Whitesburg KY

The savior of Social Security

Sometimes great and influential lives are lived quietly, far from the flash and the limelight. Such was the case with Robert M. Ball, who died Jan. 30. Although you may not know his name, during his long career in public service (much of it spent living and working in Baltimore), he saved Social Security – not just once, but on three separate occasions.

Mr. Ball started working at what was then the Social Security Board in 1939, rose through the ranks, was appointed commissioner of the Social Security Administration in 1962, and oversaw the program’s expansion under Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He was also one of Medicare’s planners and its first administrator.

That’s impressive enough. But then, after retiring from government service in 1973, Mr. Ball launched a second, 35- year career as Social Security’s chief defender. This was arguably the role for which he was born, and for which he deserves to be long remembered.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Social Security fell victim to unprecedented inflation. Outlays for benefits soared because of the program’s statutory cost-of-living adjustments. But with unemployment climbing at the same time, revenues to the program from payroll taxes fell far below expectations. This swept Social Security toward the brink of insolvency.

In 1981, after President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to cut benefits backfired, he asked Alan Greenspan to chair a bipartisan commission charged with recommending changes to the program. The commission, on which Mr. Ball served, promptly deadlocked and seemed headed for failure.

Then, at virtually the last minute, Mr. Ball quietly and deftly negotiated a compromise package with the increasingly desperate White House. His solution was a sophisticated mix of tax increases and benefit cuts, artfully constructed so that opponents of either one could claim victory. The package passed muster, first with Mr. Reagan and then with Congress, and the 1983 amendments saved Social Security.

Thus ended Act One of Bob Ball’s remarkable post-career career. Act Two came in 1996, when Mr. Ball, then 82, outmaneuvered several members of a Social Security advisory council on which he was serving and thereby headed off an early effort to advocate the partial privatization of the system.

That struggle set the stage for Act Three, which opened in 2005, when President Bush launched what was billed as the domestic centerpiece of his second term: the radical conversion of Social Security into a hybrid public-private system. If Mr. Bush’s campaign had prevailed, it almost certainly would have led to dismantling the house that Franklin D. Roosevelt built and that Bob Ball had done so much to shore up.

And so Mr. Ball went to bat once again for the program he cherished. Initially, it seemed a most uneven match: the power of the presidency vs. a 91-year-old man who didn’t even own a computer. He did, however, own a phone, a fax machine and a very fat Rolodex. And he knew the intricacies of Social Security as well as anyone in the country.

He knew the system wasn’t going broke, despite the president’s claims, and he was confident that a few relatively modest changes could fix things for the long run. He pressed his points in a series of briskly written broadsides that Doris Ball, his wife of 70 years, diligently dispatched from their cottage in a Collington retirement community.

It wouldn’t be fair to give Mr. Ball all of the credit for stopping the presidential juggernaut. He had important allies. But, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said, Mr. Ball was indisputably Social Security’s “most influential advocate, architect and philosopher,” and his words still carried great weight. Over the course of a long year – one that taxed his physical but not his mental strength – his arguments prevailed.

Bob Ball’s legacy is an intact Social Security program, which, with the changes he advocated (see his Web site, www.robertmball.org), can continue to serve Americans as well in the future as Bob Ball served them throughout a long, exemplary life.

Mountain Eagle contributing editor Thomas N. Bethell edited Robert M. Ball’s book “Insuring the Essentials: Bob Ball on Social Security,” and is editing Mr. Ball’s memoir. His e-mail is tombethell@gmail.com.

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