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May 10, 2011 1:15 PM When ignorance and confusion are the heart of the problem

By Steve Benen

One of the fears in the larger fiscal debate, which largely goes unstated in polite company, is that one side of the argument just doesn’t have its facts straight. A shared reality is the foundation for any policy debate, and there are credible concerns that some of the key players — most notably, those calling for entitlement “reforms” and austerity measures — just don’t know what they’re talking about.

If those helping drive the discussion are themselves ignorant, not only does the discourse suffer, but the policy outcome will be shaped, at least in part, by confusion and misunderstanding. It’s no way for sensible political system to operate.

With that in mind, Ryan Grimm caught up with former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), perhaps best known for his role leading a bipartisan deficit reduction commission last year. It’s Simpson’s preferred vision that’s helping serve as the basis for other policymakers.

After Simpson made some bizarre remarks about retirement ages and the history of Social Security, Grimm pressed the former senator on his understanding of the basics.

HuffPost suggested to Simpson during a telephone interview that his claim about life expectancy was misleading because his data include people who died in childhood of diseases that are now largely preventable. Incorporating such early deaths skews the average life expectancy number downward, making it appear as if people live dramatically longer today than they did half a century ago. According to the Social Security Administration’s actuaries, women who lived to 65 in 1940 had a life expectancy of 79.7 years and men were expected to live 77.7 years.

“If that is the case — and I don’t think it is — then that means they put in peanuts,” said Simpson.

Simpson speculated that the data presented to him by HuffPost had been furnished by “the Catfood Commission people” — a reference to progressive critics of the deficit commission who gave the president’s panel that label.

Told that the data came directly from the Social Security Administration, Simpson continued to insist it was inaccurate, while misstating the nature of a statistical average: “If you’re telling me that a guy who got to be 65 in 1940 — that all of them lived to be 77 — that is just not correct. Just because a guy gets to be 65, he’s gonna live to be 77? Hell, that’s my genre. That’s not true,” said Simpson, who will turn 80 in September.

Understanding life expectancy rates at age 65 in 1940 is central to understanding Social Security itself.

Look, I realize these issues can be confusing, but Alan Simpson isn’t just some random retiree flubbing relevant details. He led a bipartisan deficit commission that studied entitlement programs in minute detail. The media and political establishment considers Simpson an expert.

But when 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.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

Comments

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  • DAY on May 10, 2011 1:27 PM:

    It is time to bring some life insurance companies into the discussion- after all, they MAKE MONEY betting on long you will live!

  • digitusmedius on May 10, 2011 1:29 PM:

    My Gawd, the old fart doesn't even know what average means. And people listen to him as if he's a sage. What a pitiful country this has become.

  • hell's littlest angel on May 10, 2011 1:29 PM:

    I've never gotten the impression that Grandpa Alan Simpson was particularly bright, or honest, or even personable. But "journalists" just fawn over him.

    And do people really hate captcha this much? Comments are down what, 75%? Squint if you need to, you old bastards. Or do you all like shopping for designer fashions for much less price?

  • c u n d gulag on May 10, 2011 1:33 PM:

    Alan Simpleton.

    3 generations of Simpsons have sucked on the government teat, since Alan, his Daddy, and his son have, or currently serve in government.

    So, NO TEATS FOR YOU!!!


    Speaking about sucking, has anyone mentioned recently how much CAPTCHA SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • c4Logic on May 10, 2011 1:35 PM:

    That is the problem with all modern policy debates. Mythology rules over fact. It's the reason why policy formation is broken. -t's the root of the problem.

  • Anonymous on May 10, 2011 1:39 PM:

    Well, first of all we need to have more polite company talking of these distortions, but many are more compromised than rude.

    Captcha gave me a slavic romance script phrase, the c with a reverse carat on top, also the "i" with accent built in instead of period - how am I supposed to deal with that? I don't remember all the ctrl codes, this is a Mac - no baby, it's not just about squinting. If you see this it's either from it counting c and i anyway, or from me using a new one instead.

  • Gandalf on May 10, 2011 1:39 PM:

    Yes there are a lot less comments here then there used to be.(Tougher to wade through captcha. It does suck.) And apparantly political animal could care less what their readers think about the new format. kind of a republican response I'd say.

  • Tom Allen on May 10, 2011 1:43 PM:

    It would kind of help, don't you think, if national Democrats called out Republicans on their errors and lies? You know, instead of joining them in "calling for entitlement “reforms” and austerity measures."

    Oh, look, Steny Hoyer just came out today in support of means-testing Medicare and Social Security. Maybe President Obama can appoint him and Alan Simpson to a new commission.

  • JW on May 10, 2011 1:45 PM:

    You think Simpson is lost on the entry-level details? Are you kidding, or simply giving him the benefit of a doubt? It's a joke either way.

    He is a bald face liar. He's a able and willing practitioner what the GOP does best, and Obama insults the intelligence of us all by pretending otherwise.

    The term 'bipartisan committee' has no more meaning than 'screen door submarine'.

  • hornblower on May 10, 2011 1:57 PM:

    Maybe he can only grasp information that "comes over the transom".

  • In what respect, Charlie? on May 10, 2011 2:02 PM:

    The poor, the sick, the needy, the old get screwed. Just what Jesus would do! Are we a great Christian nation, or what? I believe he said, "Turn the other cheek (to those in need)", "Love thy neighbor (if they have money)", and "Do unto others (by hating and discriminating against them if they aren't white and christian, then blame any discord on the Democrats!)"

    /and YES, captcha blows!!! Royally!! (The answer should be orange!)

  • sparrow on May 10, 2011 2:04 PM:

    For Simpson, the #1 rule is never to let facts cloud the real issue: ideology.

  • Anonymous on May 10, 2011 2:09 PM:

    JW in Simpson's case I think he is lost on the details. Lots of "smart" people think that people are living longer now. Of course, the issue isn't that people are living longer, the issue is that more people are living to that 77.7 or 79.5 figure.

    The real medical advances over the last 30-40 years have helped younger people surive to old age. I know I am one of them. A couple of generations ago I would have died of a now pretty treatable disease I contracted back in 1985. I was cured by modern medicine. The doctor says I will live a normal life span barring accident or one of the usual diseases that kill people my age. A lot of that has been going on.

  • T2 on May 10, 2011 2:10 PM:

    I think I understand why Obama decided to create the "commission", but why he chose the obviously addled Simpson for it is one of the big mysteries of the Obama Admin so far. Really, it was a really stupid choice, in an attempt to look "bipartisan". The problem with old semi-crazy blow-hards like Simpson is, once you give them the microphone, they don't want to stop talking.
    I'd bet that Obama is wishing for a do-over on that flub.

  • dj spellchecka on May 10, 2011 2:44 PM:

    a bit more simpson confusion from the source article

    "The statistics right now show a totally unsustainable program that cannot possibly function when 10,000 a day are coming into the Social Security system at 65," Simpson explained to HuffPost. "Was that ever planned [for]? That 10,000 a day would suddenly coming into the system?"

    In fact, it was planned for: The Social Security Administration tracks births every year and knew by 1947 that 1946 had been a boom year. When the system was reformed in 1983 by the Greenspan Commission, the Baby Boom was specifically taken into account.

    "The fundamental ratio of beneficiaries to workers was fully taken into account in the 1983 financing provisions and, as a matter of fact, was known and taken into account well before that," Social Security's actuaries noted in 1994.

  • Objective Dem on May 10, 2011 3:04 PM:

    I never understood why Obama put Simpson in charge of this group. I always remember him being a mean nasty man and not particularly smart.

    Fyi - Im not crazy about captcha. There have even been times I had to redo the entry because I couldn't read it the first time.

  • SYSPROG on May 10, 2011 3:07 PM:

    The question HuffPost should have asked Mr. Simpson 'is that what you believe Senator or is that a fact?' Or how about 'if you paid back the $2.5 trillion that you borrowed from the fund, would it be solvent then'? Or 'what are you actually going to DO about all these people that have been paying in while you have not'? Catfood Commission indeed.

  • Susan S on May 10, 2011 4:43 PM:

    I once had a chance to tell a past member of the Social Security Commission, a grandson of Franklin Roosevelt, my simple but serious way to "save" Social Security; stop all inflation adjustments for people born in 1946 and later...but also stop taxing the benefits they receive until the money that has already been taxed is paid out. We have the computers now to track those figures; it is simply wrong to tax twice those first benefits. I was shocked when Mr. Roosevelt told me " that money has not yet been taxed." I reviewed it with him, and he seemed to agree...but imagine, a member of the Commission, and he doesn't realize that Social Security benefits are often taxed twice...once when earned, once when paid out. The unfairness of the double taxation is obvious..oh, and can I say, why are only old white men on the "fiscal" panels? If they are going to drastically cut benefits for kids 50 and younger, don't you think that population deserves to be on those panels? I think they pick them by their glasses.

  • Goldilocks on May 10, 2011 5:28 PM:

    Some great, informed observations here, like Susan S above, but the truth is demographics, or population dynamics, is a really complex and intricate subject. Mapping and predicting future trends with accuracy is akin to climate change forecasting. For sure, tons on numerical data has been collected, but determining future factors that may radically alter expected outcomes is not so easily determined.

    The effect of reducing childhood mortality, which is well documented, is not simply that more children survive into adulthood and even old-age, it is that they survive to reproductive age that drives the population explosion. It's that fact primarily that renders the baby boom particularly problematic.

    The truth of the matter is that austerity in the current situation facing the nation is inevitable. The question to be resolved is how the austerity is distributed. So, distributing the wealth around is one way of looking at it; but maybe it's more appropriate to consider how austerity should be distributed.

  • Jack on May 10, 2011 5:40 PM:

    The Sunday morning talk show Republicans should discuss this matter.

  • neil b on May 10, 2011 5:50 PM:

    Tom Allen, I would consider means testing to be a progressive sort of idea since it means paying out less to those with more money. Even so, I prefer just charging everyone a flat rate (ie, no cap for any of SS and the Medi's) and just paying everyone, it's simpler and MT can't be done very fairly due to varying type of income, wealth v. cash flow, etc.

    BTW this damn Captcha, the doubled s-s can look like a go, who knows what's there ...

    Fine minds make fine distinctions

  • Tony P. on May 10, 2011 7:54 PM:

    What's scandalous is that an old coot like Alan Simpson is even allowed to talk about "75-year projections" of anything. The people who will be starting to draw SS benefits 75 years from now HAVE NOT BEEN BORN YET.

    When those people reach voting age, it's a good bet Alan Simpson will be comfortably dead and they won't give a damn what he thought or said. They will decide for themselves how much of their lifetime GDP to spend on their retirement, health care, wars, etc., no matter what Ole Man Simpson wants in his dotage.

    What is more likely: that we can use up the next generation's MONEY, or that we can use up the next generation's OIL RESERVES? Sane people know that money is a renewable resource and oil is not. Republicans seem to think the opposite.

    --TP

  • Rosetta Stone on May 11, 2011 3:40 AM:

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  • Swellsman on May 11, 2011 5:12 AM:

    Heinlein's first book about the Howard families, Methuselah's Children, introduced the idea that a wealthy person created a fund to increase life expectancy. If I recall correctly, this person was stated to have died "of old age" when he was 43 -- because that was the average life expectancy back in the 19th century.

    I read that book as a child, and even then I recognized that something was wrong with this premise. People don't die "of old age" at 43, even if that was the average life expectancy rate. It took me a while - I was 9 - but I finally figured out that "average life expectancy" included a shit-ton of people who died when they were infants. Our increasing "life expectancy" doesn't mean we are living longer, it just means that we aren't dying early any more.

    For Simpson to be as old as he is, and still not get this, means that Simpson is an ass.

  • An Outhouse on May 11, 2011 11:38 AM:

    "that is just not correct." Stop listening to your Enema Man and Poopy Pants.

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