Slogging through the Social Security debate one lie at a time

DSC_9930Social Security has been the topic of contentious debate over the last few months, some of it provoked by members of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The Commission was created to consider all options for addressing the budget deficit, including changes to Social Security and Medicare.

I’m a passionate proponent of rational process and thoughtful discourse. I support addressing the budget deficit by taking the following steps:

  • defining the problem,
  • getting all options on the table,
  • evaluating the pro’s and con’s of each fairly and objectively, and
  • agreeing on the best option (or combination of options) to present to the President.

And for me—and I presume for millions of others—it’s been a long, disheartening slog through the health-care reform debate, crock-full of deliberating misleading and fallacious statements and made-to-stick, made-to-fool terms, such as  “Death Panels.” It was an exhausting, stunningly divisive battle. We got through it, but did we learn anything?

A fundamental lie about Social Security

Commission member Representative Paul Ryan, R-Wis., claimed that—when Social Security became law in 1935—the retirement age was 65 while life expectancy was 63. As he put it,

The numbers added up pretty well back then. It was never designed to be a program that would last 25 0r 30 years, and so that’s one of the reasons why there is so much pressure on it.

Former Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming makes essentially the same assertions. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times is a self-described collector of “half-truths and outright lies” about the program. As he sees it,

…Simpson has assiduously turned himself into a repository of every asinine misconception ever uttered about Social Security.

SSA numbers disprove those “asinine misconceptions”

The Social Security Administration acknowledges that looking at life expectancy statistics from the 1930’s might lead one to the conclusion that the program was designed so that people would work and pay into the system for many years but would not live long enough to collect the benefits. That’s because in 1930 life expectancy at birth was only 58 for men and 62 for women, while retirement age was 65.

But that analysis omits one crucial fact, namely that life expectancy at birth and life expectancy in adulthood were very different in those days. Life expectancy at birth was low due mainly to high infant mortality.

For example, according to a national vital statistics report (available at Social Security Online), in 1931 the average life expectancy at birth for all Americans was 61. But a baby who survived the infectious childhood diseases of the day and reached the age of 20 could expect to live to 66. And those who lived to 60 could expect to live another 15 years. In addition, in 1935 there was already a large and growing population (then 7.8 million people) who could receive Social Security. The report’s conclusion:

So Social Security was not designed in such a way that few people would collect the benefits.

This discrepancy indicates either a complete misunderstanding of the facts about the creation of the Social Security system or a deliberate distortion. Either former Senator Simpson was flat-out wrong or he was lying when he suggested that those who created the system in 1935 “connived to fleece the public by setting the retirement age well above life expectancy.”

Who’s trying to fleece the public now?

OK, I’m ranting, but I’m doing it for you. We deserve so much better. What do you think?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • JennyC 10/28/2011, 6:14 am

    Great for me that I found your Blog… I just started with my own Blog, can I reference to this post with backlink? I want to write something on similiar topic!
    JennyC recently posted..I got started to blogging!My Profile

    • Madeleine Kolb 10/28/2011, 10:31 am

      Jenny, Certainly, you may link to this post. The debate is still going hot and heavy, as you know. Good luck with your blog.

  • Madeleine Kolb 09/07/2010, 8:17 am

    Thanks, Mike
    What can I add? Is rational discussion, based on facts, a relic of the past? Are we being hopelessly naive to expect objectivity from a National Commission set up to examine a serious situation?

  • mike kirkeberg 09/06/2010, 9:33 pm

    Good one, Madeleine,
    If anything is going to send me to an early grave (and save the right wing a few bucks0 it is the twist in my gut and my heart every time I hear one of these RW rants about social security, death panels. obamacare, and “rah, rah, rah for Jesus and support the death penalty” knuckleheads.
    .-= mike kirkeberg´s last blog ..John Cleese Wants to Be Creative =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 08/27/2010, 10:00 am

    Adena, I appreciate your comment. These issues are crucially important not only to Americans over the age of 55 or so but to everyone. We need to have a thoughtful, rational discussion about Social Security, and spreading lies about the origins of the program–as former Senator Alan Simpson is doing–is completely counter-productive.

    By the way, there was a short article in the Washington Post this morning, noting that Alan Simpson had apologized for saying that the Social Security program has reached the point “where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits.” I suppose he didn’t realize that his remark would offend anyone.

  • Adena Atkins 08/27/2010, 9:31 am

    Hi Madeleine,

    I am heartened that people like you are examining and educating. This is such an important topic, and like health care, it can be very overwhelming.
    .-= Adena Atkins´s last blog ..A Gentle Guide to Surviving The Completion Blues =-.