Michael Hiltzik: Get this man away from Social Security

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The man is Alan Simpson, the former GOP Senator from Wyoming who has utterly disqualified himself from having any voice whatsoever in a proposal for the future of Social Security. Unfortunately, he’s the co-chairman of a presidential commission charged with making recommendations on just that topic, among others.

As my Wednesday column reports, this panel, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, has progressives and other supporters of Social Security freaked out. Their fear is that it has been set up as a stalking horse to give President Obama cover to make cuts in the program so he can extract other fiscal concessions from conservatives -- people like Sharron Angle, the anti-Social Security GOP candidate running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

I think the jury is out on that, to say the least. Public opposition helped disembowel George W. Bush’s attempt to ‘privatize’ Social Security, and if the memory of those days isn’t exactly fresh, the program’s advocates will make sure to remind voters about it if the current Administration tries anything damaging.

Back to Simpson. His eight-minute rant about Social Security is the most conspicuously gauche and empty-headed presentation about the program I’ve ever heard, and I once attended a daylong symposium on the subject at the libertarian Cato Institute. Actually, I’m doing an injustice to Cato here -- its speakers were candid about their philosophical distaste for the program, and in those terms their presentations had intellectual integrity.


Simpson, by contrast, is the embodiment of cocksure ignorance. He’s wrong about how Social Security is financed, wrong about the nature of the Social Security trust fund, wrong about the precepts and expectations of its drafters, wrong about its history. He should join Gen. McChrystal on the ash heap of bad appointments by President Obama, and be ejected from this commission before he destroys all expectations that it will take a careful approach to addressing the federal deficit, which is its principal task.

And let’s not forget what makes Social Security worth saving from its ‘fixers.’ It has served generations of Americans efficiently, effectively and without scandal. Why would we want to let Alan Simpson anywhere near it?

The column starts below.

Social Security’s curse is that its amazing simplicity from the standpoint of its beneficiaries — those checks keep coming regardless of the state of the economy or the federal budget — masks the complexity of its inner workings. This is what allows the program’s antagonists to disguise their efforts to destroy it as merely minor tweaks — requiring from the rest of us never-ending vigilance. That’s because some seemingly “minor” fixes can have consequences great enough to wreck the entire edifice, the way a tiny water leak can eat away a foundation and bring down a house. Every national election seems to feature conservatives weeping crocodile tears over Social Security’s supposed fiscal plight. The latest example is Sharron Angle, the Tea Party/GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate in Nevada. During an appearance on Fox News Channel a few days after her primary victory, she was thrown the following softball question by a host: “Some have said you are out to get rid of Social Security. That’s not true, right?” She replied, “Well, that’s nonsense.”Leave aside that her own website calls for Social Security to be “transitioned out” in favor of “free market alternatives.” And that in her answer on Fox, she said, “What we need to do is personalize Social Security.”

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik