Inexpert Experts

Everybody thinks Social Security is going to go bust eventually unless we do something to fix it. So why aren't we doing anything about it now?

One reason may be that policymakers keep changing their minds about the extent of the problem. But a bigger reason could be that Americans don't trust the news media or some of the people called upon by Congress to testify about the issue, says Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.

Moreover, the media neglect the news sources considered most reliable by the public, creating a credibility gap that stalls Social Security reform and feeds public mistrust of government and the press, argue Jacobs and his research colleagues, Robert Y. Shapiro of Columbia University and Ronald Hinckley of Research/Strategy/Management Inc., a research and polling firm located in Sterling.

To determine whom the public finds credible, the researchers conducted a national survey of 1,501 randomly selected adults last September. They developed a list of 44 kinds of groups and individuals, and then asked respondents to rate the credibility of each on the issue of Social Security. The categories included elected and appointed government officials, business and labor leaders, entertainers and "ordinary citizens."

The sources considered most credible by those interviewed were nationally recognized experts on Social Security, leaders of national associations representing the retired or the elderly, top Social Security administrators and the secretary of Health and Human Services. The president, members of Congress and Cabinet members also ranked high.

At the bottom of the list: television and radio talk-show hosts, TV network anchors, nationally syndicated columnists, business executives and reporters for major newspapers and magazines.

The researchers then analyzed stories on Social Security that appeared in January and February in The Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today or on CNN to determine whom reporters had quoted. They also compiled a list of who testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, a key committee on Social Security legislation.

The media's lack of credibility appeared to be a result of the increasing tendency of journalists to act as commentators, rather than as providers of information, the researchers said. "Media outlets reporting on Social Security overemphasize the interpretations of their own journalists, who Americans do not find especially believable," they wrote. At the same time, representatives of seniors organizations and nationally recognized experts on Social Security were quoted infrequently.

Lawmakers didn't do much better in choosing witnesses to testify. "Legislators in 1999 have put a high priority on . . . political activists with clear ideological agendas and representatives of business at a time when Americans do not regard these sources as especially credible," they wrote.

The consequences of this credibility gap are clear, Shapiro argues: Lack of interest in policy debates and mistrust of the political process. "Frankly, Americans are so turned off from politics that credible sources who are clearly not pawns are more important now than in the past--these sources offer an increasingly rare means for enticing the public to take policy debates seriously," he said.

The Price We'll Pay

Here's something else everybody knows: Too many Americans are being gunned down each year. In 1996 alone, 14,037 people were killed and another 70,000 were wounded in gun assaults. But how much would we be willing to pay in additional taxes to reduce firearms injuries by 30 percent?

About $23.8 billion, estimate professors Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University and Philip J. Cook of Duke University.

In a study they conducted, the two researchers asked a random sample of 1,204 adults in 1998 if they would support a publicly financed program to reduce gun injuries. Then respondents were given specific dollar amounts and asked if they would favor such a program if it meant paying that much in extra taxes.

Three in four said they'd pay $50 in extra taxes for such a law, and two in three said they would pay $100. Nearly four in 10 were willing to pay $400 more, Ludwig and Cook claim in a paper prepared for Harvard's National Bureau of Economic Research.

They say other "willingness to pay" studies--or WTPs, as they're called in the economic forecasting biz--have proven to be surprisingly accurate. But they caution that voters' actual tolerance of additional taxes could change, depending on the specifics of any program adopted to cut gun injuries.

RESEARCH NOTES

NO CLONES ALLOWED

One of me is quite enough of me, or so we think. A recent Washington Post survey found that 95 percent of those interviewed said they wouldn't want to be cloned. Men (7 percent) were more likely than women (2 percent) to say they'd like to be cloned. Nearly nine in 10 people said humans shouldn't be cloned, and slightly more than half disapproved of cloning animals.

EQUITY BREEDS SUCCESS

Forget the gap between the rich and the poor. The distance that may really matter is between the obscenely rich and the merely wealthy--at least in baseball. Matt Bloom, an assistant professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, examined the pay structures of major league baseball teams between 1985 and 1993. He found that the teams that fared the worst in the standings were those that had the largest pay disparity between their well-paid stars and the rest of the team. In a recent issue of the Academy of Management Journal, Bloom suggests that too great a difference between the stars and regular players produces "negative reactions, such as withholding effort" and other counterproductive behaviors.

You can reach The Unconventional Wiz at: morinr@washpost.com