To Liberals, Arithmetic Is Magical Thinking

I have written that on the Left, a “wonk” is any liberal who can multiply and divide. But liberals often trip over even that low threshold. Take, for example, this piece by Norman Ornstein in National Journal. Ornstein–a friend, former colleague at AEI and occasional debating opponent of Steve Hayward–proposes a modest solution to the problem of economic inequality and the declining fortunes of America’s middle class:

The first iteration of KidSave, in simple terms, was this: Each year, for every one of the 4 million newborns in America, the federal government would put $1,000 in a designated savings account. The payment would be financed by using 1 percent of annual payroll-tax revenues. Then, for the first five years of a child’s life, the $500 child tax credit would be added to that account, with a subsidy for poor people who pay no income [tax]. The accounts would be administered the same way as the federal employees’ Thrift Savings Plan, with three options—low-, medium-, and high-risk—using broad-based stock and bond funds. Under the initial KidSave proposal, the funds could not be withdrawn until age 65, when, through the miracle of compound interest, they would represent a hefty nest egg. At 5 percent annual growth, an individual would have almost $700,000. …

Imagine if we adjusted the KidSave rules so that at certain pivot points in life, individuals could withdraw a portion of their nest egg to pay for college expenses or a down payment on a house or a medical or other emergency, or even the creation of a small business, while still making sure that a substantial share of the funds would stay in a retirement account. We could ameliorate many of the problems facing hard-pressed middle-class and working-class families and encourage entrepreneurship, while protecting a major nest egg for retirement years.

So let’s get this straight: you give a kid $3,500, and in 60 years, at 5%, he has $700,000? Ornstein refers to “the miracle of compound interest,” but this would be a miracle more akin to that of the loaves and fishes. A reader who is an expert in finance corrects the math:

Ornstein states that inequality can be alleviated through this mechanism because “…through the miracle of compound interest, they would represent a hefty nest egg. At 5 percent annual growth [sic], an individual would have almost $700,000.” [emphasis added]

Now this struck me as highly implausible for a very simple reason. It was immediately and intuitively apparent to me that the numbers were — not slightly, not somewhat, not arguably — but wildly inaccurate. Anyone who has ever done even a bit of bond or loan math would, without any calculation, also immediately know that $1000+$500*5 (about $4,200 at 5%) over 60 years could not possibly accumulate to “almost $700,000” at “5% annual growth [sic]”. I calculated that with a 5% annual rate of return, even compounded continuously, the funds accumulate to only about $84,000, not even close: off by a factor of more than 8 times! In fact, it would require a 9% annual rate of return, 80% greater than assumed, compounded continuously, to accumulate $700,000. (It took about 30 seconds to run these numbers.)

This is not a trivial mistake like a proofreading oversight, or a quibble about arcane calculations or analysis. It is a major error, a fundamental misconception, and not incidental to the main point: it has the effect of completely undermining the entire proposal! An average freshman majoring in business at a middling university after about 5 weeks wouldn’t make such an obvious and fundamental error! And yet not only did Ornstein base his proposal on such an embarrassing mistake but apparently NO ONE at the National Journal in an editorial role had the wit to see such a laughably obvious problem with the argument.

I don’t mean to single out Ornstein. I think the point is more about the MSM incompetence and New Class pretensions of intellectual and moral entitlement to rule. We should keep this (admittedly egregious) example in mind whenever we read the standard MSM formulation, as parodied by Mickey Kaus, purporting to support a liberal proposal on supposedly objective, rational well-informed opinion: “growing numbers of experts say that studies show that…blah, blah, blah…”


Note, too, that for Ornstein’s proposal to mean what he thinks it means, the 5% has to be a real rate of return. I am no finance guy, but it was immediately obvious to me that Ornstein’s numbers are ridiculous. If you could turn $3,500 into $700,000 in 60 years at 5%, I wouldn’t be practicing law these days. As Rocky said to his two goldfish, “If you guys could sing and dance, I wouldn’t be doin’ this.” Money, unfortunately, does not sing and dance as hypothesized by Ornstein.

But, as our reader says, this kind of magical thinking on the Left is not unique to Ornstein. On the contrary, an inability to understand the most basic principles of arithmetic constantly dogs liberals. How else did we get Obamacare? Moreover, Ornstein was not alone. Didn’t National Journal have an editor who read the piece and said, “Whoa! $3,500 to $700,000 at 5%? Did you check the math?” Maybe there was no editor, because that is how things are going these days in the “mainstream” media. (We don’t have editors either, but if I write something stupid I will hear about it from Scott. Or Paul or Steve.) More likely there was an editor, but he too was a magical thinker when it comes to arithmetic. This is a big problem on the Left these days, and one of many reasons why you should treat liberal claims of government panaceas with a high degree of skepticism.

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