Most people try to be respectful of those around them. They also try to be informed and intelligent about the world. This requires some effort, but most of us consider the rewards to be worth the effort.
Of course some people don’t make the effort. For these people, there is an alternative route to social acceptability: become a deficit hawk.
Former Senator Alan Simpson is the poster child for those who wish to go the alternative route. After a career of freely offending people in the Senate (some may recall him from the Clarence Thomas hearings, when he made a comment about the things he was getting over the transom about Anita Hill), President Obama appointed him to be co-chairman of his deficit commission.
Mr. Simpson apparently thinks it reasonable to send out offensive and sexist notes to his critics, as he did recently with a letter to Ashley Carson, the executive director of the Older Woman’s League. This sort of behavior would get most people quickly dismissed from a position of responsibility, but not a deficit hawk like Alan Simpson. President Obama indicated that he was satisfied with Simpson’s apology and told him to go on with his work.
However Simpson is not just offensive and sexist, he also appears to be profoundly ignorant on the issues that he is supposed to be addressing. He attached a report to Ms. Carson that he seemed to think would be a revelation to her. (I received the same report from Mr. Simpson.) In fact, the report contained no information that would not be widely known by anyone involved in the Social Security debate.
It is not just Senator Simpson who takes advantage of the low standards expected of deficit hawks. Apparently, Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer hopes to follow a similar path to success. He told Matt Bai, a New York Times reporter, that spending on government programs must be brought in line with reality. He included Social Security on his list of programs with costs that are out of line with reality.
He then complained (if Bai presented his views accurately) that programs can’t exist on make-believe money. He urged a change in the Social Security benefit formula that will lead to sharp cuts in benefits in the near future for middle income workers like school teachers and firefighters.
Now if Blumenauer were not a deficit hawk, a New York Times reporter would probably be trashing him for his apparent lack of knowledge of the program. According to the most recent projections from the Social Security trustees the program will be fully funded through the year 2037, with no changes whatsoever. Even after this date it could still pay the overwhelming majority of projected benefits. The changes need to bring the program into balance over its full 75-year planning horizon are no larger than the changes put in place by the Greenspan commission in 1983.
The “make-believe” money is United States government bonds that were purchased with workers’ Social Security taxes. Unless Mr. Blumenauer expects a default on the government’s debt, there is nothing make believe about this asset.
The NYT might also be noting Mr. Blumenauer’s ignorance of the financial situation of the near elderly for whom he wants to cut benefits. This group had just seen much of their wealth destroyed with the collapse of the housing bubble and the plunge in the stock market. Most will be reaching retirement with little other than their Social Security benefits to support them.
While members of Congress suggesting major changes to the country’s most important social program might be expected to know such things, the usual rules don’t apply if you are a deficit hawk. Instead, the NYT gave Mr. Blumenauer a glowing write-up that praised him for his courage and independent thinking.
So, boys and girls; don’t waste your time learning the facts and studying the data. Become a deficit hawk! Pretty soon, you too can be insulting people and making sexist and ignorant comments, and get praised for it. The choice is yours.
Addendum: Representative Blumenauer issued a statement that says he never referred to the Social Security trust fund as "make believe money."