thorough than the more widely circulated "PERS By The Numbers", which PERS staff distributed widely and is posted on PERS' own website. Its purpose, according to PERS, is to provide accurate numbers for the media and others who write, speak, and litigate about the PERS system. I don't want to quibble with an esteemed Oregonian reporter, but the idea that the bigger document is somehow better or more comprehensive is hogwash. The abridged "PERS By The Numbers" contains precisely the same information less the pretty colored graphs. Perhaps Ms. Hammond is unable to see the patters in numbers and so, for her, a picture converts into more than a thousand words. If pictures work for you then by all means use them. But the raw numbers tell a much broader story and give the reader a very different picture than the concatenation of information from 4 bars on a single graph.

The source is really a distraction. More important is the fact that Ms. Hammond repeats this same piece of information in nearly every PERS article, and she carefully (conveniently?) leaves out the rest of the picture. By doing so, she leaves the uninformed reader with a generalization that isn't borne out by the facts themselves. Ms Hammond writes: "...Oregon's expensive public pension system, which allowed the typical 30-year public employee who retired between 2000 and 2004 to make slightly more money in retirement than while working...." (italics not in original). Let's clarify a few things that Ms. Hammond failed to mention. First, between 2000 and November 2004, 17466 PERS members retired. Of these, 1556 (8.9%) had 30+ years of service. So the first observation one can make is that the cohort Ms. Hammond chooses to focus on represents less than 1/11 of the ENTIRE RETIREE POPULATION during the period in question. It may be an interesting fact that a typical member of this group earned more than 100% of final average salary (FAS). However, to focus on that fact to the exclusion of the OTHER 91% of the retiree cohort is journalistic malpractice IN MY OPINION. Why is this one fact, out of dozens of other facts in the same report, interesting? What conclusion or inference does Ms. Hammond want the reader to draw? It isn't hard to connect the dots. If you keep mentioning this fact, and only this fact, the average reader would conclude that all other retirees in the same time period must be receiving some scandalously high benefit. Of course, this is untrue as any careful analysis of the entire report would show you.

PERS published these reports and let the world in on them for a reason: so much misinformation was floating around about what PERS retirees were receiving (or not receiving) that PERS felt an obligation to publish the data and let those interested in them pick and choose pieces of interest. And pick and choose they do. The ONLY fact the Oregonian, in particular, seems to be interested in is the one Betsy Hammond wrote about in her most recent piece on PERS. I'm convinced that the Oregonian is willfully distorting reader perceptions by selective reporting of facts. I'm willing to bet that if you were to survey a truly random group of Oregonians about PERS, the ONLY thing they could tell you is that the "typical PERS retiree makes more in retirement than when they worked". This isn't what the Oregonian wrote, but by repeating the same isolated fact exclusively, the only conclusion that the average reader could possibly draw is that the average PERS retiree is living "la vida loca". Untrue! False! Deceptive! Misleading! Biased! -- all signs of a one track mind.

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