More Words of Wisdom from Alan Simpson

Just who are the “lesser people” he had in mind?

Alan Simpson is quickly taking on the persona of the Energizer bunny—his mouth just doesn’t stop. We know about seniors living in gated communities and driving Lexuses to Perkins restaurants for AARP discounts. We know “this country is going to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security, and Medicare.” And now we know about his condescending slur against the “lesser people.”

In his exchange with Alex Lawson of the advocacy group Social Security Works, reported Friday by my colleague Holly Yeager, Simpson challenged Lawson, asking “Where do you come up with all the crap you come up with? We’re trying to take care of the lesser people in society and do that in a way without getting into all the flash words you love to dig up, like cutting Social Security, which is bullshit.”

What the dickens did Simpson mean by “the lesser people?” Did he mean everyone who doesn’t belong to the investment banking community, where a lot of the deficit commission acolytes come from, including Peter G. Peterson, who has been working to make Social Security reductions Solution Numero Uno for the deficit problem? (Peterson is a CJR funder.) Did he mean those with modest or low incomes, even the poor for whom Social Security is the major source of income in retirement and will continue to be for years to come?

The comment reminded me of one of the lesser people in Simpson’s home state of Wyoming whom my family encountered when we were on a trip out west. One night we pulled up to a motel on a dusty, gravel road in Rawlins, right off I-80. The motel sat next to a trailer park. A kid with a crew cut, about nine, rode his bicycle up to us. He looked at the out-of-state license plates on our rental car. “You must be rich,” he said. “You must have a credit card.” Rich, definitely not—but rich to the boy who saw a credit card as something his family, most likely struggling financially, did not have. The boy must be a young adult now, and I can’t help thinking about him and what his former senator has in mind for his future financial security, or whether he or his family had ever used the survivor’s or disability benefits Social Security provides.

Whatever Simpson’s meaning, his word choice smacks of elitism and arrogance—a slur against those who don’t dwell in Wall Street canyons. In this day and age, politicians and even journalists have lost their jobs for making inappropriate remarks. Look what happened to Helen Thomas when she talked about sending Israeli Jews back to Poland and Germany, or Trent Lott when he lost his job as Senate Republican leader after saying the country would have been better had it elected Strom Thurmond as president. Thurmond once ran on a platform of racial segregation. Their comments were too hot, and they had political consequences.

Which brings up the following question: Who really cares about Americans whose incomes are not in the stratosphere? Poor people don’t have many organized advocacy organizations that can snap into action when such comments are made, and they certainly don’t give gobs of money to politicans’ campaign war chests. Historically, the press has not been terribly interested in those with low incomes, either. They just don’t make for colorful copy—but Simpson does. Perhaps he is filling a role that the president and other pols supporting the commission want him to serve. He is both a distraction from the real issues and a conduit for furthering the commission’s agenda of dealing with Social Security and Medicare once and for all.

But his latest comments put the integrity of the commission in jeopardy. If the commission does recommend cutting Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age for full benefits, members of Congress who vote on it will have some explaining to do for their constituents—especially those in their fifties who have paid a lot into the system, have lost their jobs, and might have to wait longer to collect benefits.

In the book Free Culture, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig argues that the story of Trent Lott’s comments had disappeared from the mainstream media within forty-eight hours, but Internet bloggers kept it alive until it resurfaced in the MSM, eventually forcing Lott to resign his position. He was soon to be Senate Majority Leader.

Right now the “lesser people” story is hot stuff on the Internet; on Sunday, The Fiscal Times, a news outlet financed by Peterson, took note of Simpson’s latest in an opinion piece by John M. Berry. Berry argued that, in the exchange with Lawson, Simpson has undermined the already slim chances of agreement on a way to put the government on a sustainable long-term budget policy path.

Was The Fiscal Times piece implying that this was Simpson’s Trent Lott moment? Will the MSM be far behind?

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.