Retired Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, who inherited a soft-cushion career in politics from his father, is a garrulous old crank who at 79 seems desperate for attention. Simpson likes to pop off provocatively. He cannot resist mocking lesser mortals like Social Security recipients with meanspirited ridicule. Simpson is an always quotable darling of Washington reporters, who mistake his nastiness for straight talk, who are too lazy to check out his ugly distortions.
Simpson should have been turned out to pasture years ago, but instead he was give a teaching post at Harvard and Barack Obama made him co-chair of the President’s bipartisan commission on reducing the federal deficits. Every savvy player in the capital knows what the president has in mind—whack Social Security benefits to lure Republicans into a grand deal on raising taxes. As I have written more than once, when Washington talks up bipartisan compromise it usually means the people are about to get screwed.
That train is rolling down the tracks now, but don’t expect major media coverage to alert the populace. The prestige newspapers are on board for this deal and Obama’s commission won’t reveal its recommendations until right after the election. Too late for folks to make a stink.
Senator Trash Mouth keeps messing up the plan, however, by provoking outrage with his tasteless zingers. Most recently, Simpson compared Social Security—the federal government’s most beloved program—to "a milk cow with 310 million tits." Instead of yuks, the senator got angry blowback—Congressional demands that he resign or be fired by the president. Important liberal groups like the AFL-CIO joined the chorus of complaints. Simpson apologized, the Prez stood by him. Personally, I hope Simpson stays on the commission and continues to speak out. He’s doing more harm than good for Obama’s sleight-of-hand politics.
Anyway, Alan Simpson is not nearly as bad as some political reporters at the New York Times and other leading newspapers who dutifully repeat the establishment’s falsehoods and distortions about Social Security. Some reporters probably know better but lack the nerve to write dissenting versions. Many reporters are simply ignorant but loyal to their sources. Social Security, as Nation writers have explained many times, does not contribute a penny to federal deficits and it never will, according to the terms of the law. The opposite is the case.
On the same page the Times reported Simpson’s latest gaffe, political reporter Matt Bai contributed a far more outrageous falsehood of his own. In condescending style, he dismissed opponents to Social Security cuts (dimwits like me) as stuck-in-the-past liberals, trying to defend big government against harsh reality. Bai celebrated the courage of Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, a Democrat who evidently embraces the same view. Bai did not mention the people and public opinion overwhelmingly opposed to benefit cuts (check the polls if you doubt this). Someone should ask Congressman Blumenauer’s constituents how they feel about his brave stance.
Bai’s great falsification was to insinuate that the Social Security’s trust fund is bogus—that the massive surpluses collected from working people to pay for their future retirements are meaningless. Social Security, he acknowledged, has amassed a pile of Treasury bonds—IOUs from the government—but he says as a practical matter that money can’t be paid back because taxes would have to be raised or more funds borrowed elsewhere. "This is sort of like saying that you’re rich because your friend has promised to give you 10 million bucks just as soon as he wins the lottery," Bai explains.
His comparison is a clever but consequential lie, consistent with the elite propaganda. Bai makes it sound like the government is going to give this money to retirees. In fact, it’s the other way around. Social Security collected this money from workers as their involuntary savings, better known as FICA deductions. Then the federal government borrowed the money from us and spent it on other things. Congress raised the FICA deductions twenty-five years ago on all working people to pay for the baby boom generation’s copming retirements. The Social Security trust fund has since built up massive surpluses–$2.5 trillion now and growing to $4.2 trillion in 2023—and set it aside for the future. But starting with Ronald Reagan, the federal government ran massive deficits on its own budgets and borrowed the savings from Social Security to pay for wars and military buildups, regressive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, among other things.
This vast wealth belongs to the working people who paid it—not to the federal government or Congress. Naturally, many politicians would like to get out of paying it back, but that constitutes a massive bait-and-switch swindle of working people. Bai and many other reporters of the mainstream media have been assured by their sources it is impossible to pay back that money, but that is a political choice, not a fiscal requirement. It would make working people pay for Republican gravy that went to someone else.
Another way to understand the swindle is to think of working Americans as the US government’s largest creditor, even larger than China. The IOUs belittled by Bai represent the "full, faith and credit" of the US government as surely as the Treasury bonds held by China and other foreign creditors. What Obama’s deficit commission is talking about is arranging a sly partial default with the hope the people won’t figure it out.
Someone should write a letter of complaint to the Times ombudsman (better still, a thousand letters). Given the facts, why has the Times never reported the full story of Social Security’s trillions and its true relationship to the federal deficits? For that matter, why not assign an unbiased reporter to examine what the public thinks? The public opinion polls are shockingly one-sided on this matter.
Meanwhile, if people want to get nasty in return, they might direct some tart reform suggestions to Senator Simpson and his commission colleagues. In the interest of fairness, for instance, why not cut Simpson’s government pension benefits as much or more than they intend to cut Social Security benefits? After all, he can afford it. And Simpson likes to talk about his new knee—recently replaced with a $70,000 operation. Did he pay for his new knee or did the taxpayers? It would be fun to find out.