If you work on the pension issue long enough you start to hear complaints that pension data are "out of date." Ross Eisenbrey, a Vice President at the liberal Economic Policy Institute (EPI), recently tossed out this allegation against a report from the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), but the claim is not a new one, nor is it unique to EPI. The same accusation is often flung at the non-partisan Pew Center on the States for their reports tracking state data on pension plan funding levels.
This is a flawed line of argument, and it says something about the pension debate that we even have to discuss it. But, since it continues, let's break it down why it's wrong:
- First, the CEI report cites the U.S. Census Bureau and states, "Due to lags in availability, the most recent data is from 2012." No one is cherry-picking their favorite data here: Eisenbrey and EPI are criticizing analysts using the most recent data from a trusted federal data source. The Census Bureau expects to release the 2013 version sometime this summer, but in the meantime it's factually inaccurate to call the 2012 data "out of date."
- Second, the federal government is not always a paragon of speed, but in this case the timeliness of its data is quite reasonable. The most recent federal data are for Fiscal Year 2012, which ended June 30, 2012. It can take individual states months to release their own reports--for example, it took the California State Teachers' Retirement System six months to release its own report this year. The Census Bureau takes another few months to compile all the state data into one, comparable report.
- Third, the most recent data collected by groups representing large public pension plans comes from Fiscal Year 2012.
- Fourth, even more recent projections have not found that funding conditions have changed materially over the last year. When the Boston College Center for Retirement Research attempted to collect 2013 data in May of 2014 (two months ago), it found that two-thirds of its sample of state and local plans still had not reported updated figures. Even with a partial dataset of the most recent data available from state and local governments, pension plan funding nationwide remained virtually unchanged.
We shouldn't allow this sort of quasi-defamation in our public dialogue. Trying to tarnish someone's work by lobbing "out-of-date" accusations should come with some proof that the researcher selectively chose data that bolstered their case or used data that are so old as to be meaningless. Otherwise, it's just an advocate using any means necessary to discredit data they happen to not like. Obfuscation is a nasty line of defense.