Sunday, July 11, 2010

NY Times: Conflict Between SSA Commissioner, Chief Actuary

The New York Times Robert Pear reports – very elliptically, I think – on a conflict between the Commissioner of Social Security Michael Astrue and SSA's chief actuary, Steve Goss.

A rift has developed between the Social Security commissioner and the agency's chief actuary, causing members of Congress to worry about possible interference with the work of the actuary's office just as lawmakers begin hearings on the future of Social Security. In interviews and in letters to the administration, lawmakers said they relied on the actuary, Stephen C. Goss, for objective analysis of proposals to change Social Security. And they made clear that he should not be reassigned or demoted as Congress prepared for a re-examination of the program, now celebrating its 75th anniversary.

It's a bit of an odd article because it's never really very clear what exactly the conflict is over. Maybe a personality clash, maybe differences over Goss's willingness to talk about Social Security reform (albeit always from an actuarial perspective, not in terms of pushing solutions of his own). The reporting is hamstrung by the fact that SSA won't say much about personnel matters, so we're left with Members of Congress writing letters to support Steve Goss yet it's not clear what the conflict is really about.

Having been at SSA and worked with Commissioner Astrue and Steve Goss for a number of years, I have some vague ideas about the possibilities, but not enough that may opinion is worth much on an obviously sensitive matter. My general take, though, is that the actuaries should be as independent as possible, given the importance of their work and the temptations for elected officials to pressure them to produce given results. (I have not heard that any such pressure was brought to bear by Commissioner Astrue, and in any case I'm reasonably confident that this conflict doesn't really hinge on Social Security reform issues.) That said, the actuary's office should also be as transparent and responsive as possible. The Commissioner or elected officials can't and shouldn't tell the actuaries how to produce their estimates, but there should be as much clarity as possible in terms of how the estimates were arrived at.

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