A video of retired Sen. Alan Simpson's foulmouthed rant toward activist Alex Lawson is making the Internet rounds, as well it should: The sheer audacity and rudeness of the guy makes this clip "must-see TV." It's a political bloopers reel (it can be seen at the bottom of this post).
But, while Simpson's outrageousness makes the video entertaining, here's what makes it important: Alan Simpson is one of two chairs of a bipartisan commission created by President Obama to study the Federal deficit. His comments reveal a number of very important things about his biases, his tendency to distort and mislead, and his ideological extremism. These traits are likely to taint the Commission's work - work which has great implications for the future.
Simpson is the former Republican Senator from Wyoming, but those who hope that Simpson's biases will be offset by his Democratic counterpart are probably in for a big disappointment. As Robert Kuttner reports, Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles was finalizing a deal with New Gingrich to cut Social Security when the Monica Lewinsky scandal derailed their agreement.
Alan's one of the Wyoming Simpsons, although on this video he sounds more like one of the Springfield Simpsons. (D'oh!) Here's what his comments reveal, besides an irascible personality: That he wants to create a sense of crisis around Social Security, that raiding Social Security to pay for other government expenditures is perfectly fine with him ... even though he's supposedly a "small government" conservative, that he's entered an Orwellian world where cutting Social Security isn't really "cutting" it, and that he'll use absurd rhetorical games to defend his position. Jane Hamsher has the whole transcript, but here are the highlights.
The Shock Doctrine Without the Shock
Naomi Klein described the "shock doctrine," where conservatives use a crisis to force unpopular ideas on the public. There is no crisis where Social Security's concerned, but Simpson and other Commission members want us to think there is. That explains exchanges like this:
SIMPSON (regarding Social Security): It'll go broke in 2037.
LAWSON: What do you mean by 'broke'? Do you mean the surplus will go out and then it will only be able to pay 75% of its benefits?
SIMPSON: Just listen to me instead of babbling ...
Simpson then goes on to affirm Lawson's statement (without apology, of course.) But he resumes the fearmongering a minute later:
SIMPSON: ... There is not enough in the system by the month ... to pay out what comes in. In other words there is more going out than coming in. That happened 3 or 4 weeks ago.
And, a few minutes later:
LAWSON: ... Social Security is separate, though, from the general budget, right? It's totally in the green.
SIMPSON: But it wasn't. Just four weeks ago, there wasn't as much coming in as going out.
LAWSON: Except you're not calculating the interest paid on the bonds, because, if you do include that, it's still in the green this year.
SIMPSON: Well you can go through all the sophistry of babbling that you want to.
LAWSON: It's not sophistry. It's just what the SSA says. So I'm just going on the numbers.
Alex is absolutely right, and Simpson's the one engaging in sophistry (if by "sophistry" you mean, to use Simpson's word, "bulls**t.") If the interest is paid as agreed on those bonds, Social Security is still in the black. And if the government pays back what's it has taken out of the Social Security coffers, benefits can be paid in full until at least 2037. But about that borrowed money ...
Big Government Alan
It's fascinating to watch Simpson suddenly defend big government expenditures, even when (make that only when) people's own insurance payments - money they've paid to cover their retirement is borrowed and then left unpaid:
LAWSON: ... (W)hat about the $180 billion in surplus that (Social Security) brings in every year?
SIMPSON: There is no surplus in there. It's a bunch of IOUs.
LAWSON: That's what I wanted to actually get at.
SIMPSON: Listen. Listen. It's 2.5 trillion bucks in IOUs which have been used to build the interstate highway system and all of the things people have enjoyed since it has been setup.
LAWSON: Two wars, tax cuts for the wealthy.
SIMPSON: Whatever, whatever. You pick your crap and I'll pick the real stuff. It has to do with the highway system, it was to run America. And those are IOUs in there. And now there is not enough coming in every month ...
Simpson's capable of mustering an eloquent defense of government spending when it suits his argument (although he opposes it when it's actually being proposed). And welching on an IOU sounds just fine to him, too.
We didn't cut your benefits! Now be quiet and eat your cat food!
SIMPSON: In the year 2037, instead of getting 100% of your check, you are going to get about 75% of your check. That's if you touch nothing. If you like that, fine. You'll be picking with the chickens yourself when you're 65.
So we want to take care, we're not cutting, we're not balancing the budget on the backs of senior citizens. That's bullshit. So you've got that one down. So as long as you've got those two things down, you can't play with anymore, that we're not balancing the budget of the United States on the backs of poor old seniors and we're not cutting anything, we're stabilizing the system.
LAWSON: Thanks for being so frank. My question is: raising the retirement age, is actually an across-the-board benefit cut?
SIMPSON: There are 15 different options being discussed in here today, and why nail one of them...[inaudible]... if you would like to get one of them that pisses your people off.
LAWSON: Alice Rivlin was just on CNBC saying that that was one of the favorite methods.
SIMPSON: There are 15 of them in there.
I like the folksy "cutting with the chickens" line (although I don't know what the hell it means.) But this is the thinking: "we're not cutting , we're stabilizing." Expect to hear the word "stabilizing" used to mean "cutting" many times in the month to come - and expect your Social Security to be "stabilized" when it's time for you to retire if this ideology prevails.
Run that by me one more time?
Simpson asserts that Social Security wasn't originally intended to pay for people so far into retirement because life expectancy was low in 1935, when SSI was created. That's true ... but the program's been modified since then to adjust for increased life expectancy. That leads to this whopper:
LAWSON: ---(I)t's my understanding from actually looking at the 1983 commission (which revamped Social Security), they actually started prefunding the retirement of the baby boom by building up that huge surplus.
SIMPSON: They never knew there was a baby boom in '83.
Really? They didn't there was a baby boom ... in 1983?? They didn't know how many babies had been born in the years 1948-1964? Here's the real reason Alan Simpson says outrageously false things like that:
Read my lips: We're cutting your benefits so that we don't have to pay new taxes!
Here's the bottom line. Simpson doesn't want to force the government to pay those bonds back, because it will probably require new taxes to pay for them. The Commission's likely to recommend some new taxes, but the Simpson crowd wants those increases to be a small as possible. Here's an example of that ideology in action:
LAWSON: The government doesn't actually own the bonds, it's the government owing...
SIMPSON: Let me say things in a way so your fans will understand this, so you can go and be a hero. There is not enough in the system ... So, what do they do? They go to that trust fund and say, 'We need the IOUs out of it.' And they say, 'You can have them, but you have to pay for them' ...
Paying for them ... which means more taxes ... is exactly what Simpson and his comrades don't want.
There's more, and you should read/watch the whole thing, but that's the gist of it. It's frightening to consider the implications of Simpson's reaction - the fierceness, the ideological drive, and the closed-mindedness. Remember, his Commission has been entrusted with determining your financial future. That means your economic fate is in the hands of an angry ideologue ... and, for "balance," he's been partnered with somebody who worked with Newt Gingrich to try cutting Social Security.
As Alan Simpson might say, "@#)(@#*)(*@#)!!!!"
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. He also blogs at A Night Light. Richard can be reached at "email@example.com."
Website: Eskow and Associates