Putting It All on the Table

Senator Alan K. Simpson interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba and Justin Fowler

Former US Senator Alan K. Simpson spent nearly two decades in Washington as the city’s reigning Republican hellraiser. Over the course of his service in the Senate Simpson served as Chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee and the Committee on Aging, among other duties. More recently, he was appointed by President Obama as co-chair of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform where he and Erskine Bowles produced a controversial plan outlining a path to reduce American debt and help lift the country out of its fiscal crisis. No holds barred, Simpson is more than happy to point the finger at those he believes to be standing in the way of an honest discussion about the country’s spending habits.


Justin Fowler: Commentators such as David Brooks have suggested that since approximately seven dollars is spent on the elderly for every dollar spent on children, seniors might have to make serious sacrifices in order to lead a spending cut revolution.  Do you think seniors have a disproportionate share of power in the US and that they may have to sacrifice for coming generations or is this argument misdirected?

Alan Simpson: Well, seniors are organized. Young people don’t have anything in their bag of tricks like the AARP [formerly the American Association of Retired Persons].  The AARP is monolithic and interested in marketing. They’re not interested in young people. Their magazine now has articles about sex for the over 50, 60, and 70s set.  If they cared about their grandchildren they would do something to restore Social Security. If you can’t raise the retirement age to 68 in the year 2050 to solve that, then who are they? Who do they care about? I don’t know.

JF: We are seeing comparable developments in China where an aging population is threatening to stunt the growth of that country’s middle class. If you take seriously the suggestion that programs like Medicare were implemented less to benefit seniors and more to relieve young adults from bearing the burden of supporting their older parents, then might cuts in these programs have a dramatic impact on working age adults in the middle class in this country?

AS I don’t know what China is doing except that they own 1/4th of our fourteen trillion three hundred billion dollar debt and they are going to watch us not do anything as long as the AARP carries the day and we don’t get anything done. The differences between the young and old are clear. The young are unorganized and now many of them don’t care and don’t know anything about their government. Don’t forget what Jefferson said: ‘And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter’. Young people must be able to receive the news and they must be capable of reading it. If you ask most young people to locate Central America, half of them answer Kansas. You know it’s funny but it isn’t funny. Go look at these schools.  I don’t know how you help people who have no knowledge.  And then they will say things like, ‘I don’t think I’ll get anything out of Social Security. I won’t buy it. I’m not expecting it’. When you continue to put 6.2 percent of your salary into a system in which you have no faith, then you really should be focusing on protecting that investment.

JF: For groups like the Tea Party that wish to slash government spending it seems surprising that areas such as defense spending, Medicare, and Social Security are often removed from the negotiating table. Do you think there can be any serious talk about balancing the budget without including these big ticket items?

AS: Well, that is impossible. Social security is dealt with on the basis of its own solvency. We’re not balancing the budget of the United States off the backs of poor, old Social Security recipients and Social Security is not the basis of this huge debt and deficit. In any event, we should correct Social Security for its own sake. And that’s what we tried to do with the commission [National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform]. But everybody seems to get confused about that and thinks that somehow we’re going to lay into the poor, old seniors; if they don’t do anything where will they be? In the trustees’ last report they moved up the date when the system will collapse. In about 2036, when you waddle up to the window, you’ll get a Social Security check for 23 percent less. Just a year ago that figure was 2037 and that check would be 22 percent less. All of that is happening in a year. Now if somebody can’t figure out what to do with a system that is headed for that, well, drinks are on me.

Jeffrey Inaba: What do you think are the ways to address Social Security problems so that by 2036 it doesn’t go bust?

AS: Just read our report – 67 pages. It’s very clear. We outline very specifically how to do it. We raise the amount of wages that are subject to Social Security taxation. We take care of the 20 percent of those who are in poverty by providing benefits at 120 percent of the poverty level. We add a little bonus at the top for when the old are 80-85 and we take care of the hardship cases who cannot work or who use themselves up in hard work. We raise the retirement age to 68 in the year 2050. You do all those things and you get there. It’s all there on www.fiscalcommission.gov and it talks about going broke and shared sacrifice.  You cannot get there by spending cuts alone and you cannot get there by taxing alone. If you can’t do that with Medicare and Medicaid, and defense, and the solvency of Social Security we will not get there period.

JI: Apart from the mechanisms of getting there, what do you think is crucial in terms of mobilizing particular demographics to support these policy changes? Should the priority be to mobilize the current crop of seniors or raise awareness with younger people who are going to witness the consequences very soon?

AS: It’s easy; you just go out there on the road. You don’t need a PowerPoint or the GDP figures. You just say, ‘if you spend more than you earn, you will lose your butt’. If you spend a dollar and borrow 41 cents you’ve got to be stupid. And that is where we are right now.  A few months ago, it was 40 cents. Today when you spent a buck you borrow 41 cents. If you did that at home you would be an idiot. And it’s idiotic for a government to do it. You can’t blame it on one party or the other.

JF: Some of these difficulties seem to be compounded by how self-actualization ideals pursued by the Baby Boomer generation have evolved into an environment in which self-esteem is celebrated.  Paradoxically enough, in the wake of the market downturn, Boomers’ highly individualized retirement plans are being compromised not only by their diminished stock portfolios, but also because they are increasingly having to support the adult children they sent out into the world unmoored to any sense of fiscal responsibility in the face of risk.  What do you think are the broader implications of this culture of near-sighted individualism?

AS: I don’t know. Eventually people sober up. You can’t be dancing in the streets with gowns of flowers. At some point you have got to produce. You’ve got to save. You’ve got to think of your children and guide them, but once you have 10,000 people a day reaching 65 you have to address the Social Security system. When I was a freshman at university in 1950 there were sixteen people paying into the system and one person taking out and ten years later there were ten people paying in and one taking out. Today there are three people paying in and one taking out. Whatever you stick in there today I get next month. There is no ‘black box’ into which your money goes for safekeeping. That is absurd. It is called math. How long do you think our society will be able to afford to support each senior – regardless of net worth or income – to the tune of $24,000 per year? Doesn’t sound pretty smart, does it?

JF: So much of the discussion about aging is driven by talk of impending crisis. There’s a healthcare ‘crisis’, there’s a social security ‘crisis’, etc., but there are also other structural issues at play that concern attitudes both by and about the aging. There are many older people who want and perhaps need to work longer. How do you think the country’s aging population can be reengaged as a productive force?

AS: If a lot of people want to work longer this is great. I happen to be 79 years old and I know many of my pals who have said they were going to retire at 65; they are all dead. Now that is what happens when you want to drop out and watch crap on television or just sit. There’s a reason why one American weighs more than the other two.

JF: Having had a long career in the Senate, you now have something of the luxury of being an informed outsider. Does such a position make it easier for you to really push this agenda and get past the bullshit so to speak? Or is this something you would’ve pushed ahead with as a young man?

AS: Well, I’m kind of inoculated against bullshit and hypocrisy. That’s a tough way to live all your life. But that’s me. I was the person in the Senate who held a hearing on the AARP. They were furious. I wanted to find out why these 17 million bucks were spent on rent and why so many people on their staff make over 150 thousand a year, etc. People don’t know what the group stands for or they just know that they are the guys that give you an insurance discount and discounts on this and that. The hearings nearly got me killed. Go look at my record for the 18 years I was in the legislature. I talked about deficit, I talked about debt and I talked about bullshit and hypocrisy since the beginning.

JI: What’s interesting about your position in the Senate all along has been the idea of protecting personal rights, yet at the same time unlike most Republicans today you also see the importance of government support when necessary. How do you see your views with respect to Republican policy makers today?

AS: Stay away from the hot button issues socially and you win. We won Governorships in Virginia and New Jersey a couple of years ago. And guess what? They never talked about social issues. You can win elections that way. You can’t give your fellow Republicans a survival test of purity or you’re going to lose.

JI: Young people who are unaware of the challenges to the Social Security system are certainly unaware of the issues of growing old. What things would you recommend to them?

AS: Read a little history. We forget too much. This is an amazing country. We forget who we are. Look at what we have had to deal with: slavery and child labor and robber barons and we came through it all. We do succeed.  But this 24/7 news cycle is impossible. Young people are terrific. I have beautiful grandchildren who are wonderful.  I’ve taught bright young people at universities, but they have got to get involved. They are cynical. You can’t blame them. They think that Congress people don’t do anything. Get in the game; write your Congressman, raise hell and piss people off.











National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform