What Do Alan Simpson and Larry Summers Have in Common?

They both want to cut Social Security benefits and they both think women have trouble doing math. Both were appointed to important positions by President Barack Obama.
Is there a pattern here?
It’s not too far-fetched to believe there might be. Most recipients of Social Security, Medicare, and welfare are women. Those who rant about the need to cut entitlement spending are really talking about taking away needed income support from vulnerable women, poor women, and older women particularly. Quite possibly, men who hold women in contempt are more likely to argue for cutting these benefits.
Alan Simpson has made the connection quite clear in his recent letter to Ashley Carson, Executive Director of OWL, who wrote about him in the Huffington Post, addressing his views on Social Security in his capacity as co-chair of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Some excerpts:
. . . I’ve spent many years in public life trying to stabilize that system while people like you babble into the vapors about “disgusting attempts at ageism and sexism” and all the rest of that crap.
. . . take a look at the chart on Page 6 which I hope you are able to discern if you are any good at reading graphs . . .
. . . I’ve made some plenty smart cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree. You know ‘em too. It’s the same with any system in America. We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits! Call when you get honest work! [emphasis added]
I have a feeling Senator Simpson thought it was pretty cute to use that imagery when writing a woman. Perhaps most appalling to me: Senator Simpson doesn’t think advocating on behalf of older women is honest work.
Not surprisingly, OWL and a host of women’s groups, and groups representing seniors and workers have called for Simpson’s resignation and called upon the President to fire him. The White House has replied that they are satisfied with the apology he sent to Ashley Carson! OWL is not.
OWL and all the other groups and members of Congress calling for Simpson’s resignation also emphasize the contemptuous attitude toward Social Security that he articulates in this letter. While Simpson has expressed animosity toward seniors for many years, labeling them “greedy geezers,” the milk cow comment seems to take his disdain to a new low. In fact Social Security is a near-universal insurance program. Every worker pays into it all their working life and every worker hopes to collect the benefits due her or him in retirement. Since the average retired woman, for example, receives about $11,000 per year, hardly a queenly sum, Social Security recipients should hardly be viewed as “milking the system” — it’s not welfare, we’ve all paid into it so we’ll be able to retire!
Simpson has stated on many occasions that Social Security benefits must be cut. Where he gets the ”must” I don’t know because the obvious alternative to cutting benefits is raising taxes to pay for them, something President Ronald Reagan did in 1983– changes enacted then are now projected to enable the system to pay full current law benefits through 2037. While this projection from the Social Security Administration is likely overly cautious, as they traditionally are, and the 1983 changes could take us a lot further, 54 years of projected full-funding is pretty good for one set of changes. Clearly we can do the same thing again. It seems to me that it’s not Ashley who isn’t good at math, it’s Senator Simpson.
Like Simpson, but with a more academic language, Larry Summers, chair of President Obama’s White House National Economic Council, is also widely known to be prone to making gaffes and uttering comments that get him in trouble. Famously, as president of Harvard University, at a conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce, he ranked physical differences in women’s and men’s brains in their capacity to do science and engineering as very likely a more important factor in women’s underrepresentation in these fields than differences in learned behaviors such as socialization and discriminatory treatment. It’s hard to imagine a private sector CEO who could disparage half of his constituency like that and hold on to his job for as long as Summers did. Eventually Summers was out and Harvard hired the first female president in its 371 year history.
While to my knowledge Summers has never verbally connected his thinking about women to his thinking about Social Security, as Simpson has, Summers has stated he believes Social Security benefits should be cut. I heard him say so when he ran the subgroup on Social Security at the President’s White House Conference on Fiscal Responsibility in February of 2009.
What doesn’t quite fit is that the President appointed these two men to important positions. Both are known to cause drama and the President is supposedly “no-drama Obama.” Both men appear to disdain women, while the President is obviously proud of his intelligent and strong wife and his daughters. And although Summers hasn’t yet erupted in his White House position, the risk is that he might, especially now that Economic Advisor Christina Romer has announced her plans to return to Berkeley. And Simpson is virtually guaranteed to have another outburst of vitriol sooner rather than later.
The perception of Summers as prejudiced against women has already caused trouble for the White House when the National Organization for Women wondered aloud if Summers might not be the reason the White House had not yet nominated Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency. NOW was roundly criticized by the White House for doing so, but isn’t that the kind of collateral damage the White House should expect given that they appointed Summers in the first place? At that time people close to the White House let it be known that White House operatives had checked with leaders of national women’s groups to find out if they would object to Summers’ appointment to chair the National Economic Council and the leaders supposedly said it was fine with them! Funny thing—I haven’t come across one women’s rights’ leader who hasn’t told me she opposed his appointment, nor have I come across any who were asked by the White House about that appointment. And I know we weren’t consulted about the appointment of Senator Simpson either.
If the President keeps Alan Simpson and Larry Summers in their jobs, he should do so knowingly. They obviously have skills and abilities the President wants, but are they worth the risk? The President can expect more of the same and deservedly so. And next time, will he want to be explaining to the American people, or to his wife and daughters, why he didn’t fire Simpson when it happened before?
Heidi Hartmann
President, IWPR

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