Monday, December 26, 2011

Numeracy - a minuscule problem

If you were reading along in The State this past week and came across this story,* you might have spotted a problem:

   If state lawmakers want to retire, they would have to give up their seat in the Legislature, according to a proposal moving through the state House of Representatives.

   The proposal would end the practice of lawmakers retiring but remaining in office and replacing their $10,400 annual salaries with much larger pension benefits - more than $30,000 a year, in some cases.

   State lawmakers are members of a separate - and much smaller - retirement system than state workers. Because of that, any changes to the General Assembly Retirement System would have little affect on the much larger state pension system’s debt of $13 billion.

   But lawmakers hope the change would send a message of shared sacrifice to the nearly 500,000 workers, retirees and other beneficiaries on the S.C. Retirement System. Come January, state workers in that system will be asked to pay more into the retirement accounts only to potentially receive lower benefits once they retire. ...

     State lawmakers still would benefit from a more generous pension formula.

   State workers calculate their annual pension benefits by multiplying their years of service times their average final salary times 0.0182 percent. State lawmakers multiply their salary and years of service times 0.0482 percent, giving them a higher benefit.

   Meanwhile, the proposal to change the retirement system for state employees calls for them to pay 1 percent more into the system - an increase of $408 a year for the average employee - while changing their pension formula, which could result in a lower benefit for some workers.

   The S.C. State Employees Association has agreed to endorse having state workers pay more into the retirement system, but only if lawmakers give state employees at least a 2 percent raise. Carlton Washington, the association’s executive director, called the current proposal, which lacks that guaranteed raise, “shortsighted.” But he said the offer from lawmakers to change their own retirement system could be a good sign to state employees.

   “If that is put on the table first, then that would send somewhat of a positive message to employees that (lawmakers) are at least interested in a comprehensive review,” Washington said. ...

It's a wonder S.C. state workers weren't already stocking up on canned pet food for their retirement. A pension based on "0.0182 percent" (or even the more generous "0.0482 percent" for legislators) would be very slim pickings indeed -- a factor of 0.000182 times the average of their last five years' earnings times the number of years worked. For someone making $50,000 who worked for 30 years, that would be a grand total of $273 a year. It's a case of mixing decimals and percents - the factor is 0.0182, or 1.82 percent - or $27,300 a year for our hypothetical worker.

It's what happens when a reporter tries to change the factor to a percent or vice versa** and forgets to move the decimal -- but a sharp-eyed copy editor should have caught it.

(For bonus points, you might also have caught the affect/effect error in the third paragraph, especially egregious from a copy-editng standpoint because it's used correctly in the headline.)

*The error has been corrected in the online story. Perhaps it was by an eagle-eyed copy editor when the story was posted. But since the affect/effect error is still there, my bet is on a correction made after the error was pointed out but never acknowledged online - a more common occurrence for this publication. The copy above is from the PDF replica edition.

** Don't ask me how I know this was it. Take this one on faith.

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At 12/26/11, 10:39 AM, Blogger SiouxGeonz said...

Your statement that we need to take how you knew on faith speaks, perhaps, to your certitude that most readers won't really understand the math? (Or, perhaps, you don't either?)

At 12/27/11, 3:52 PM, Blogger Doug said...

That take it on faith is about how I know the error happened - just didn't want to get into some conversations I've had :)

The math jumped out at me the minute I read it.



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