WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) demanded cuts in Social Security Wednesday while lashing out at Republican strategist Grover Norquist, the AARP, "the cat food commission cats" and "sharpshooters" at The Huffington Post.
Speaking before a luncheon sponsored by former Wall Street tycoon Pete Peterson's foundation, Simpson, a Republican appointed by President Barack Obama to co-chair a bipartisan commission on the federal debt, accused Norquist of being "a nut" and repeatedly harped on a new, misleading statistic about Social Security.
"The AARP, I mean, come come," Simpson said to an audience of Washington insiders. "If you can't understand that when I was a freshman at the University of Wyoming, there were 17 people paying into the system and one taking out, and today there are three people paying into the system and one taking out -- if you can't understand that it was never set up as a retirement program, it was an income supplement which became a retirement, if you can't understand it was never structured to handle disability insurance, it couldn't exist with that burden on it. If you can't understand it didn't take care of kids at 22 going to college, we can't make it."
Simpson went on to reference a recent interview with Huffington Post reporter Ryan Grim, who presented Simpson with evidence that one of the statistics he deployed in his Social Security arguments was misleading.
"Now the great sharpshooters are out there and the cat food commission cats and all those guys using these distorted figures," Simpson told the crowd. "And I always say, look, if you torture statistics long enough, eventually they'll confess."
In truth, Social Security was indeed established as a retirement program.
Lately, Simpson has been fond of claiming that the average life expectancy when Social Security was created was just 63 years of age, much lower than today. But the figure that actually matters for Social Security finances is the life expectancy for people who live to 65, the age at which benefits kick in. That number hasn't changed much since 1940.
In an interview with The Huffington Post following his remarks, Simpson reiterated his attack.
"I was talking about the guy who called me and went through this exercise of sharpshooting," Simpson told HuffPost. "And if he can't understand a couple or three things then there's no help. Forget all the crap he's going through and know that if you -- if 17 people were paying into this system in 1950 and one taking out, today there are three paying in and one taking out. I'd like you to refute that."
The ratio Simpson referred to is grossly misleading. According to the Social Security Administration, in 1950, 16.5 people paid into the program for every beneficiary. But that number was only high because the program's architects realized that there had been a baby boom, and Social Security would need more funding in the future.
By 1975, about three people paid into the program for each beneficiary. That figure did not change when President Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan reformed Social Security in the 1980s, and it has remained constant through today.
In other words, Simpson cited a statistic that serves as evidence of Social Security's shrewd management while claiming the number shows the program has been poorly managed.
"Repeating a false claim over and over again does not make it true," said Frank Clemente of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition over 270 national and state organizations dedicated to protecting Social Security from benefit cuts. "Those who continue to use this canard show they are more interested in tearing down Social Security rather than making it stronger. Social Security has a huge surplus today but a long-range gap in 25 years that can be closed relatively painlessly if the richest two percent of Americans started paying Social Security taxes on all their wages -- like nearly all other Americans do."
Simpson also insisted again to HuffPost that upon Social Security's implementation, "the average age of mortality was 63."
When HuffPost suggested that this statistic was misleading due to the higher childhood mortality rate, Simpson responded, "I know all the stuff [Ryan Grim] goes through. Its like gymnastics! Yes and we've done distributional analysis. Ask him if he knows what that is! Ask the wizard if he knows what distributional analysis is! We did that. And then ask him what we did for the seniors, for the older old and the people who are in poverty. Ask the wizard all that and then get back to me."
He then shouted, "I'm through!" and walked away.
AARP objected to Simpson's comments from the event.
"We once again respectfully disagree with Mr. Simpson's characterization of the work that we have engaged in on behalf of Americans age 50 and older and their families for over 50 years," AARP spokesperson Mary Liz Burns told HuffPost. "Today, there are real threats to the programs that Americans care deeply about, and AARP is working to prevent Congress from making harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling."
During his remarks, Simpson also criticized anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist for refusing to allow tax increases to close the federal budget deficit. Simpson called Norquist "some guy just wandering around in the swamps," and slammed the no-tax-hike pledge Norquist routinely asks politicians to sign.
"If the American people are in thrall with Grover Norquist, some guy just wandering around in the swamps, taking a pledge from people at a time when America was flush, pushing people like Orrin Hatch off the cliff as if he were a commie," Simpson said. "I mean what kind of a nut is this guy?"
"I think as you get older, reality drifts away at various speeds," Norquist told HuffPost, adding that he'd never been accused of wandering in swamps before. "I'm not quite sure what that means."
Norquist also said he has never had any reason to quarrel with Sen. Orrin Hatch, calling the Utah Republican "a sound advocate of not raising taxes and cutting spending," and noting that Hatch was quoted in a recent Bloomberg profile of Norquist saying "nice things about me."
Norquist said that Simpson has been leaving antagonistic messages on his answering machine since he starting working on Obama's debt commission.
"We have a collection of comments from the random voice messages he's left here ... He started making snotty comments at me since he's been on this commission. I was a critic of the idea of having a commission that's focused on the deficit, instead of on spending ... I think that the government's spending too much. The alternative view is that the deficit is the problem, that the peasants aren't forking up enough of the tax money."
Taxes on average American families, however, are near historic lows and more than 50 percent below Reagan-era levels, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.