Who Cares If Alan Simpson Compared Payroll Taxes to a Cow?

Alan Simpson's gone done it again. The Republican co-chair of the president's deficit commission found himself in hot water after he called low-income Social Security beneficiaries "lesser people." Now he's rushed off an email to the Older Womens League national office that compares Social Security and America's entitlement system to "a milk cow with 310 million tits." Scandalous!

Paul Krugman is in full off-with-his-head mode. The Huffington Post channels other hysteria. Let's take a look at the offending note. Here is the last paragraph:

If you have some better suggestions about how to stabilize Social Security instead of just babbling into the vapors, let me know. And yes, 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!

Well, I'll be jiggered. Ear muff the children. Alan Simpson just called Social Security checks "t*ts."

Now, this is really regrettable language. Even worse, it's a nonsensical metaphor. (Why is the retiree program suddenly feeding everybody?) But you've got to take the criticism with a grain of salt when the people calling for Simpson's resignation are the same people who called the deficit commission stupid at the get go.

Just as Simpson's "lesser people" comment was unfortunate but directionally accurate-- he was explaining that payments should be preserved for those who rely on Social Security the most -- this milk cow analogy is silly but directionally accurate. A milk cow feeding 310 million sounds pretty strained, yes? Hey, so is Social Security. By the 2030s, it will have promised to pay out about 30 percent more than it will collect in payroll taxes. The sooner we enact moderate, incremental changes to benefits and revenues, the smaller those changes have to be.

If some people are against a higher retirement age, they're well within their rights to say why (see here for a good example). But flinging our wrists to our foreheads every time we hear a political opponent use a stupid metaphor is exactly the kind of break-out-the-fainting-couches attitude in politics that should drive Serious people nuts.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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