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FactCheck Mailbag, Week of Nov. 16-Nov. 22

This week, readers sent us comments about economic projections, health insurance premiums and the dollar value of earmarks.

In the FactCheck Mailbag, we feature some of the e-mail we receive. Readers can send comments to editor@factcheck.org. Letters may be edited for length.

Predictions vs. Projections

I am a mathematician, and it really bugs me when people confuse projections with predictions. For example, you write:

Actually, program costs are projected to exceed tax revenues this year and in 2011, according to the 2010 report from the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees. The 2009 report had projected that wouldn’t happen until at least 2016. Tax revenues are predicted to once again exceed program costs in 2012 through 2014 before permanently falling below costs in 2015. ["Sunday Replay," Nov. 15]

You don’t distinguish between them at all. Listen up. Here is a very good projection. If we assume a large asteroid is going to hit DC tomorrow, it is projected that DC will be destroyed. Here is a rotten prediction. DC will be destroyed tomorrow. Get it ?

It is equally bad to quote a projection without talking about the
assumptions on which the projection is based. Most of the time these are nothing more than wild guesses because they depend on future events. For example, the projections of the SSA depend on guessing the average growth in the GDP for the next 75 years. Can you imagine somebody trying to guess this in 1920? Not only would he have to predict the ’29 crash, but WWII and the growth of computers.

Another serious error in your paragraph is that the SSA actually makes THREE projections based on three different sets of assumptions. The one everyone uses is the middle one, but the high one has been consistently more accurate in the past (look it up) and projects little problem with SS for the next 75 years.

Finally you should take some time to see how accurate long term economic projections have been if you ignore their assumptions as you seem happy to do. In 1998, the CBO projected that the federal government would have surpluses for the next ten years. It was a carefully done projection, but the assumptions they used turned out to be all wrong. Furthermore, the projections of the SSA have not even been consistent. Every year they tell us that previous ones are wrong. Why should we ever believe them? Also suppose every year I projected the Redskins would win the Super Bowl NEXT year. What good would that be?

My firm belief is that we would do as well with a good shaman, a goat and a sharp knife.

Len Charlap
Princeton, N.J.

FactCheck.org responds: The CBO uses the word "project" on its website. News organizations have used both "project" and "predict." The Merriam-Webster dictionary sees little difference between the two terms, saying that "project" means "to plan, figure, or estimate for the future," while "predict" means to "foretell on the basis of observation, experience, or scientific reason." An example given is: "The figures and statistics are used for the prediction of future economic trends."


Premium Grade

Thank you for this article ["The Truth About Health Insurance Premiums," Nov. 19]. It is long overdue and I am delighted that FactCheck has done such a thorough job of research with so many references and citations. It will absolutely help me in discussing the effects of "Obamacare" (how I hate that term) with friends and family.

Keep up the good work. I visit you and PolitiFact first each time I log on to the web, to keep up with the lies others say and your critical debunking. I wish you had more staff to do more of this kind of research and posting.

Virginia Klipstein
Glenside, Pa.


Earmark Dollar Value

In your Sunday Replay [Nov. 15] you ably reported numbers of earmarks attributable to both parties.

Now please do it again, but replace the NUMBERS of earmarks with their DOLLAR VALUES, wherein lies their significance.

Or just tell me at what websites such information already exists.

Keep up the (usually) excellent work.

Guy Hathaway
Rhinebeck, N.Y.

FactCheck.org responds: White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod’s claim was about the number of earmarks, not their value. But the groups we mention in the article — Taxpayers for Common Sense, Citizens Against Government Waste and the White House Office of Management and Budget — track both numbers and the cost of earmarks.