The Real Problem With Alan Simpson's Social Security Statements: They Are False

Deficit-commission co-chair Simpson, in the White House Rose Garden. Alex Wong / Getty Images

It was a classic Beltway brouhaha: a former senator sitting on a blue-ribbon panel makes remarks that some view as sexist; he and his opponents fling accusations of bad faith; there are demands for his resignation; he apologizes; and the media move on. But in this case, Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson, who is co-chair of the president's deficit-reduction commission, made comments on actual matters of substance pertaining to Social Security that warrant the sort of scrutiny his ill-advised word choice received.

First, a recap: in April Simpson gave an acerbic television interview in which he assailed defenders of Social Security benefits, which he wants to cut, as "the gray panthers, the pink panthers." If you are not proficient in Old Curmudgeon, that's his way of saying old people and women. So Ashley Carson, the executive director of OWL, an organization for older women, took offense at what she called a "disgusting attempt at ageism and sexism."

Simpson came across Carson's April 27 blog post on The Huffington Post only last week. He dashed off an angry response that, while it didn't create any more derogatory nicknames, was hardly less dismissive. (Simpson repeated his favorite awkward phrase, that Carson is just "babbling into the vapors" instead of proposing solutions.) Liberals called for Simpson's resignation until he issued a vague apology of the "I'm sorry you were offended" variety.

But the debate over whether Simpson is too obnoxious elides the real question. Simpson contended in his letter that there are "people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree," and that Social Security had become "a milk cow with 310 million tits." Are those accurate statements?

No, you cannot "milk" Social Security. People receive a payment from Social Security based on what they paid in. While it's possible that by living to an older age one will draw more in benefits than they put in, this hardly amounts to "milking" it, unless by milking one just means living for a long time. That's a curious resentment for Simpson, who turns 80 on Thursday, to hold. It is unclear how else Simpson might imagine that retirees "milk" Social Security, but it is, as a technical matter, impossible for them to do what public employees are sometimes accused of, which is accruing excessive overtime payments in their final years of service in order to receive a pension based on an inflated salary estimate. As for 310 million calves suckling at the Social Security program's udders all at once, that too is impossible. Simpson was referring to the total population of the U.S., but only current retirees who paid into Social Security receive its benefits.

Simpson's factually challenged assertions spring from an ideological opposition to Social Security's very existence. That's why he says, "To think that you are entitled for something from your government regardless of your net worth or your income is just BS." As a value judgment on whether retirees with enough savings ought not to receive benefits, Simpson's view cannot be measured factually, but it is worth noting that Social Security recipients are hardly the only people who receive "something from your government regardless of your net worth." A good example of some others with such good fortune would be former members of Congress, such as, well, Alan Simpson. As of 2006, the last year for which statistics were available, the average annual pension for a retired member of Congress was $60,972 or $35,952, depending on the retirement program in which they participated. There is no downward adjustment for the many former members who have significant wealth and other sources of income. By comparison, the average Social Security beneficiary gets $13,900 annually. This meager amount is not enough to prevent many of the seniors whom Simpson dismisses as "greedy geezers" from living in poverty.

"These guys [politicians] are somewhat not in touch with the real world," says Richard M. Abrams, a Social Security expert at the University of California, Berkeley. "They live in a somewhat isolated world. They are very wealthy and are not attuned to the needs of working people. Simpson is long out of the days when he has had to earn money from outside the government." Abrams compares Simpson's canard of seniors "milking" Social Security to Ronald Reagan's apocryphal Cadillac-driving welfare queen.

The irony here is that Simpson was chosen precisely for his reputation as an irascible iconoclast of the prelapsarian John McCain variety, in the hopes that he would be willing to make a deal with the Democrats. The current legislators representing the GOP on the commission are not dealmakers. As Ezra Klein noted on Monday, the Democrats on the deficit commission are measurably more moderate than the Republican members, particularly in the Senate. Senate Democrats are represented by the more conservative members of their caucus, such as Kent Conrad and Max Baucus, while Republicans put their most right-wing member, Tom Coburn, on the panel. It remains to be seen whether that will impede the commission from making a compromise that secures our fiscal future through both tax increases and benefit reductions, but Simpson's attitude toward beneficiaries does not suggest that the commission's Republicans are the sort of nonideological dealmakers that the president might have hoped to work with.