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A Retiree Trying to Save His Life's Work

A longtime steward of Social Security wants to bring it back from the brink, as he has before.

May 30, 2005|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

MITCHELLVILLE, Md. — Like many other retirees, Bob Ball is concerned about what's going to happen to Social Security.

From his cluttered office in his otherwise tidy retirement community home, he has proposed his own formula for shoring up Social Security's financial future. His relatively modest tax increases and benefit cuts, combined with some government investment in the stock market, offer a contrast to President Bush's call for individual investment accounts, which Ball abhors, and steeper curbs on traditional benefits for many future retirees.

But Ball's goal isn't preservation of his monthly benefit check. Instead, he is defending the program that is his life's work.

Before the first monthly Social Security check was delivered in 1940, he was already working as a 25-year-old clerk in the Newark, N.J., Social Security office for $1,620 a year.

He shot up through the bureaucracy to become commissioner of Social Security for three presidents. On his watch, Social Security became the biggest and most popular benefits program. And in 1983, when he had been collecting retirement benefits for four years, he was a key negotiator of the law that rescued Social Security from the brink of insolvency.

With the possible exception of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, perhaps no one has been associated with a federal institution as intimately and for as long as Robert M. Ball. He is one of the last of a nearly extinct species: career civil servants who became top policymakers.

Ball met nine presidents during his career, all from No. 33 (Harry S. Truman) to No. 42 (Bill Clinton), except for No. 38 (Gerald R. Ford).

But now the proposals of No. 43, George W. Bush, have prompted the 91-year-old Ball to try to make his voice heard in Washington once again to fight proposals that, in his view, would unravel his life's work.

What Bush has proposed "would ruin the whole system," said Ball, a physically imposing man whom age has not bent. "It's a fundamental, philosophical policy shift."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ball said, wanted a government-provided benefit that would replace a fixed percentage of a workers' pre-retirement income. The vision was of a benefit based not on need -- which would carry the stigma of a welfare program -- but on past earnings.

"FDR talked about a basic retirement income that would guarantee a certain replacement rate for everybody to build on," Ball said. But the individual investment accounts proposed by Bush, which would allow younger workers to use some of their payroll taxes to ride the ups and downs of the stock and bond markets, would undermine that guarantee, he said.

And Bush's suggestion that benefits be reduced from now-promised levels for future middle-income and wealthier retirees, Ball said, would eventually leave all with about the same benefit now promised to the poor.

"For the last 70 years," Ball said, "we've been operating a system that's useful to every American family. Bush's plan now says we'll maintain the benefits promise only for the poor. We're asking everybody except the poor to accept the idea that the more you have paid in to the system, the more your benefits will be cut."

The result, he said, would be a loss of political support for Social Security.

Ball has his own proposal, which includes dedicating the proceeds of the estate tax to Social Security and using a more precise -- and stingier -- measure of price inflation to determine annual cost-of-living adjustments.

His most controversial proposal: let the government invest some of the Social Security trust fund's surplus in stock index funds. Although this would allow the government to profit from expected -- but not assured -- market gains, critics have warned that it could also open the door to government meddling in corporate affairs, despite safeguards that Ball has proposed.

Whether Ball will still hold influence in the Social Security debate is unclear. He has not been asked to testify to Congress about his plan, although the Century Foundation, a nonprofit policy research group, has published and promoted it. He hopes some Democratic lawmakers, who are refusing to deal with Bush as long as he is pushing individual accounts, will turn to his alternative when the time comes.

Peter Ferrara, a senior policy advisor to the Institute for Policy Innovation and author of the most radical plan to convert Social Security from a guaranteed benefit to a network of private accounts, scoffed at the notion that Ball's ideas would gain traction.

"He's a well-meaning gentleman who hasn't had a new idea in 40 years," Ferrara said.

But Ball's adversaries have learned to ignore him at their peril.

"Through sheer hard work, intelligence, persistence, dedication and, perhaps most of all, devotion, Bob Ball has managed, inside and outside of government, to be one of the most influential voices at any time on Social Security," said Eugene Steuerle, a Social Security expert at the Urban Institute.

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