Anyone Who Wants to Cut Entitlements Clearly Has No Place on a Commission Devoted to Fiscal Responsibility


At the Columbia Journalism Review, Trudy Lieberman provides further evidence for my conclusion that what really offended Alan Simpson's critics about his comparison between Social Security and "a milk cow with 310 million tits" was his candor. Lieberman says "what's really at stake here" is not Simpson's colorful language but his "long-standing antipathy toward Social Security and Medicare," which "raises the question about why the president appointed him [to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform] in the first place." Here are the comments she cites as evidence of this antipathy:

Shortly after his appointment to the commission, Simpson told the NewsHour that "this country is going to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security, and Medicare." In March, he predicted on CNBC that his commission "will be a bloodbath. You've got to 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." In April, he appeared on Fox News, saying that most of the mail he gets comes from seniors who "live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount," and are not affected "one whiff" by the changes he had in mind for Social Security. And in June, he told Alex Lawson of the advocacy group Social Security Works: "Where do you come up with all the crap you come up with? We're trying to take care of the lesser people in society."

These remarks, while a bit hyperbolic, reflect several important truths:

1. Serious entitlement reform will be necessary to avoid a fiscal crisis.

2. Such reform will require overcoming resistance by the AARP and other defenders of the status quo.

3. Social Security is neither a pension fund nor a means-tested assistance program for poor people; it is a system of transfer payments that takes money from relatively poor workers and gives it to relatively affluent retirees.

Simpson's critics view No. 3 as a feature, not a bug. As Lieberman puts it, they "believe it is the program's social solidarity that has made it so successful." In other words, means testing would make Social Security a welfare program for the truly needy, rather than an entitlement for everyone who hits retirement age, no matter how wealthy they are. That would undermine public support for the program because voters like middle-class entitlements but hate welfare. Transforming Social Security into a true pension program by letting people invest part of what they now see disappear in payroll taxes is likewise anathema to the "social solidarity" crowd, since it lets people go their own way instead of forcing them to participate in the government's Ponzi scheme.

Lieberman apparently thinks anyone who disagrees with this view has no place on a commission aimed at addressing the nation's long-term fiscal problems. In fact, she seems to think that means testing, cutting benefits, and raising the retirement age should all be off the table, since they reflect an unacceptable "antipathy" toward the entitlements that are bankrupting us.