Milk Cow Blues: Why the Alan Simpson Flap Won't Go Away
August 26, 2010 - 2:00pm ET
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Alan Simpson said he's sorry, but it's not enough. The calls for his resignation will continue - and not because of "political correctness" or his use of the word "tit," has his apologists suggest. They'll continue because he's uninformed about Social Security, ideologically biased, and temperamentally unfit for his position. They'll also continue because people rightly see his Deficit Commission as stacked with people hostile to Social Security and intent on cutting it, despite the fact that it doesn't contribute to the deficit.
The White House says that Simpson will "continue to serve," but that won't end the controversy. Simpson's behavior has demonstrated his unsuitability for the position. But no matter what happens to Simpson, his behavior has cast a spotlight on the flaws in the Commission's composition and approach. Social Security shouldn't be part of the Commission's mandate. What's more, the public wasn't given a chance to review the Commissioners for either their opinions or their character.The reaction to Simpson's comments underscores the problems with letting an unelected body decide the fate of a program so vital to Americans behind closed doors.
Commentators like Joe Wiesenthal get it exactly wrong when they say that the problem is "political correctness." Even if you disregard the "tit" comments, and Simpson's habit of showering abuse on critics (in what's supposed to be a "consensus-building" role), the fact remains that Simpson entered this position with a long history of hostility toward Social Security and its recipients. His characterization of the program as a "milk cow with 310 million tits" - one for every American citizen - isn't just crude. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the program.
It's hard not to be impressed by the science-fiction weirdness of that "giant milk cow" image, which seems like a mashup of "The Matrix" and "Babe." But even the fact that he spews abuse like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" is less of a problem than his biases and lack of comprehension. Americans who receive Social Security aren't helpless calves suckling at the teats of an "entitlement program." They're the people who funded that program, paying into it throughout their working lives. But then, the man who once referred to retired Americans as "greedy geezers" can't be expected to understand that.
Simpson's Democratic co-chair, Erskine Bowles, has an equally long history of antipathy toward Social Security. When Bowles served in the Clinton White House, he notoriously cut a deal with Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security - a deal that was only shortcircuited by the Lewinsky scandal. Commission members like Alice Rivlin have also voiced their negative feelings about the program, couching them in arguments that don't hold water.
The Commission's mandate to address Social Security has always seemed like an afterthought at best, anyway. The Executive Order creating the Commission calls on it to "propose recommendations designed to balance the budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, by 2015." It is only toward the very end of a paragraph-long mission statement that we find these words: "In addition, the Commission shall propose recommendations that meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending ..."
Yet Social Security appears to be an obsession with Simpson and many of his colleagues. We've heard very little public discussion of the Commission's primary mandate to balance the budget. Maybe that's because reports indicate that Republicans members of the closed-door panel are refusing to consider tax increases - an essential part of any balanced budget - while special interest members like military contractors would rather freeze military pay than eliminate waste in Pentagon spending. Whatever the reasons, a panel designed to balance the budget has been showing an obsession with cutting seniors' benefits instead.
One of the reasons for that is that, as Mr. Simpson has made clear, he and some of his fellows would rather welsh on the money they borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund than make any really tough decisions. Articles like Matt Bai's in the New York Times dutifully recirculate the false notion - now being presented as a Washington truism - that the money the government borrowed for military spending and tax cuts is nothing but an "i.o.u." Economist Dean Baker has deconstructed that idea. What's more, Bai's description of "mountains" of new debt is nonsense. Market conditions make this an ideal time to transfer that debt, if necessary.
Bai also wildly mischaracterizes the Commission's critics when he says that they "pre-emptively oppose the panel's findings." That's exactly backwards: Comments by Mr. Simpson and other panel members have made it clear that, when it comes to Social Security, it is the panel that's "pre-emptively" decided what it wants to do. No arguments, no matter how cogent or well-framed, will sway them from their intention to cut the program. Attempts to mind-read Simpson, which in the case of an LA Times commentary include speculation that he's inclined to limit payments to the "wealthy," are very probably off the mark. There aren't enough "wealthy" people receiving benefits to make a difference, since benefits are capped, so any such reductions would have to reach well into the middle class to make a difference.
Here's a far more likely scenario: The Commission won't pass the easiest adjustment to Social Security's long-term finances recommended by experts, which is to raise the $106,000 cap on payroll taxes. The conservatives on the panel won't allow it because it might be an inconvenience for the well-do-to. What's more, Washington folklore demands a show of "discipline" in government spending. Knowing that, it's likely that the Commission "pre-emptively" decided break a covenant with the American workers and employers who fund the program by keeping the money they borrowed. That would amount to a massive regressive tax on the American middle class to pay for runaway spending in other areas. Comments by Simpson and a number of his colleagues indicate they made their minds up on this point before the Commission was even formed.
Simpson's arguments have always lacked internal coherence. He has insisted - to Ashley Carson, Alex Lawson, and others - that he's really try to "save" Social Security from insolvency. But it's not insolvent. And if he's saying that his goal is to restore the program to long-term internal balance, that mission is completely distinct from the Commission's. Raising the retirement age to 70, for example, equates to a 15% benefit cut. So, are Simpson (and Bowles, and Rivlin, etc.) saying they want to "save" a program from having to cut benefits 25% in 2037 (which are the current projections) by cutting it 15% now? That's not "saving" anything.
Simpson can't remain on the Commission. If he were a Hollywood celebrity, his publicists would tell him to go into rehab for anger management and all would soon be forgiven. But he's not an entertainer (although he can be entertaining.) He's supposed to be a leader. His failures of temperament make him unsuitable for any role on the Deficit Commission, whether or not it addresses Social Security. There are likable aspects to Simpson's personality, but his long-standing failures of judgment and character have finally caught up with him. That's why an increasing number of organizations, Senators, and representatives are calling for his dismissal.
But even if Simpson can't be saved, some good can still come from this. He has done the country a service by being more candid than some of his colleagues. His latest outburst can serve as a teaching moment, both for the public and for the leadership in Washington. It was a bad idea to wrap Social Security into the Deficit Commission's mandate. A program which serves as a lifeline for millions of Americans should not be entrusted to an unelected group meeting behind closed doors. The hard decisions should be made in the open, through the legislative process, not through the secret deliberations of individuals who appear to have made up their minds in advance.
And we'll keep saying that until the cows come home.
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