Alan Simpson's stunningly ignorant and arrogant exchange with HuffPo reporter Ryan Grim is making the rounds. In that interview, Simpson steadfastly proclaimed ignorance of Social Security's actual demographic statistics, and then proceeded to dismiss the information as unbelievable. Simpson and the catfood commission have advocated raising the retirement age, with Simpson doggedly repeating the falsehood that people are living longer.
First up, Ezra Klein responds with simple graph.
As co-chairman of the President Obama’s deficit commission, Simpson is one of the guys tasked with figuring out what to do about Social Security, and one of the arguments he’s charged with evaluating is that we should raise the retirement age specifically because people are living so much longer. There's no way for him to make a sound judgment if he lacks a basic familiarity with this data. But it seems that in this conversation with Huffington Post reporter Ryan Grim, Alan Simpson not only didn't know the numbers but was so unfamiliar with them that he refused to believe they were true....
As the graph atop this post shows, the life expectancy increases we’ve seen have not been shared equally; the richer and whiter you are, the more your life expectancy has stretched. So raising the retirement age inflicts a double-blow on lower-income Americans: They already work more physically demanding jobs and die younger than the rich, but now they’re being told to work those jobs longer because people who aren’t them have seen large increases in life expectancy.
He circled back to the story with this, going through point-by-point eight facts about Social Security's demographics, concluding in part:
Most opinion elites — Simpson being one good example, and the U.S. Senate being another — show a very strong preference for working as long as possible. Most Americans show a very strong preference for retiring as early as possible. Elites who enjoy their jobs need to be very careful about generalizing their experience to people who don’t enjoy their jobs. More bluntly: Raising the retirement age is the worst of all possible options for reforming Social Security. It’s not only regressive, but it also falls most heavily on those with the worst jobs. Means-testing would be much better. [See here for the multitude of reasons means testing isn't a solution, either. —ed.]
Kevin Drum piles on:
Simpson is a guy who's taken very seriously on Social Security issues inside the Beltway. He's studied it for years. And yet, as he makes clear later in the interview, he simply had no idea any of this was true. No idea. And he doesn't believe it, even though this stuff is Social Security 101.
This is the kind of thing that explains why so many people think Social Security is some kind of fiscal time bomb. They just flatly don't understand the arithmetic. The plain fact is that Social Security is only modestly underfunded and can be fixed with a basket of quite moderate changes over the next 30 years or so. Anyone who understands the numbers knows this. People like Alan Simpson don't. But guess who gets the most press coverage?
As does Steve Benen:
[W]hen pressed on some of the basics—stuff anyone with a serious interest in these issues would learn on the first day—Simpson’s ignorance is just breathtaking. He’s making sweeping recommendations about the future of programs millions of Americans rely on, and yet, Simpson just doesn’t have his facts straight.
This isn’t some minor error of arithmetic. Simpson is lost on the entry-level details. It’s scandalous, or at least should be.
In some ways, all of these guys are taking it pretty easy on Simpson. He's not just ignorant on the "entry-level details" of Social Security—he's willfully ignorant. All of this information was undoubtedly made both available and very clear to him during the commission meetings and hearings. Simpson is refusing to believe it because he doesn't want to believe it. He's the equivalent of a birther in the realm of Social Security. Social Security Works Alex Lawson exposed that aspect of Simpson last year, and Grim has just reaffirmed it.
What all three of these guys got right about Simpson, though, is that he shouldn't be leading the debate on how to reform Social Security.