Opinion: Alan Simpson’s barnyard perspective on Social Security


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The government can’t bar you from saying things that offend people. But if you happen to be a political appointee of the aforementioned government, it may not be able to continue employing you after you do.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson is being blasted by a spate of liberal groups and lawmakers, senior-citizen lobbyists and lefty columnists, with some even calling for him to step down or be ejected as co-chairman of the White House’s bipartisan deficit commission. Setting aside for a moment that the job is a thankless one to begin with, Simpson got into hot water for sending a tartly worded -- OK, snide -- but truthful e-mail to the head of the Older Women’s League, Ashley Carson. In a Huffington Post piece, Carson had hyperbolically accused the elderly Simpson of being ageist, sexist and insensitive to poverty because of his criticism of those who routinely resist changes in Social Security. Simpson’s e-mail stressed the solvency problems looming in the federal retirement insurance program. But being the sharp-tongued fellow that he is, he couldn’t help throwing in a couple of memorable digs at Carson and Social Security recipients in general:


If you have some better suggestions about how to stabilize Social Security instead of just babbling into the vapors, let me know. And yes, I’ve made some plenty smart cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree. You know ‘em too. It’s the same with any system in America. We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits! Call when you get honest work!

I admire politicians who don’t try to hide their irritation behind a veneer of false comity or humility. And ‘call when you get honest work’ is a great put-down, especially for someone leading an obscure lobbying group. The fact that people are defending Carson’s labors suggests that they believe Simpson lost his right to snap back at critics when he took the co-chairman’s job.

The bigger issues, though, are whether the commission should be looking at Social Security at all, and if so, whether Simpson is predisposed to cut benefits. I think Simpson’s critics are close to right when they argue that Social Security isn’t responsible for the country’s fiscal problems. It’s not, at least not yet. Until 2037 or so, the reserves built up in the Social Security Trust Fund will cover the shortfall between payroll taxes and benefit claims. Of course, the shift from accumulating reserves (a projected $78 billion this year) to spending them will cause the deficit to grow, but the amount is trivial compared with how much we’re already borrowing ($1.34 trillion).

But the long-term problems for Social Security are unmistakable, and the cost to fix them could be huge. Simpson’s point in the e-mail to Carson -- and it’s a mainstream one among budget analysts -- is that the longer you wait to address Social Security’s long-term insolvency, the more of a shock you’ll eventually have to deliver to beneficiaries or taxpayers. And remember, the Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Commission’s mission is not just to come up with a plan to stop the debt from growing in the near term, but also to ‘address the growth of entitlement spending.’ That puts Social Security smack in the middle of the commission’s to-do list.

That leaves the question of whether Simpson belongs on the commission, now that he’s likened Social Security to something other than a sacred national treasure. I won’t try to parse his comment, but it certainly sounds as if he thinks that too many people are benefiting from the program’s safety net. That would betray an inclination to reduce or cut off Social Security payments to the wealthy, not to trim them to the poor, which was Carson’s worry.

Either way, it’s foolish for liberals to want to toss Simpson. He’s one of those rare Republicans who compromise in order to reach consensus on major policy issues. That means he might entertain (gasp!) tax increases along with spending cuts to right the fiscal ship of state, rather than the pure-spending-cut approach favored by the congressional GOP leadership. I doubt that spending cuts can solve the problems on their own, especially considering how big a factor Medicare is. But I’m certain that the commission won’t go anywhere by jettisoning members who know how to find the middle ground.

Simpson apologized Wednesday for being too aggressively clever in his own defense. His open letter to Carson doesn’t apologize for his stance on the problems in the Social Security Trust Fund, though; instead, he says he cares ‘just as deeply’ as she does about strengthening the program. No mention of how he would do so, and there’s the rub.

-- Jon Healey

Upper photo: Alan Simpson. Credit: Reuters / Larry Downing

Lower photo: One of the 310 million potential Social Security recipients. Credit: AP Photo / Seth Perlman