Friday, February 11, 2005


Did Molly Ivins Plagiarize?

On February 3rd, Jonathan Weisman wrote an article about Social Security reform titled "Participants would forfeit part of accounts' profits" for the Washington Post. Unfortunately, Weisman's conclusions and figures were incorrect and a corrected version of the article appeared in the Washington Post later that day. In the first version Weisman concluded that a person enrolled in President's Bush's private accounts would most likely end up worse off than if they remained in the current system. On February 8th, Molly Ivins also wrote a column about Social Security reform only she used the figures from the incorrect column of Weisman's, came to the same wrong conclusion, and used similar language. No correction has been forthcoming from Ivins. Question: if Ivins made the calculations herself how did she come to the same incorrect conclusion and why did she use the exact same figures that Weisman was forced to go back and correct? Here is an excerpt from Weisman's original column based on the wrong conclusions and using the wrong figures:
If a worker sets aside $1,000 a year for 40 years, and earns 4 percent annually on investments, the account would grow to $99,800 in today's dollars, but the government would keep $78,700 -- or about 80 percent of the account. The remainder, $21,100, would be the worker's.

With a 4.6 percent average gain over inflation, the government keeps more than 70 percent. With the CBO's 3.3 percent rate, the worker is left with nothing but the guaranteed benefit.

And here is an excerpt from the Ivins column where she came to the same incorrect conclusion as Weisman and used the same incorrect figures and even similar language:
If you managed to make 4 percent on your account in which you contributed $1,000 a year from the start of your career, you would have $99,800 by the time you retire, but the government would keep $78,700 of it, about 80 percent. If you only made 3.3 percent, you're left with nothing but the guaranteed benefit, now diminished by inflation indexing.

So not only does Ivins use similar language, but she also uses Weisman's erroneous figures. How can this be unless Ivins plagarized the first Weisman column without knowing a correction had been run. Paul Krugman of the New York Times also used incorrect figures, based on the same wrong conclusions, in one of his past columns and was forced to make a correction on the Atrios blog. Here is what Weisman said in his corrected column:
The original story should have made clear that, under the proposal, workers who opt to invest in the new private accounts would lose a proportionate share of their guaranteed payment from Social Security plus interest. They should be able to recoup those lost benefits through their private accounts, as long as their investments realize a return greater than the 3 percent that the money would have made if it had stayed in the traditional plan.

Weisman goes on to say:
The Post mistakenly reported that the balance of a worker's personal account would be reduced by the worker's total annual contributions, plus 3 percent interest. In fact, the balance in the account would belong to the worker upon retirement, according to White House officials.

"You'll be able to pass along the money that accumulates in your personal account, if you wish, to your children . . . or grandchildren," Bush said in his State of the Union address. "And best of all, the money in the account is yours, and the government can never take it away."

It's just fascinating that Ivins came to the exact same incorrect conclusion as Weisman and ended up using the same incorrect figures.
I think the charge of plagiarism here is too harsh based on what I see. Perhaps Ivins should correct the mistake in a future column, but the charge of plagiarism is unwarranted. If you read Ivin's entire column it is clear she is giving credit left and right throughout. She credits the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the World Trade Organization in the same column, so I think it is clear that she was not trying to steal ideas or writing to pass off as her own.
I've been a fan of Molly Ivins for many years and have two of her books that she autographed for me.
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