What Alan Simpson doesn’t know about life expectancy and Social Security

at 04:25 PM ET, 05/10/2011

Since Social Security’s inception, life expectancy at age 65 has risen about five years and the retirement age has increased by two years, so beneficiaries are getting three more years of Social Security now than they were then. Most people don’t know this, but most of the experts who deal with these programs do. In fact, you can find most of this data in the annual reports released by the Social Security actuaries. Which brings us to fiscal commission co-chairman Alan Simpson.

I try not to write a lot of posts in the “politician said stupid/inflammatory thing” genre, and so I’ve ignored most of Alan Simpson’s piquant outbursts on the grounds that they’re largely irrelevant to the issues at hand. But if he seriously doesn’t know that life expectancy from birth has increased dramatically over the last 70 years while life expectancy at age 65 hasn’t, well, he needs a new job.

As co-chairman of the President Obama’s deficit commission, Simpson is one of the guys tasked with figuring out what to do about Social Security, and one of the arguments he’s charged with evaluating is that we should raise the retirement age specifically because people are living so much longer. There’s no way for him to make a sound judgment if he lacks a basic familiarity with this data. But it seems that in this conversation with Huffington Post reporter Ryan Grim, Alan Simpson not only didn’t know the numbers but was so unfamiliar with them that he refused to believe they were true:

Simpson said that questioning his data wasn’t helping to solve the underlying problem. “This is the first time, the first time — and Erskine [Bowles, the deficit commission co-chairman] and I have been talking for a year and many months — that anyone’s going to sit around and play with statistics like this,” he told HuffPost. “Anything I tell you, you repudiate. You’re the first guy in a year and a half who’s stood out here with a sharp pencil playing a game that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with: ‘What the hell are you going to do with the system? ’”

Sigh. Let me add to Grim’s numbers: As the graph atop this post shows, the life expectancy increases we’ve seen have not been shared equally; the richer and whiter you are, the more your life expectancy has stretched. So raising the retirement age inflicts a double-blow on lower-income Americans: They already work more physically demanding jobs and die younger than the rich, but now they’re being told to work those jobs longer because people who aren’t them have seen large increases in life expectancy.

Related: The case against cutting Social Security and the pro-Social Security case for Social Security reform.

 
Read what others are saying

    Most Read: Business

    DJIA
    1.31%
    S&P 500
    1.96%
    NASDAQ
    2.40%
     Last Update: 06:22 PM 10/21/2014

    World Markets from      

     

    Other Market Data from      

     

    Key Rates from