Simpson Gaffe Shows Where He’s Coming From

September 9, 2010

Former Senator Alan Simpson, co-chair of the President’s fiscal commission, has taken a lot of heat for comparing Social Security (or maybe all government programs) to “a milk cow with 310 million tits.”

But Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank says he’s right on target. The outrage merely confirms that the simile is “spot on.” It’s proof positive that “special interest groups …, the real sucklings at the public teat,” don’t want the commission to “do its job right,” i.e., recommend spending cuts across the board.

The Post editorial board wants to give Simpson a pass. He should have watched his language. Indeed, he’s apologized. But his fundamental point about Social Security is correct.

Up to a point, the Post editors are right, though I don’t think Milbank is. The e-mail that provoked the controversy says that we’ve got to make Social Security “sustainable and assure long-term solvency.”

I don’t think anyone would quarrel with that. As I earlier wrote, the latest report from the system’s trustees projects a long-term shortfall in the Trust Fund, which holds bonds in which surplus payroll taxes are invested. If nothing changes, there won’t be enough funds to pay full benefits in 2037 or thereafter. Better to do something soon than wait till that happens.

But words matter. And Simpson’s are very telling. They’re not just some momentary lapse in tact. They’re a clue to what someone who may have a lot of influence on the future of Social Security and other social programs is coming from.

Consider first the simile. A cow with 310 million “tits” (one for every American) is a monster — obviously something we must do away with. All those people sucking at them are draining the system of resources. They’re getting something for nothing — sustenance they don’t deserve.

This is certain a novel way to look at an income insurance program — one that beneficiaries have, in essence, paid premiums for to protect themselves and their dependents from destitution if they become disabled and/or when retire, voluntarily or otherwise, at a fairly advanced age.

As Simpson himself acknowledges, this isn’t the first time he’s made “cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree.” (Note that figure of speech again.)

Back in April, he ridiculed the concerns he was hearing as coming from “old cats 70 and 80 years old who are not affected one whiff [sic]. People who live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount.” (Former President Reagan’s Cadillac queens of welfare recycled.)

Which brings us to the other telling part of the e-mail — its blatantly insulting and dismissive treatment of individuals and organizations that have raised concerns about cutting Social Security benefits.

The recipient, who’s Executive Director of OWL (the Older Women’s League), is told she’s one of those people who “babbles into vapors.” Simpson refers her to a chart, if she’s “any good at reading … anything that might challenge [her] biases and prejudices.” She should call him when she gets “honest work.”

Asked about the commission’s prospective work on Social Security, he told a CNBC interviewer, “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 Panthers, the whatever. Those people are lying …. They don’t care a whit about their grandchildren.”

So far as he’s concerned then, everything isn’t on the table, notwithstanding what President Obama said at the commission’s first meeting. He’d staked out his position long before then. “To think you’re entitled to something regardless of your net worth or income is just BS.”

So obviously are, from his perspective, any recommendations that would preserve Social Security for the long term without breaking the contract it’s based on.

And we know what will happen if that contract gets broken. Those “greedy geezers” whose benefits will be drastically cut — or eliminated — because they’re not in dire straits will get on board with a scheme to privatize the system.

I’m betting that would be just fine with the eccentric but nonetheless staunchly conservative former Senator from Wisconsin.


Shelter for Homeless DC Residents

January 15, 2009

This morning’s Washington Post reports that the D.C. government is going to clear all homeless people out of the security zone around the inauguration site.

It will run buses to two of the District’s largest shelters, and all shelters will be open for 24 hours, with warm beverages and food available. The city will also offer free, secure storage for those who want to come back to the center of town but would be hampered by their possessions.

It occurs to me to wonder, Why not always offer homeless people these basic services? They would be better off and so would our entire community.

DC Safety Net Programs Face New Threat

January 6, 2009

An editorial in yesterday’s Washington Post calls on Mayor Fenty and the D.C. City Council to protect safety net programs for the District’s homeless and other poor residents.

The piece focuses on the fate of revenues that will be raised by a just-passed increase in parking meter rates. The Council intended these revenues to restore some of the funds it cut from safety net programs when it re-balanced the budget in November. But the District is now facing a new projected shortfall. So the Post rightly foresees that the Council may use the parking meter revenues to help close the budget gap instead.

As the Post says, a broad-based coalition of D.C. businesses, faith-based groups, nonprofits, labor and advocacy organizations has argued that cutbacks in safety net programs could increase cases of acute hardship and, with them, demands on costly emergency services.

The coalition’s statement of budget principles also points out that investments in programs that serve low-income residents will help jump-start local economic recovery and thus expand economic opportunities for both local businesses and D.C. residents.

The Mayor and City Council would do well to assess the actual costs of further cutbacks and all possible options. Coalition members have offered to partner in this effort. The Mayor and City Council should bring them into the decision-making process.

How We Respond to Poverty

December 10, 2008

Monday’s Washington Post carries an article about how people respond to tragedy. It says that numerous psychological experiments have found that we automatically seek to find the cause. When we can assign responsibility to an individual or group of individuals, “something clicks in our minds that makes the tragedy seem worse than if it had been caused by an act of nature, disease or even human apathy.”

So we tend to minimize the effects of tragedies that don’t have “a sinister agent” behind them. “We think harms of actions are much worse than harms of omission,” even when doing nothing causes much greater harms.

These findings might apply to poverty and policy. Perhaps we, as a society, don’t focus on the extensive harms to victims or remedies for their suffering because we can’t identify a culprit. Politics, yes. Social and economic factors, yes. But not evil-doers we can punish.

Or perhaps it’s because many Americans feel they have identified the culprits–poor people themselves. They don’t want to work. They lack self-discipline. They spend their money on booze and drugs. Etc.

Or maybe it’s that poverty is so complex that we’re baffled in the search for a cause. We know how to alleviate suffering, but not how to prevent it on a large-scale basis. We want a silver bullet and won’t focus our policy agenda on  the tragedies of poverty because we don’t have it.

What do you think?