Really Big Numbers and Early Retirement in Germany

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Tuesday, 01 July 2014 04:31

The NYT had an article about a plan to allow some workers in Germany to retire early and collect full benefits from their version of Social Security. According to the article, workers who have paid into the system for 45 years will be able to start collecting full benefits at age 63 instead of the standard age of 65. (This is being raised to 67, as is the case in the United States.)

While the piece provides interesting background about the economic and political context for this decision, it gives no context for the numbers in the piece, which will therefore be meaningless to the overwhelming majority of NYT readers. For example, it tells readers that 6,000 workers have already applied for early benefits and that 200,000 are projected to be eligible. It is unlikely that many readers have a good sense of how large these numbers are relative to Germany's workforce. (According to the OECD, employment in Germany is roughly 40 million. This means that the 6,000 current applicants amount to 0.015 percent of total employment. If all 200,000 eligible workers took advantage of early retirement it would be equal to 0.5 percent of total employment.)

The piece later tells readers:

"The costs of the early retirement, estimated to grow over the next decade to €3 billion from about €1 billion, or to $4.1 billion from $1.4 billion."

It is unlikely that many readers have much sense of how important 1 billion euros is to Germany's budget today or how important 3 billion euros will be a decade from now. Germany's current budget is roughly 1.3 trillion euros, which means that the cost of early retirement is roughly 0.08 percent of current spending. The projected 3 billion euro cost would be roughly 0.18 percent of projected spending.

It should have been a simple matter for the paper to put these numbers in a context that would make them understandable to readers, instead of just putting in numbers that will be almost meaningless to everyone who reads them. The paper's Public Editor Margaret Sullivan made this point herself last fall and apparently got agreement from the NYT editors. Yet, for some reason practices seem not to have changed.

This is getting almost like the Twilight Zone. We have a journalistic practice that everyone agrees is wrong, that is easy to change, but nonetheless persists. What is going on here?

 

Note: this piece was corrected to say "full benefits." Thanks DC Analyst.