When is one percent not one percent? When it’s one percentage point.

In an article yesterday, the Associated Press’ Leigh Strope makes an elementary — but critical — mistake.

Writing about prospects for partially privatizing Social Security, which President Bush has indicated will be a priority in his second term, Strope tells us:

A starting point is a plan proposed by a presidential commission in 2001 to divert 2 percent of workers’ payroll taxes into private accounts. The remaining 4.2 percent — and the payroll taxes employers pay — would go into the system, helping fund benefits for current retirees.

Discussing a proposal put forward by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, she makes the same mistake:

Graham’s plan would let workers divert into accounts 4 percent of their payroll taxes and spreads transition costs over 10-15 years.

But it isn’t “2 percent [or 4 percent] of workers’ payroll taxes” — it’s 2 percent of workers’ salaries — or, put another way, 2 percentage points, out of the 12.4 percentage points currently paid into the system (6.2 percent of workers’ paychecks, and an equal contribution from the employer). In fact, those 2 percentage points represent roughly 16 percent of the funds Social Security takes in.

We know people go into journalism because they flunked Math 101. And, as the campaign showed, arithmetic isn’t the AP’s strength. But, on the bright side, there’s still two months before the new Congress is sworn in. Maybe the AP can ask Santa Claus to bring them a calculator for Christmas.

Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.