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Did Alan Simpson say deal or no deal on a Social Security debate?

June 01, 2012|By Michael Hiltzik

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, who normally is unafraid to back up his words with more words, seemed to agree this week to debate critics of his position on Social Security -- or did he?

The debate challenge came via a YouTube video from a group of young Social Security advocates, many of them connected with the Washington nonprofit Social Security Works

Simpson, you may have gleaned from earlier reports, is known for his vulgar and condescending way of displaying his shocking ignorance about Social Security. The tendency of the Washington elite to mistake this for charmingly crusty truth-telling led to his appointment to President Obama's deficit commission in 2010. The commission couldn't come to agreement on a deficit plan, but a proposal Simpson crafted with co-chairman Erskine Bowles has been widely circulated.

The challengers questioned Simpson's assertion in a recent letter to an Oakland retirees' activist group that his proposals to cut benefits were aimed to safeguard the program for young people today. Their take is that Simpson's proposals, as outlined in the deficit-cutting plan he has been pushing in partnership with Bowles, hurt young people more than the elderly, because the cuts he proposes are cumulative over time.

The Bowles-Simpson plan includes one of those Social Security "reforms" that involve addressing the need to cut benefits at some point in the distant future by cutting them now. Although it purports to address the program's modest fiscal imbalance through a combination of benefit cuts and tax increases, the cuts carry most of the burden.

Indeed, the plan calls for cuts in benefits for recipients who have earned as little as an average of $9,000 a year over their lifetimes and hits middle-class recipients especially hard. By contrast, the tax increase involves merely an increase in the payroll tax cap to about $190,000 by 2020, up from $110,100 now. 

Social Security Works calculates that for some workers, the Bowles-Simpson plan cuts benefits more than if Congress does nothing and allows economics and demographics to take their course. (See here and here) Its calculations are largely supported by those issued by the Social Security chief actuary.

Simpson initially appeared amenable to debating his challengers. Referring to the Bowles-Simpson proposal, he told Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post, "If they'll read the report, then I'll talk to them."

But he has since, er, clarified his stance. In a voicemail left at the Social Security Works office, he said it is "not true" he agreed to a debate, but only urged that they read his proposal. "If they can discern in anything in there how young people are going to suffer, you should notify me of that ... and then we can chat a little more."

Simpson's office in Wyoming hasn't returned my calls asking for comment. His challengers are pressing ahead. "We're angry that he's walked back his initial acceptance, and we're urging him to reconsider," says Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works. 

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