Debt Commission Chair Alan Simpson Thinks “This Country is Gonna Go to the Bow-wows”

For more than a year, I’ve been joining with a handful of other critics in warning that all our economic woes–the costs of the financial meltdown, and the bank bailout and stimulus spending that followed–would eventually be placed square on the backs of our so-called old-age entitlements: Social Security and Medicare. And lo, it is coming to pass, via President Obama’s euphemistically named National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform–commonly called the Deficit Commission or the Debt Panel.

Despite the names, no one is even trying very hard to pretend that the commission has any purpose other than cutting Social Security, Medicare, and probably Medicaid as well. That choice was clear from the get-go, based on Obama’s choice of Alan Simpson to co-chair the commission. The former Republican senator from Wyoming has already described his mission as “saving” the United States from “insolvency” by hacking away at entitlements. And if we want any more proof, we need only look at Simpson’s background, as detailed by Saul Friedman in his latest “Gray Matters” column:

This time President Obama, in his obsessive reaching across the political aisle, may have gone a stretch too far. For the Republican he picked to co-chair the so-called deficit reduction commission, former Sen. Alan Simpson, has been a harsh critic of Social Security and Medicare. And he sought to destroy their most powerful defenders, especially AARP.

That was 15 years ago, but as recently as 2005, Simpson, a conservative from Wyoming who left the Senate in 1997, supported attempts by President George Bush to privatize Social Security by turning part of the pension and insurance program into millions of individual investment accounts, which by now would have lost 20 percent of their value. Bush’s plan failed, largely because of the opposition of AARP and other advocates that Simpson sought to discredit.

Even now, Simpson, who should know better, conflates or deliberately confuses Social Security’s long term fiscal problems, which are minor, with its supposed contribution to the federal deficit, which is almost nil.

In an interview with the NewsHour after his appointment, Simpson said of Social Security, “You have two choices…you either raise the payroll tax or decrease the benefits or start affluence testing. The rest of it is B.S. And if the people are really ingesting B.S. all day long, their grandchildren will be picking grit with the chickens. This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare.”

Simpson insists that he is keeping an open mind. He told the Wall Street Journal that he didn’t like politicians who “demonized” their opponents: “Instead of saying this guy’s ideas are as goofy as a peach orchard boar, they are saying this guy is as goofy as a peach orchard boar. I won’t demonize people.” But its eminently clear whose ideas Simpson agrees with. In an interview on CNBC, Simpson referred to cutting entitlements as “correcting Social Security.” 

Simpson also told old people and their advocates to stay out of the debate, since the cuts would only apply to younger people.

You remember the last time we corrected Social Security, and people calling me.  Let me tell you, everything that Bush and Clinton or Obama have suggested with regard to Social Security doesn’t affect anyone over 60, and who are the people howling and bitching the most? The people over 60.  This makes no sense.  You’ve got scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever. 

There’s an interesting twist to Simpsons argument. Usually, we geezers are accused of being greedy and selfish for opposing entitlement cuts that would affect us. We’re told we should be willing to give up some of our government handouts for the good of future generation. This time we’re being attacked because we might actually care about the next generation, who won’t even be able to count on the modest social programs we enjoy.

But Simpson himself says he’s doing all this for his grandchildren, according to US News and World Report. (Warning: This quote contains more animal metaphors.)

There are six little people running in and out of my house, called grandchildren, who are absolutely just little lambs led to slaughter. They are totally uncomprehending. They have no idea that when they reach 60—under the present system—they’ll be picking grit with the chickens.

This would be quite noble if not for the fact that Simpson wants to cut his grandkids’ Social Security (presumably because he thinks the debt threatens them even more?) And if not for the fact that there is no crisis looming for the future of Social Security. Any long-term shortfalls in the system could be fixed with a minor adjustment:  raising the ceiling on earnings subject to Social Security taxes, which currently stands at $106,000. Obama himself has suggested this in the past.

More importantly, as Friedman points out.

Social Security’s long term fiscal problem has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Social Security’s role in the deficit. For, as I have emphasized in my column for years, Social Security costs the budget not one cent-aside from the one percent it spends on its thousands of employees and field offices. Indeed, Social Security helps finance the deficit by loaning the treasury money, for which it earns interest (about $700 million a year.) If what’s owed to Social Security must be cut as part of deficit reduction, will that help Social Security?

As for Medicare, the only way to deal with its fiscal problems are through comprehensive health care reform to address the skyrocketing cost of privatized medicine.

The real contributors to dangerously high deficits are health care costs and military spending, along with undertaxing of the rich. This means that what the “debt commission” really ought to be doing is raising taxes on the highest earners, getting us out of two wars, and instituting single-payer health care. But as Alan Simpson might say, that dog won’t hunt.

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10 responses to “Debt Commission Chair Alan Simpson Thinks “This Country is Gonna Go to the Bow-wows”

  1. This is one of the best articles I have ever read about Social Security and Medicare. It is clear and simple, as opposed to all of the unnecessary complicated rhetoric of those who want to control and profit from health care. Congratulations for your ability to affectively debunk the disinformation practitioners lobbying for big business in health care.

  2. I loved Saul’s piece on TGB, too, and hope he gets well soon.

    When I watch Simpson, I get an uneasy feeling that he’s not playing with all his marbles. I keep wondering what my President could possibly be THINKING with this appointment! What function could Simpson serve in this position, with his incoherent ramblings and polarizing rhetoric, other than as an obvious Republican fall guy for both entitlement reform and necessary tax increases? Simpson can’t keep his mouth shut. He’s the clown that sticks his mug through the hole so the citizenry can throw water balloons at him. We’ll pay money to see this.

  3. dale coberly

    i agree with you, but you should add that the tax raise that would “fix” Social Security amounts to an average of 20 cents per week per year while incomes are going up 10 dollars per week per year. The money would be needed to pay for the longer life expectancy of the people paying the tax.

    This is so tiny that no one would notice it. But for some reason the amount is never discussed, while the cumulative shortfall without the tax raise is used to scare people into doing something stupid, like cutting benefits or raising the retirement age.

    There needs to be a focused, and loud, campaign to educate the people. And, frankly, scare the Congress.

  4. Here’s how I know you’re wrong.
    When Simpson was picked everyone at NPR and his co-chair, Erskine Bowles all remarked on just how funny Simpson is, and how much of a pleasure it is to work with him.

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