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Alan Simpson's brash e-mail told truths about Social Security

Saturday, September 4, 2010; A16

DID ALAN SIMPSON'S mother never tell him to count to 10 before saying -- or e-mailing -- something he might regret? Apparently not. The Wyoming Republican, a former senator and now co-chair of President Obama's fiscal responsibility commission, put, as he acknowledged, a size 15 foot in his mouth when he wrote to a critic that the Social Security program had become "like a milk cow with 310 million tits."

Mr. Simpson apologized, but his itchy e-mail trigger finger played right into the hands of those who argue that a panel charged with finding ways to control the debt ought not to be mucking around with Social Security. An array of groups, including the Older Women's League, whose director wrote the column that set Mr. Simpson off, demanded his firing. The White House said it regretted Mr. Simpson's remarks -- we bet it did! -- but that he would remain on the panel.

This episode is as unfortunate as it is predictable; Mr. Simpson has a penchant for remarks that are colorful bordering on intemperate. But his fundamental point is correct: Social Security is not on a sustainable footing. In his e-mail, Mr. Simpson pointed to a presentation by the chief actuary for Social Security, Stephen C. Goss, showing that by 2037 the program's reserves will have been drained and it will be able to pay only 76 percent of scheduled benefits. "If you think the statistics on poverty for seniors are alarming -- then you need to read this little pamphlet to know what is really alarming," Mr. Simpson wrote.

The most sensible and least painful way to address this problem is to act sooner rather than later to make the relatively modest adjustments that will be needed. These changes should be done in a way that protects the most vulnerable seniors. But dawdling and hoping for better-than-expected economic news is not protecting that needy population. It is taking the risk of steep benefit cuts that would hurt these seniors the most. That is, we think, what Mr. Simpson's mother would have wanted him to say.

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