Category Archives: Entitlements

Beware The Zombie Curmudgeon Who Talks Of Tits

Ryan Grim at The Huffington Post:

Alan Simpson believes that Social Security is “like a milk cow with 310 million tits,” according to an email he sent to the executive director of National Older Women’s League Tuesday morning. Simpson co-chairs the deficit commission, which is considering various proposals to cut Social Security benefits.

Simpson’s email, which OWL chief Ashley Carson released publicly, (PDF) was sent in response to an April blog post Carson wrote for the Huffington Post. Carson criticized Simpson for repeatedly describing his Social Security opponents as “Pink Panthers,” arguing that the description had sexist connotations.

His email is peppered with exclamation points and condescension. At one point he urged Carson to read a certain graph, “which I hope you are able to discern if you are any good at reading graphs.”

Simpson concludes by implying that leading a major organization dedicated to the interests of middle-aged and elderly women is not “honest work.”

“If you have some better suggestions about how to stabilize Social Security instead of just babbling into the vapors, let me know,” he writes. “And yes, I’ve made some plenty smart cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree. You know ’em too. It’s the same with any system in America. We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits! Call when you get honest work!”

It’s unclear from Simpson’s email if he means Social Security is the milk cow or if he’s referring to America in general. A Simpson assistant responded to a HuffPost email saying that Simpson was traveling and unable to comment immediately. OWL is now circulating a petition calling on the former Republican Senator from Wyoming to resign.

Chris Good at The Atlantic:

Here’s the resignation call from Eric Kingston, co-director of Social Security Works:
“Alan Simpson’s comments are offensive and sexist and clearly demonstrate that he is unfit to continue to lead the President’s Fiscal Commission. His comments not only show his true view of women and older Americans but also his disdain for the very program he claims he is trying to protect – Social Security. Social Security Works is demanding that he resign immediately. If he will not, the President must fire him. Alan Simpson has no business deciding the fate of hundreds of millions of Americans’ retirement future.  He should have no power over Social Security, which provides vital economic support to millions of children and people with disabilities, as well as seniors and  their families.”

Andrew Biggs at The American Enterprise Institute:

It’s perhaps a sign of the times that you can’t make an analogy—albeit an analogy I can’t say I completely understand—without being called sexist. Eric Kingson of the left-leaning Social Security Works promptly obliged, coupled with a call to resign.

Personally I think Simpson’s comment was virulently anti-cow—everyone knows that cows have only four tits. Or teats. Whatever. That said, the guy’s from Wyoming so my guess is a cow that got only a little harsh language thinks it got off easy.

Finally, I think that fights like this are—get ready!—an udder waste of time. Simpson is silly to provide an opening like this; where’s the staff when you need them? And Kingson is immature to follow up with feigned outrage. If these folks truly get upset about a slightly strange cow analogy then they’re worse off than I thought.

But that’s where things stand today.

Paul Krugman:

I always thought that the deficit commission was a bad idea; it has only looked worse over time, as the buzz is that Democrats are caving in to Republicans, leaning ever further toward an all-cuts, no taxes solution, including a sharp rise in the retirement age.

I’ve also had my eye on Alan Simpson, the supposedly grown-up Republican co-chair, who has been talking nonsense about Social Security from the get-go.

At this point, though, Obama is on the spot: he has to fire Simpson, or turn the whole thing into a combination of farce and tragedy — the farce being the nature of the co-chair, the tragedy being that Democrats are so afraid of Republicans that nothing, absolutely nothing, will get them sanctioned.

When you have a commission dedicated to the common good, and the co-chair dismisses Social Security as a “milk cow with 310 million tits,” you either have to get rid of him or admit that you’re completely, um, cowed by the right wing, that IOKIYAR rules completely.

And no, an apology won’t suffice. Simpson was completely in character here; it was perfectly consistent with everything else he’s said, and with his previous behavior. He has to go.

Dean Baker at Hufffington Post:

I was also a recipient of one of Simpson’s tirades. As was the case with the note he sent to Carson, Simpson attached a presentation prepared for the commission by Social Security’s chief actuary. Simpson implied that this presentation had some especially eye-opening information that would lead Carson and myself to give up our wrong-headed views on Social Security.

While I opened the presentation with great expectations, I quickly discovered there was nothing in the presentation that would not already be known to anyone familiar with the annual Social Security trustees’ report. The presentation showed a program that is currently in solid financial shape, but somewhere in the next three decades will face a shortfall due to an upward redistribution of wage income, increasing life expectancy, and slow growth in the size of the workforce. The projected shortfall is not larger than what the program has faced at prior points in its history, most notably in 1982 when the Greenspan Commission was established to restore the program’s solvency.

It was disturbing to see that Simpson seemed surprised by what should have been old hat to anyone familiar with the policy debate on Social Security. After all, he had been a leading participant in these debates in his years in the Senate.

Simpson’s public remarks also seem to show very little knowledge of the financial situation of the elderly or near elderly. He has repeatedly made references to retirees driving up to their gated communities in their Lexuses. While this description may apply to Simpson’s friends, it applies to very few other retirees, the vast majority of whom rely on Social Security for the bulk of their income. Cutting the benefits of the small group of genuinely affluent elderly would make almost no difference in the finances of the program.

Furthermore, the baby-boom generation that is nearing retirement has seen most of its savings destroyed by the collapse of the housing bubble that both wiped out their housing equity and took a big chunk of the limited money they were able to put aside in their 401(k)s. Simpson shows no understanding of this fact as he prepares to cut benefits for near retirees.

He also doesn’t seem to have a clue as to the type of work that most older people are doing. While it is possible for senators to continue in their jobs late in life, nearly half of older workers have jobs that are either physically demanding or require they work in difficult conditions. Simpson seems totally clueless on this point when he considers proposals to raise the retirement age.

ECHIDNE of the snakes:

I find the e-mail insulting, rude, contemptuous and clearly one written by an anti-feminist. The whole tone of it is one of belittling the recipient whose work is not regarded as honest and whose ability to read graphs is doubted. Is that sexist enough for you?

The comment itself, about that wonder cow with 310 million tits, doesn’t sound sexist to me unless something I don’t get is hidden in the actual numbers? Is it the term “tits” that people view as sexist? I spend too much time in the bottom waters of the Internet to interpret tits that way. Men have them, too, and sometimes even moobs.

Jackie Calmes at NYT:

Alan K. Simpson, the Republican co-chairman of President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission, removed his “size 15 feet” from his mouth to apologize to a critic on Wednesday for a stinging letter in which he compared Social Security to “a milk cow with 310 million tits.”

The apology came as some liberal groups and members of Congress who oppose any changes to Social Security benefits called on Mr. Obama to fire Mr. Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming long known for his irreverent and often biting remarks.

But at the White House, Jennifer Psaki, the deputy communications director, said, “Alan Simpson has apologized and while we regret and do not condone his comments, we accept his apology and he will continue to serve.”

[…]

Mr. Simpson apologized in a letter to Ms. Carson, adding: “Over the last 40 years, I have had my size 15 feet in my mouth a time or two. To quote my old friend and colleague, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, when I make a mistake, ‘It’s a doozy!’ ’’

EARLIER: Beware The Zombie Curmudgeon Who Talks Of Lesser People

UPDATE: Bill Scher and Nicole Kurokawa at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #2: Glenn Greenwald

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Filed under Entitlements, Political Figures

And Now We’re Running Out Of Stamps, Too!

Fox News:

Some Democrats are upset and advocacy groups are outraged over the raiding of the food-stamp cupboard to fund a state-aid bailout that some call a gift to teachers and government union workers.

House members convened Tuesday and passed the multibillion-dollar bailout bill for cash-strapped states that provides $10 billion to school districts to rehire laid-off teachers or ensure that more teachers won’t be let go before the new school year begins, keeping more than 160,000 teachers on the job, the Obama administration says.

But the bill also requires that $12 billion be stripped from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, to help fund the new bill, prompting some Democrats to cringe at the notion of cutting back on one necessity to pay for another. The federal assistance program currently helps 41 million Americans.

Arguably one of the most outspoken opponents on the Democratic side is Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who has blasted the move as “a bitter pill to swallow” but still voted yes.

“I fought very hard for the food assistance money in the Recovery Act, and the fact is that participation in the food stamps program has jumped dramatically with the economic crisis, from 31.1 million persons to 38.2 million just in one year,” DeLauro said in an e-mail sent to FoxNews.com. “But I know that states across the nation and my own state of Connecticut also desperately need these resources to save jobs and avoid Draconian cuts to essential services for low income families.”

Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall:

The cynical political reasoning behind this move is the same as that which informs the Democrats’ position on school choice: Union members vote; poor people often don’t (and their children, trapped in terrible schools, can’t).

So much for the Democrats’ carefully cherished self-image as the “party of compassion”; let’s hope Americans don’t forget, when the rubber hit the road, where the Democrats’ first allegiance lay.

And I’d be willing to bet that a lot of those people collecting food stamps would rather simply get a job — that is, if they could, in the Obama economy.

Blue Texan at Firedoglake:

There was a study last year that showed half of all American children will at some point in their lives rely on food stamps.  Yes, 50%.

So how many children will have to go hungry because of a couple Republicans in the Senate?

Don Suber:

So Republicans hate children, do they?

The $26 billion stimulus bill to states — which included a $10 billion gift to the National Education Association and other teacher unions — came with a price: A curtailment in spending on food stamps.

Naturally, many of the robo-Democratic congressmen failed to read the bill as they flew in to D.C. to pass it, collect their sound-bites and fly back to vacation.

The public is reading the bill. It strips $12 billion from food stamps.

What is wrong with this picture?

SusanAnne Hiller at Big Government:

Same old rhetoric from Obama–punishing businesses–so it’s all ok.  States wouldn’t want to follow New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s lead, would they?  If the states could find the cuts, they wouldn’t need to pillage the American taxpayer, and then they wouldn’t need a bailout.  California is broke, yet their teachers are the highest paid in the nation.  So, private sector greed is bad, but public sector (taxpayer funded–as in, you are taking your neighbor’s hard-earned money) greed is good?

Everyone knows that what the Democrats passed is another bailout–but, while the Democrats help their teacher base and spin that it’s for the children during this election season, another segment of the Democrat base will eventually suffer–the poor and families on food stamps.   How will they explain that away?  Additionally, the military and other departments and programs will be hit hard as a result of this legislation.

Below is the list of budgetary rescissions compliments of the new “fiscal hawks” in Congress.  It’s interesting how Democrats can find budget cuts and have no problem hurting the poor, working families, middle class, defense, and military, when it benefits the teachers and the unions on the US taxpayer’s dime.

If the Democrats are so willing to make these cuts (some permanent), reallocate appropriated funds, and rescind funds from the original stimulus bill of 2009 to meet the pay-go requirement, then why did they use unemployed Americans as political pawns in June when a deficit neutral unemployment bill was introduced and reported here on Big Government?  They could have fast-tracked that bill so that millions of unemployed Americans could have continued to receive benefits without a break–all in a bipartisan manner.

David Poff at Redstate:

We’ve seen it splattered all across the front pages; more spending for jobs, more spending for bailouts, more spending for Unemployment, more spending for Teachers and Unions and special interests. We’ve also seen deficits rise and the National debt reach numbers that don’t fit on WalMart calculators.

America is bankrupt and they (the ruling Political class) don’t even know it…or they don’t seem to care anyway. What else explains why they’d happily starve the “least among us” or force them to trample each other to death, fighting over a paltry scrap from the Master’s table?

And for all that so-called “stimulus” money that promised jobs we still don’t have, homes we still can’t afford, and infrastructure improvements (that would keep America working for a generation) that remain undone, why are we paving roads that cars can’t drive on?? Why do I have to find out about it while skimming state news about National candidates instead of seeing it splattered all across the so-called Media?

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And Donald Berwick Goes Down The Slides

Robert Pear in NYT:

President Obama will bypass Congress and appoint Dr. Donald M. Berwick, a health policy expert, to run Medicare and Medicaid, the White House said Tuesday.

Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said the “recess appointment” was needed to carry out the new health care law. The law calls for huge changes in the two programs, which together insure nearly one-third of all Americans.

Mr. Pfeiffer said the president would appoint Dr. Berwick on Wednesday. Mr. Obama decided to act because “many Republicans in Congress have made it clear in recent weeks that they were going to stall the nomination as long as they could, solely to score political points,” Mr. Pfeiffer said.

As a recess appointee, Dr. Berwick will have all the powers of a permanent appointee. But under the Constitution, his appointment will expire at the end of the next session of Congress, in late 2011.

Kate Pickert at Swampland at Time:

Republicans are downright angry that the White House, apparently without much warning, decided to circumvent Congress and critics who were gearing up for a high-profile fight over Berwick’s past statements.

(Among other impolitic utterings, Berwick has said he “is romantic about the NHS,” the UK’s oft-maligned nationalized health system, and believes “excellent health care is by definitional redistributional.”)

Maybe the Administration didn’t have the stomach for another partisan health care reform battle. Maybe it didn’t feel confident in its ability to defend Don Berwick’s contention that rationing should not be the boogeyman of health care policy. Maybe vulnerable Congressional Democrats successfully lobbied for a recess appointment, eager to avoid a contentious confirmation hearing that would bring health care reform to the fore just ahead of this fall’s election. Most likely, it was all of these things.

There was no doubt that Berwick’s confirmation hearing would have created fireworks and there was a chance he would have lost the battle and not garnered the votes needed to be confirmed. His past statements, in or out of context, were a perfect means to caricature the Administration’s health care policies as being all about government control at the expense of quality care. (This, despite that Berwick’s passions include better quality care and a better experience for patients in the hospital.)

In other words, it’s abundantly clear what motivated the White House to install Berwick via a recess appointment. But why do so less than three months after he was officially nominated? It’s not as if this is the only congressional recess on the calendar. CMS has been without a permanent head since 2006 and Berwick’s name has been bouncing around as a leading candidate for more than a year. And how hampered will Berwick be in his job because of the means by which he got it?

That’s what Gail Wilensky wants to know. She ran Medicare and Medicaid under George H.W. Bush and advised Congress on Medicare reimbursements from 1997 to 2001. She is also among a group of CMS administrators who worked in Republican Administrations and who admire Berwick and strongly support his nomination. (It should be noted that the list of medical societies, hospital groups, disease advocacy organizations and others who want Berwick to have the job is seven single-spaced pages.)

“It may have come to this but it didn’t have to happen so soon,” says Wilensky. Installing Berwick during a short Senate recess so soon, is “an in your face, picking a fight response and the guy that’s going to take it on the chin is Don Berwick.”

Ezra Klein:

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: If not for health-care reform, Don Berwick’s nomination to head the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services would not be so controversial. As Thomas Scully, who headed CMS under George W. Bush, says: “He’s universally regarded and a thoughtful guy who is not partisan. I think it’s more about … the health-care bill. You could nominate Gandhi to be head of CMS and that would be controversial right now.”

But conservatives are making a serious mistake by forcing the administration to rely on a recess appointment for Berwick. Ultimately, what weakens Berwick weakens them, as Berwick, whether they know it or not, is one of the best friends they could have in the administration. That’s because insofar as Berwick is a radical, he’s a radical in favor of a patient-centered health-care system — a position that has traditionally been associated with conservatives, not liberals.

This has escaped notice because political activists don’t pay much attention to questions of delivery-system reform. Of the three legs that balance the health-care reform stool — cost, access and quality — cost and access have traditionally been at the forefront of the issue, and are both politically polarized topics. Quality, however, is a demilitarized zone: Conservatives aren’t for high rates of post-operative infections, and neither are liberals.

More than any other individual in the country, it’s been Berwick who has pushed to see quality occupy roughly equal billing with cost and access. His organization, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, is principally known for gathering health-care providers and distributing information on how to do things such as “reduce Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection.” This involves a lot of information on proper hand hygiene. It’s not a terribly ideological crusade.

Which is not to deny that Berwick himself is an ideological guy. He admits he’s an “extremist,” actually. The shame for him is that his manifesto — “What ‘Patient-Centered’ Should Mean: Confessions of an Extremist” — is behind the paywall at Health Affairs. Conservatives who can find themselves a password, however, will find much to like.

John Elwood:

Looks to me like the Senate went out for an intrasession recess on July 1 and will reconvene on July 12. That’s 11 days under the counting method employed by the Justice Department. While it’s on the aggressive end because it’s relatively short, there certainly are a number of precedents for recess appointments during intrasession recesses of that duration–including, if memory serves, President George W. Bush’s recess appointment of Judge Pryor to the Eleventh Circuit. President Clinton made one recess appointment during a 10-day recess, one during an 11-day recess, and 16 appointments during a 12-day recess. I believe that President George H.W. Bush made one recess appointment during a 13-day recess (although the shortest one I can find at this late hour is 17 days). See the government’s brief in opposition in Miller v. United States (especially pp. 26–27 n.5) and its opp. in Franklin v. United States (pp. 29–30) for more.

It is certainly not without controversy, however; Attorney General Daugherty said in dicta in one opinion that an adjournment for “5 or even 10 days” would be too brief to constitute a recess for purposes of using the Recess Appointments Clause.  But the Executive Branch (unsurprisingly) has been walking away from the Daugherty opinion  pretty much ever since.  And that is to say nothing about the considerable academic writing on the subject, much of which has been critical of intrasession recess appointments.  See, e.g., Michael Rappaport, The Original Meaning of the Recess Appointments Clause, 52 UCLA L. Rev. 1487, 1487, 1562 (2005) (stating that “one-month recesses seem too short” but acknowledging that the “prevailing interpretation” of the Recess Appointments Clause “allows the President to make recess appointments . . . during intrasession recesses of ten days and perhaps of even shorter duration”).

Philip Klein at The American Spectator:

This way, Berwick will assume his post without having to explain statements such as this: “Cynics beware, I am romantic about the (British) National Health Service; I love it.”

Nor will he have to answer for his extensive writings and speeches endorsing central health spending caps and government rationing of care to the sick, which I detailed here. At the time, I explained why his draconian views would make him dangerous as the head of CMS:

While Berwick would not have the authority to impose a British health care system on the United States in one fell swoop, as head of CMS, he would be running both Medicare and Medicaid. Given that the two programs alone account for more than one out of every three dollars spent on health care in America (all government programs combined account for 47 percent), private players tend to follow CMS’s lead. Berwick himself has made this point.

“(G)overnment is an extraordinarily important player in the American health care scene, and it has inescapable duties with respect to improvement of care, or we’re not going to get improved care,” he said in a January 2005 interview with Health Affairs. “Government remains a major purchaser.… So as CMS goes and as Medicaid goes, so goes the system.”

He also said that, “(T)he Holy Grail of universal coverage in the United States may remain out of reach unless, through rational collective action overriding some individual self-interest, we can reduce per capita costs.”

More specifically, has priased the British rationing board, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence:

“NICE is extremely effective and a conscientious, valuable, and — importantly — knowledge-building system,” Berwick said in an interview last June in Biotechnology Healthcare. “The fact that it’s a bogeyman in this country is a political fact, not a technical one.”

Justifying the move on the White House blog, communications director Dan Pfeiffer wrote:

Many Republicans in Congress have made it clear in recent weeks that they were going to stall the nomination as long as they could, solely to score political points.

But with the agency facing new responsibilities to protect seniors’ care under the Affordable Care Act, there’s no time to waste with Washington game-playing. That’s why tomorrow the President will use a recess appointment to put Dr. Berwick at the agency’s helm and provide strong leadership for the Medicare program without delay.

But this analysis doesn’t pass the basic smell test. Obama could have announced his CMS appointment at any time after winning the election in November 2008 if it were so urgent, but he waited almost a year and a half — until April of this year — to name Berwick. Conveniently, this was after the health care law had already passed. Had he appointed Berwick during the health care debate, it would have exposed how much Obama’s ultimate vision for U.S. health care borrows from the British model.

Ben Domenech at New Ledger:

Senators have expressed concerns about statements like these, as well as Mr. Berwick’s background. He is a nominee with little management experience poised to head the second largest insurer on the planet, an agency with more funding to disperse than all but the top 15 economies in the world. In fact, the White House’s decision to make this recess appointment is as much a demonstration of their unwillingness to have any debate about Mr. Berwick’s views occur in the public eye as it is of their concern that some in their own party have privately questioned whether he is outside the mainstream.

Such questions are of course appropriate. Thanks to the White House’s decision, they will not be answered. Understand: Mr. Berwick’s position as head of CMS will give him unprecedented power to apply his views on health care policy under President Obama’s new health care regime. Yet thanks to the White House’s game playing, he will not answer one question, not one, before he is ensconced in a position where his radical policy views will ultimately effect the lives and health care of every American.

As we saw in the process of Obamacare’s passage, there is nothing – not precedent, not tradition, not even the most basic expectations of fairness or responsible governance – that will stop President Obama and his allies in their quest to remake American social policy in their image.

Moe Lane:

A quick summary: Donald Berwick hates our healthcare system, wants to replace it with the monstrosity that the British have saddled themselves with, and the White House knows that a confirmation hearing would a: have all of that come out; and b: force a bunch of Democratic Senators to vote in his favor just before the midterm elections.

You know, George W. Bush wasn’t afraid of a little controversy when he thought that the underlying issue was important enough.  How does it feel to have voted for a coward for President, anyway? – I wouldn’t know; I’m a Republican.

UPDATE: Jonathan Cohn at TNR

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Filed under Entitlements, Health Care, Political Figures

OMG! He Touched The Third Rail!

Michael O’Brien at The Hill:

A Republican-held Congress might look to raise the retirement age to 70, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) suggested Monday.

Boehner, the top Republican lawmaker in the House, said raising the retirement age by five years, indexing benefits to the rate of inflation and means-testing benefits would make the massive entitlement program more solvent.

“We’re all living a lot longer than anyone ever expected,” Boehner said in a meeting with the editors of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “And I think that raising the retirement age — going out 20 years, so you’re not affecting anyone close to retirement — and eventually getting the retirement age to 70 is a step that needs to be taken.”

David A. Graham at Newsweek:

In the face of plenty of demagoguing by both parties on deficits, Boehner’s stark statement is a welcome one. It’s a real policy suggestion, and it’s one that conveys to voters that they can’t get something for nothing: deficit reduction is going to be painful.

Some European countries are raising retirement ages as part of austerity measures: France’s decision to raise the age from 60 to the harrowing extreme of 62 years old practically caused riots, while Britain’s new government has announced plans to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66, with further increases likely. But in the U.S., there’s been little meaningful discussion on the topic.

That said, just making people work another five years probably isn’t quite the silver bullet Boehner suggests. For one thing, as Robert Reich and others point out, Social Security is a less serious problem than Medicare, the costs of which are growing faster. And liberal think-tankers wring their hands over such proposals, worrying that blue-collar workers, who are more likely to lose the ability to do their work at a young age, will bear the brunt of a retirement-age increase. No matter how overblown his rhetoric on the divisions facing the U.S., Boehner deserves credit for offering a serious, fiscally conservative suggestion, and openly discussing the sacrifices Americans will have to make.

Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake:

A month ago, John Boehner was warning that the commission planned to report its findings after the election, and that their plan could be passed by a lame duck congress with little fear of electoral accountability.

But in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Boehner is now publicly expressing support for the very same ideas Rivlin proposes.  And he wants to use Social Security benefit cuts to fund the wars:

Ensuring there’s enough money to pay for the war will require reforming the country’s entitlement system, Boehner said. He said he’d favor increasing the Social Security retirement age to 70 for people who have at least 20 years until retirement, tying cost-of-living increases to the consumer price index rather than wage inflation and limiting payments to those who need them.

Boehner has a three-point plan here to get money for mo’ war: 1) raise the retirement age to 70, 2) adjust Social Security’s cost of living increases (COLA), and 3) reduce payments to those with higher incomes.

Jed Lewison at Daily Kos:

This is a big deal. It’s not just that he wants to cut Social Security, it’s that he says cutting Social Security would be at the center of the GOP’s fiscal policy if Republicans win the November elections.

And not only is Boehner saying he wants to raise the retirement age to 70, he also is proposing to ban Social Security recipients from earning “substantial” amounts of outside income. That’s a truly radical notion: John Boehner thinks people who have paid Social Security taxes their entire life should be denied Social Security if they earn outside income above a certain level.

So in Boehner’s view, everybody should pay for Social Security, but only some people should get it, and they shouldn’t get it until they are 70. And he’s pledging to push that agenda as Speaker. I think his ideas are ridiculous but he’s right on one thing: they do deserve to be at the center of the debate. Voters deserve to know that Republicans will try to gut Social Security if they win the elections this fall.

Jake Sherman and Simmi Aujla at Politico:

Democrats are attacking House Minority Leader John Boehner for his comments to a Pittsburgh paper about how America is in “revolt” similar to 1776 and Wall Street reform is like “killing an ant” with a nuclear weapon.

Boehner also touched on the third rail of politics, claiming that Social Security should raise the retirement age to 70.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a statement blasting Boehner, as did the Democratic National Committee and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Operatives are blasting his statements to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review all over the blogosphere.

But the reality is that Boehner’s comments are hardly out of line with what his own party has said – especially on Social Security and financial reform.

Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.), while noting he didn’t see Boehner’s comments, said that he wasn’t going to vote for the financial regulatory bill because “it’s going to hurt small banks, community banks…that weren’t doing the collateral debt obligations, collateral debt swaps and derivative trading.”

On Social Security, Sullivan seems to be in lock-step with Boehner.

“If we want to really get our debt down and really truly reform spending and what we do here in Washington all entitlement programs need to be looked at,” he said. “I think Social Security should be on the table. Whether we raise the age or not, that should be looked at.”

And the reality is that even House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) may even find some agreement with Boehner on Social Security – in a recent speech Hoyer said raising the retirement age needs to be on the table.

Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.) said “we need a national dialogue about how we make Social Security solvent” – but he wouldn’t touch Boehner’s words, saying he hadn’t read them and wasn’t familiar with the context.

“When you look at the fact that we’re blessed that we’re living so much longer with fewer workers, because of those kind of things, I believe it’s going to take the president, both houses of Congress, the American people buying whatever we do,” Boozman said Tuesday.

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Beware The Zombie Curmudgeon Who Talks Of Lesser People

Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake:

Each time the Catfood Commission holds its secret meetings, Alex Lawson of Social Security Works has been outside with his camera, shooting video of the closed front door as FDL runs a live stream on our front page. The Washington Post wrote it up recently.  As committee members go in and out of the room Alex asks them questions when he can, and yesterday he had an exchange with Alan Simpson that was…well, extraordinary.

Simpson is apparently a graduate of the Bobby Etheridge school of charm. Alex Lawson was incredibly respectful and polite as the crankly Simpson berated, interrupted and cussed him. Simpson has been a long-time supporter of rolling back the New Deal, and when asked about cuts he would recommend to the President and Congress on CNBC, Simpson said  “We are going to stick to the big three,” meaning Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  His sentiments haven’t changed.

CJR’s Trudy Lieberman recently ran down Simpson’s history of delicate statements on the subject of Social Security.   He is equally decorous on camera with Alex, who clearly knows a great deal more about the subject than he does.  Simpson starts from the premise that the Treasury will default on the bonds issued to the Social Security trust fund, because all the best people apparently know that it’s better to default on America’s senior citizens and plunge them into poverty than it is to default on, say, the Chinese.

Despite Simpson’s assertions, raising the retirement age to 70 IS a benefit cut.  It would put an estimated 1.5 million  senior citizens into poverty. After two years of watching billions of dollars in taxpayer money being paid out to Wall Street CEOs in lavish bonuses while the White House breaks every promise they’ve made to rein them in, that takes a fat load of nerve.

The commission is also looking into cutting Medicare benefits, because the deal guaranteeing no-bid Medicare contracts to the pharmaceutical industry by both Republicans and Democrats can’t possibly be abrogated.  The committee claims it’s independent, but it’s not THAT independent.  So, old people, too bad for you.

Erskine Bowles has returned to run the same play he ran during the Clinton administration, when he negotiated the secret deal between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security benefits.  Despite warnings from both John Boehner and John Conyers that the commission will report its recommendations to a lame duck Congress who could pass it before the end of the term.  Both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have promised to bring the commission’s proposals up for votes.

In the absence of any transparency coming from the committee about what transpires in its secret meetings, Simpson’s comments to Alex are the best insight we have into what is being discussed there.

Bottom line:  bon apetite, Grandma!

ALAN SIMPSON:  We’re really working on solvency… the key is solvency

ALEX LAWSON: What about adequacy? Are you focusing on adequacy as well?

SIMPSON: Where do you come up with all the crap you come up with?

SIMPSON:  We’re trying to take care of the lesser people in society and do that in a way without getting into all the flash words you love dig up, like cutting Social Security, which is bullshit. We’re not cutting anything, we’re trying to make it solvent.

SIMPSON:  It’ll go broke in the year 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, will you listen to me instead of babbling?   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.

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post

Breitbart.Tv:

Alan Simpson, co-chair of the White House Debt Commission, provides a full and frank engagement with an activist questioning him on the proposed reforms of the Social Security system. He doesn’t duck. He doesn’t hide. He doesn’t grab the guy around the wrist or neck. And the cry-babies at Huffington Post complain that he uses profanity.

James Joyner:

I’m frankly amazed that Simpson spent 8 minutes, 20 seconds talking to some yahoo with a video camera.   Regardless, the problems he describes are real.    Social Security and Medicare are massive structural burdens, even compared to the spectacular cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Those will soon go away whereas the entitlement demands will continue to skyrocket.

Now, Hamsher and Lawson are right:  Simply raising the retirement ago to 70 won’t work, either.   There are many occupations that are too physically demanding to work that long.  And many people’s health declines much sooner than that.   The ultimate solution is going to have to be some combination of means testing and raising the ceiling on the FICA tax.   But that’s going to require an admission that Social Security and Medicare are subsidies for the less fortunate elderly rather than “insurance” programs wherein we fund our our retirement during our working years.

But that was always the intent!  They were poverty relief programs, designed to provide a safety net for people who couldn’t support themselves one they were no longer able to earn a steady paycheck.   Most jobs didn’t provide retirement annuities and many people don’t earn enough to save for retirement, much less for fifteen years of retirement.    I’m willing to kick in some money to help those people get by.

Instead, though, we’ve created a bizarre system where I’m paying a pretty nice chunk of change every month and being told that I’m paying for my own retirement.  Yet, even if we were able to sustain the current setup, my return from Social Security will be so modest that, barring unforeseen circumstances, it’ll be a tiny portion of my income.   And we’re bankrupting the system to keep up the illusion.

John Berry at Fiscal Times:

In the interview, Simpson maintained Social Security is already insolvent because it is paying out more than it is getting in tax revenue. It is not clear whether that will be true for the current fiscal year or the next few years, but it will be happening not too far in the future.

Then Lawson asked, “But what about the $180 billion in surplus that [the trust fund] brings in every year [in interest payments on the Treasury securities it holds]?”

“There is no surplus in there. It’s a bunch of IOUs,” Simpson said. “Listen. It’s two-and-a-half 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 set up.”

Since Social Security finances were overhauled in 1983, tax revenues have far exceeded costs. That surplus went into the trust fund, was invested in Treasuries and has been earning interest for almost 30 years. Those annual surpluses meant that the government did not have to borrow as much from the public to finance whatever it spend money on. (However, interstate highways have not been financed even indirectly by Social Security surpluses, but rather by motor fuel taxes.)

Whenever tax revenues don’t cover Social Security costs, Simpson said, ” 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.’ So you’re taking a double hit on your own government. Makes no sense.”

Indeed, Simpson makes no sense. What is the “double hit”? The government didn’t have to borrow in the past, or pay interest on what it didn’t borrow. Now it has to borrow from the public and pay the interest. There’s no “double hit” involved.

Finally, Lawson said that his understanding was that part of the justification of the 1983 changes was “prefunding the retirement of the baby boom by building up that huge surplus.”

Simpson responded, “They never knew there was a baby boom in ’83.”

Well, Alan Greenspan, who headed the bipartisan commission that proposed the 1983 changes, would tell Simpson something different. The big demographic shift that began right after World War II was precisely why Social Security was expected to face a deficit as the number of workers relative to beneficiaries began to decline when the Baby Boomers began to retire. And that was why taxes were raised and benefits were cut then–to build up a trust fund surplus so benefits could be paid.

Edmund L. Andrews:

Simpson always likes to be outrageous in a cranky-old-man kind of way. It’s part of his charm. But as John points out, Simpson throws around a lot of claims that are just plain wrong and insulting to boot.  Among other things, he talks about Social Security being for the “lesser people.”  His comments threaten to undermine the commission’s credibility.

Paul Krugman:

OK, the immediate problem is the statements of Alan Simpson, the commission’s co-chairman. And what got reporters’ attention was the combination of incredible insensitivity – the “lesser people”??? — and flat errors of fact.

But it’s actually much worse than that. On Social Security, Simpson is repeating a zombie lie — that is, one of those misstatements that keeps being debunked, but keeps coming back.

Specifically, Simpson has resurrected the old nonsense about how Social Security will be bankrupt as soon as payroll tax revenues fall short of benefit payments, never mind the quarter century of surpluses that came first.

We went through all this at length back in 2005, but let me do this yet again.

Social Security is a government program funded by a dedicated tax. There are two ways to look at this. First, you can simply view the program as part of the general federal budget, with the the dedicated tax bit just a formality. And there’s a lot to be said for that point of view; if you take it, benefits are a federal cost, payroll taxes a source of revenue, and they don’t really have anything to do with each other.

Alternatively, you can look at Social Security on its own. And as a practical matter, this has considerable significance too; as long as Social Security still has funds in its trust fund, it doesn’t need new legislation to keep paying promised benefits.

OK, so two views, both of some use. But here’s what you can’t do: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that for the last 25 years, when Social Security ran surpluses, well, that didn’t mean anything, because it’s just part of the federal government — but when payroll taxes fall short of benefits, even though there’s lots of money in the trust fund, Social Security is broke.

And bear in mind what happens when payroll receipts fall short of benefits: NOTHING. No new action is required; the checks just keep going out.

So what does it mean that the co-chair of the commission is resurrecting this zombie lie? It means that at even the most basic level of discussion, either (a) he isn’t willing to deal in good faith or (b) the zombies have eaten his brain. And in either case, there’s no point going on with this farce.

Brad DeLong:

You don’t name an arsonist to co-chair your fire department. If Obama wants his commission to do anything, he needs to replace Alan Simpson with a reality-based co-chair.

Digby

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Pee In A Cup And The Government Pays You (Well, Not Really)

Mara Gay at Politics Daily:

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has proposed an amendment to the jobs bill today that would require Americans seeking unemployment benefits and welfare to pass a drug test.

He said the current social safety net only feeds their addiction to both illegal substances and help from the federal government.

“Too many Americans are locked into a life of a dangerous dependency not only on drugs, but the federal assistance that serves to enable their addiction,” the senator said in a statement. “Drugs are a scourge on our society — hurting children, families and communities alike.”

The amendment comes as an attempt to pass the $140 billion jobs bill failed in the Senate. The bill would extend unemployment benefits for millions of Americans, but its price tag has elicited objections from both Republicans and Democrats.

Hatch said his amendment would help save taxpayer money and reduce the national deficit.

“This amendment is a way to help people get off of drugs to become productive and healthy members of society, while ensuring that valuable taxpayer dollars aren’t wasted,” the senator said today.

Joan McCarter at Daily Kos:

Being unemployed just isn’t denigrating enough for Orrin Hatch. You have to be punished it for, put under suspicion. That’s the Republican way. What’s next? Poor houses?

Ezra Klein:

A while back, Matt Yglesias wrote an insightful piece arguing that “ideas about freedom and small government are totally irrelevant to the actual political agenda [of the Republican Party].” I was reminded of it by the news that small-government advocate Orrin Hatch wants the state to perform mandatory drug tests on every one of the 15 million people receiving unemployment insurance or welfare benefits.

Meredith Jessup at Townhall:

I can hear the ACLU’s screams of injustice now.  Truth be told, this seems like such a basic, commonsense notion.  It’s definitely not a new idea, but props to Sen. Hatch for reintroducing it, especially at a time when the country can’t afford to waste a dime.

Annie Lowrey at Washington Independent:

Currently, about 4.4 million families receive assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. On top of that, 9.8 million people are receiving unemployment insurance in some form. Millions more get other kinds of aid. Granted, the federal government does plenty of drug testing already, but does it really want to process 15 million new urine samples? Plus pay for all the court cases the law would create? The Drug Policy Alliance notes that “a 2003 ruling by a federal appeals court that covers the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee ruled that states cannot drug test welfare recipients because it’s unconstitutional.”s.

Matt Welch at Reason:

This is, alas, nothing new. In addition to social-welfare recipients, lawmakers have identified several other sub-classes of people ripe for being forced by the state to urinate on command, including (but not limited to) student athletes, kids who dare take part in other extra-curricular activities, and even kids who do nothing all day but draw “I Heart Conor” in their Pee-Chees. (They still have those, right?)

Always missing from these flippant tramplings of our privacy rights are two classes of people: Lawmakers themselves, and recipients of corporate welfare. Wouldn’t you feel just a little safer if Patrick Kennedy got his fluids checked on regular basis? Ya think some of those juicy subsidies for film productions ever land in the hands of people who use drugs?

The moral of the story here is not new, but bears repeating: If you are at all dependent on the state, whether by choice or force, and you don’t have the good manners to be powerful, you will always stand the risk of being treated like a patient at a criminal asylum. It is as good a reason as any other to resist further encroachment of the government on our private lives.

Wonkette:

Famed Utah hazzan Senator Orrin Hatch proposed an amendment to the $140 billion jobs benefits extension bill today that would make make people seeking welfare benefits first pass a drug test. Welfare will now be a level playing field, as poor people will not be able to get away with taking steroids to make themselves super-poor. And also poor drug addicts will maybe starve and thus no longer be a problem, so that’s good.

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A Million Charts And Graphics To Say The Same Thing: Americans Don’t Like Foreign Aid

DiA at The Economist:

SOME highlights from this week’s Economist/YouGov poll:

• Little has changed when it comes to the health-care reform bill. Public opinion about the overall reform remains just about evenly divided, as it has for months. More than twice as many Americans think that their care will worsen under the bill than say it will improve, and more than half still expect to pay more because of it.

• Barack Obama’s overall rating remains below 50%. In this week’s poll, 46% approve of the way he is handling his job, while 47% disapprove.

• When asked which party would do a better job handling the budget deficit, Americans divide fairly evenly: 35% name the Democrats, 30% the Republicans, and 35% think they are about the same.

• When it comes to decreasing the deficit, cutting spending is a more popular approach than raising taxes, by a margin of 62% to 5%. And here’s what the public is willing to cut:

• Foreign aid makes up less than 1% of America’s total spending.

Annie Lowrey at The Washington Independent:

Today, an Economist/YouGov poll making the rounds shows that Americans would vastly prefer budget cuts to new taxes — by 62 percent to 5 percent. The poll goes on to ask Americans which government spending programs they would choose to cut: “If government spending is reduced in order to balance the budget, which of the following government programs should receive lower federal funding than they currently do?” (Respondents could pick more than one thing to axe.)

Here is how they responded:

The most expendable programs, according to poll takers, were mass transit, housing, agriculture, environment and foreign aid, the runaway winner at 71 percent. The problem? These programs together barely comprise 3 percent of the federal budget. Even if the programs were entirely eliminated, the cuts would do nothing to solve the United States’ long-term entitlement program.  Indeed, the responses had no obvious correlation with spending size.

The red bars in this graph indicate expenditures in the various areas:

The poll highlights the conundrum: Americans want to solve the long-term deficit program and want the federal government to run a balanced budget. They are willing to make budget cuts. But the government cannot cut enough from discretionary programs to bring the budget into check and ultimately to reduce the deficit. (Half of Americans still believe the government can.)

Ezra Klein:

The only program that more than a third of the public wants to see cut is foreign aid. Bummer, then, that it accounts for less than a single percent of the budget.

But the fact that people want a smaller budget deficit but no reductions in actual spending is old news, and well accounted for in Congress. What’s interesting about this chart, however, is that a sizable minority of the population wants to cut defense spending. In fact, defense spending’s size of the budget and the number of people who want to cut it match up much more closely than most of the other two bars on the graph.

You can make too much of this, of course. Only about a quarter of the population wants defense spending cut. But given how terrified politicians are to touch defense spending — we even invented a category called “non-defense discretionary spending” in order to protect it — maybe it’s time to take another look. Washington may consider defense spending sacred, but the country doesn’t — at least not more than anything else.

Kevin Drum:

Ah, the American public. God love ’em. The Economist asked if they’d rather tackle the federal deficit by cutting spending or raising taxes, and the runaway winner was cutting spending, by a margin of 62% to 5%. So what are we willing to cut? Answer: pretty much nothing.

[…]

there were only four areas that even a quarter of the population was willing to cut: mass transit, agriculture, housing, and the environment. At a rough guess, these areas account for about 3% of the federal budget. You could slash their budgets by a third and still barely make a dent in federal spending.

I suppose one of these days everyone’s going to have to figure this out. Apparently no time soon, though.

Jon Bernstein:

Just to pile on a bit, however: it’s even worse!  Not just because it turns out that the ideal point people pick for foreign aid turns out to be (if I remember correctly) something like 3% of the budget, which is far higher than the US actually spends.  But because if you break the category down, the same thing happens: the overall category (foreign aid) is unpopular, but the specifics are generally popular.  By far the biggest item is Israel, and Americans most love Israel, and think that the US should send them aid (the only poll I could find — bottom of the page — on this showed about half of respondents approved of current levels of military and economic aid, with a somewhat larger minority approving of cuts than the minority supporting increased levels).  I do suspect that voters probably would support cuts in aid to Egypt and Jordan, but the big increase in foreign aid in recent years is for fighting HIV in Africa, and (while I don’t have any numbers on it) I’m confident that voters are all for that spending.

I think the same is true in other categories, as well…”defense spending” is relatively less popular, but at least when I’ve asked students about it the only subcategory that wasn’t popular was new high-tech weapons, and that’s been fairly mixed.

Of course, a lot of this is incredibly soft, and so the results can be easily manipulated by changing question wording.  What’s more, when public opinion is inconsistent like this both sides are going to say that the public “really” supports them, but in fact what’s probably more accurate is to say that the public just doesn’t have rational opinions about a lot of things.  At any rate, anyone looking for logical consistency from voters on budget items is going to be very disappointed.

John Sides:

I want to suggest that the problem goes even deeper. The programs that make up the largest share of the federal budget are typically the ones that the fewest people want to cut. Consider this graph, in which I attempted to match most of the YouGov categories to a plausible counterpart in Obama’s FY 2010 budget proposal. (I drew on additional stories for information about the budgets for health research and highways. Foreign aid is estimated at 0.5% of the budget.)

[…]

As you move downward, into categories of spending that are increasingly popular, you get to the largest federal programs, particularly entitlement spending. Really, there is only one area of federal spending — national defense — that is sizable and that even a modest fraction (22%) is willing to cut.

In fact, there is a negative relationship between the budgetary share allocated to a policy area and the fraction who want to cut it. The correlation coefficient between the poll percentages and the budget percentages is -.33 (with or without the obvious potential outlier, foreign aid, included).

If Americans are forced to be specific, their recipe for cutting federal spending would do little to reduce spending.

Stan Collender:

There’s nothing new about this situation, of course,  Bruce reported remarkably similar results last December and it’s long been the case that the typical voter wants the deficit reduced without cutting spending or increasing taxes.  This latest poll shows that even the higher deficits of the past few years, which almost 60 percent of those responding said would be of great or some importance to them when they voted, hasn’t changed the situation at all.

Megan McArdle:

What I’d really like to see is a poll which reads off a list of the major areas in the federal budget, names the percent of the federal budget they compose, and then asks people which of these areas they think should be cut in order to close the deficit. Obviously, you couldn’t get too deep with this, since people can’t remember more than five or six numbers at a time. But the answer would be more interesting than noting that people with a poor command of the federal budget think we should cut the enormous fantasy programs they think are wasting all of our tax dollars.

Even more interesting would be if you paired this with some realistic tax math–if you made it clear to them that the budget gap also cannot be closed simply by raising taxes on “the rich”, but rather that it probably involves a broad-based regressive tax like the VAT.

But this would be very complicated, which is, I presume, why it hasn’t been done.

Josh Barro

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