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Former Social Security Boss On The Real Problem


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, another family is grieving in Chicago after another young person was killed by gun violence this past weekend. Today we're going to bring you some very blunt, powerful perspectives from young people affected by the violence that you might not have heard. This from our colleagues with the public radio program "This American Life." And that's coming up later in the program.

First, though, we are going to take a look at a program that has become a vital part of most American's retirement plans. It affects almost 58 million Americans this year. I'm talking about Social Security. It used to be called the third rail of American politics. No leader could propose major changes to the program without risking a backlash.

But now as the Congress faces the dramatic budget cuts known as the sequester, more and more lawmakers are talking about trimming Social Security benefits or making other significant changes. And in part, that's because Social Security is facing budget problems of its own. According to the board of trustees that oversees Social Security, the trust fund that covers old age and survivors' insurance as well as disabilities insurance will be tapped out by the year 2033.

One person with a unique perspective on this and the newfound freedom to talk about it, is Michael Astrue. He spent six years as the commissioner for Social Security before recently stepping down. And he's with us now from member station WBUR. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Is it congratulations on your retirement?

MICHAEL ASTRUE: Oh, I think so. And thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: You ended your work at the Social Security Administration earlier this month, and you wasted no time in speaking out about the way political leaders treat the program. You said, quote, "I think it's the most successful domestic program in the history of the United States government and it's fraying because of inattention to its problems. And I think it's a shame that Washington cannot get its act together to look at Social Security in detail, in isolation, and say what do we need to do?" unquote.

So why is it that with a program that's so central to the lives of many Americans - I mean, you point out - many people have pointed out that a majority of Americans get the majority of their retirement income from Social Security, but it is the subject of this kind of inattention. You'd think it would be the opposite.

ASTRUE: Well, I think it's a function of a dysfunctional Congress. I think you look at how all the significant issues have been handled, certainly in the last six years that I was in Washington, very little of substance got done, even when they announced so-called agreements. I mean, in 2007 they announced an agreement on an immigration bill and six years later we're talking about it as if none of that was ever theoretically agreed to six years ago

You look at sequestration, and while personally I think that we do have a spending problem and Washington should be making cuts, these across the board cuts are an extremely dumb way to make those cuts, in my opinion. And I think that's what the Congress and the president thought. They thought that no one would allow sequestration to kick in, and yet here we are.

So I guess my frustration is Congress doesn't legislate in the traditional way anymore. The hearings are show for the media. They're not tied to legislation anymore. I think I testified, I think, 20 times over six years and none of it was tied even to a reasonable effort to get legislation passed. So I think part of the reason why we're where we are, is that Congress, aside from being afraid of the issue, generally, is just not legislating.

Just does not have processes anymore that it accepts that allow it to deal with hard issues.

MARTIN: You mentioned that you testified a number of times before the congress.

ASTRUE: Right.

MARTIN: Is there one thing that you would like to say now that you couldn't say then?

ASTRUE: I think I said it in the AP article that ran the day after I left, which is this is a great program. It needs to adapt with the times. Last time there was a truly major overhaul was 30 years ago. And no program is engraved in stone, no matter how great it is. And I think that the Congress owes it to the American people to look at Social Security in isolation and say what more do we want to pay, if any?

What benefits do we want to cut, if any? But right now, if we do nothing, not only are benefits automatically reduced across the board for retirees 20 years from now, we're only about three years away from automatic sizeable reductions in payments to disability beneficiaries. And these issues are solvable. They're probably more solvable than health care issues but they are still hard.

And we need to have that discussion. We need to have that dialogue. And the fact that there's been literally no serious conversation in the congress about fixing Social Security in the six years I was commissioner is a sad, sad thing.

MARTIN: Is there one thing you would want the public to get about Social Security, that you think, perhaps, they don't now get?

ASTRUE: Sure. I think that there are two things, if I may. I mean, one is that there is this connection between payments and benefits. Everybody wants more benefits, but it's a social insurance program. People are going to have to pay for it. And in particular, I think for most reform proposals people are suggesting that current beneficiaries be left relatively in tact. And I'm for that.

But, on the other hand, what that means is the burden of taxation will fall on the younger generation, and they really have to be active participants in terms of how much they're willing to pay for the benefits they're going to get down the road. And I see, you know, no discussion of that happening, whatsoever.

MARTIN: You've only recently stepped down from the Social Security Administration. Is there anything that you miss? Or is there anything you particularly don't miss now that you've left?

ASTRUE: Well, I think what I miss the most are the people of the agency. Unlike other government agencies, almost everybody at Social Security is a lifer. And they're very talented, they're very dedicated. And so when you leave you know that you're not going to have, you know, that experience again. And that's sad.

MARTIN: Anything you particularly don't miss?

ASTRUE: Sure. I mean, I don't miss having everything I say being cleared by a 28-year-old at OMB. And I'm not critical of OMB for that. Don't get me wrong. I mean, I think the president needs to have some consistency of message. But it does get very frustrating. And particularly when you're trying to say something important and it's neutered down to a platitude. I always found it difficult to go out and just voice the platitudes.

So, you know, getting my First Amendment rights back and being able to say what I think, you know, you don't miss that until you've given it up. And I guess, you know, when you've given it up you appreciate it more when you get it back. So.

MARTIN: We are talking with Michael Astrue. He is the former commissioner of the Social Security Administration. He's just stepped down from his post, just recently. And in the time that we have left, I wanted to talk about your other life. It has only recently been revealed that you are actually a very accomplished poet. That you have been publishing under the pseudonym A. M. Juster for a number of years.

It's hard to describe, like, within the world of poetry you've actually been quite well recognized. I just - I'm dying to know why you kept it secret for all those years. And you really did.


MARTIN: Secret is not quite right, right? I mean, because you're a published poet, but you kept your worlds very separate.

ASTRUE: I kept my worlds very separate and I think when I first started thinking about trying to publish poetry I realized that the business and government worlds that I was functioning in, in a fairly high level, didn't really respect people that engaged in the arts. And likewise, in artistic communities, people that have substantial jobs outside those artistic communities tend to be looked at with suspicion.

And so I explained it to one of my friends, the great local poet XJ Kennedy, is I didn't want to be a novelty act. You know, I wanted to sort of stand, particularly in the literary world, on my own merits. And I was pretty comfortable keeping it separate and was rather annoyed in 2010 when I was first outed in the trade press for Social Security.

And then later there was a very flattering article in First Things that went into a lot more detail, which made me feel a little better about it because the article was so nice. But I think down deep I still wish that I'd been able to keep my life separate.

MARTIN: I can understand that, given particularly how very personal and intimate some of your images are. I mean I'm thinking about the wonderful sonnet "Cancer Prayer."


MARTIN: But I'm, you know, going to ask - would you be kind enough to share one of your poems with us?

ASTRUE: Well, since you mentioned "Cancer Prayer," which also is the one that people seem to request the most, let me try that. "Cancer Prayer." Dear Lord, please flood her nerves with sedatives and keep her strong enough to crack a smile so disbelieving friends and relatives can temporarily sustain denial. Please smite that intern in oncology who craves approval from department heads. Please ease her urge to vomit. Let there be kind but flirtatious men in nearby beds. Given her hair, consider amnesty for sense of vanity. Make mirrors vanish. Surround her with forgiving family and nurses not too numb to cry. Please banish trite consolations. Take her in one swift and gentle motion as your final gift.

MARTIN: Wow. That is beautiful and so up-to-the-minute and so real. Before we let you go, I'm going to ask a question that women are often asked because I do note that...

ASTRUE: Uh-oh.

MARTIN:'ve been married - well, you've been married for 33 years. Right?

ASTRUE: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: You've served at the very highest levels of government. You've raised two children with your wife.

ASTRUE: Right.

MARTIN: And along with your public work, you've published five books, working on a sixth, a number of which have won some prestigious awards. One was the Richard Wilbur Award. And so I just want to ask, how did you manage it all?

ASTRUE: Well, I think it's finding the wasted time. You know, in the old days when I was commuting into Cambridge, I'd be stuck in traffic and those would be moments - instead of getting irritated at the traffic, I would try to come up with another line on the poem that I was working on. Airplanes and terminals. You get stuck and at some point, particularly with a lot of the work I've done, it's confidential. You can't bring your paperwork out in terminals, so I tried to use some of those awful hours stuck, you know, between flights as an opportunity, actually, to spend some concentrated time on poetry, and it actually tended to be some of my best time because there were no other distractions.

You know, when you're home, you know, you've got your wife, you've got your children and you've got the temptations of the Internet and television and that kind of thing. You're stuck in a terminal with a piece of paper and a pencil. That's about all you can really do. At least that's all I can really do.

MARTIN: Michael Astrue is the former commissioner of the Social Security Administration. He is also, as we just heard, an accomplished poet and he was kind enough to join us from member station WBUR in Boston.

Michael Astrue, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ASTRUE: Oh, no. Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you for your service and thank you for your poetry.

ASTRUE: Well, thank you for having me on. I'm very grateful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.