Robert M. Ball is one of the most revered figures in Social Security history, a man whose devotion to safeguarding the program from ideological attacks and political cant over six decades made him the program's "undisputed spiritual leader."
Alice M. Rivlin is a distinguished budget expert at the Brookings Institution whose willingness to promote "entitlement reform" (read: cut benefits) as a deficit nostrum has given her a reputation as a danger to Social Security and Medicare.
So when Rivlin was named the ninth recipient of the annual Robert M. Ball Award for Outstanding Achievements in Social Insurance this week, Social Security advocates erupted in fury.
The critics complain that Rivlin's grasp of social insurance principles is spotty at best. They argue that her tendency to treat Social Security and Medicare as mere expenditure line items to be kneaded into place in a broader deficit policy doesn't meet the award's goals; it's supposed to recognize people who have demonstrated "innovation" or "effectiveness" in furthering public understanding of the programs.
They have a point. It doesn't help that Rivlin, 82, has affiliated herself with groups funded by hedge fund billionaire Peter G. Peterson, whose hostility to Social Security and Medicare is legendary and who isn't above using ginned-up panic over government deficits as a weapon.
The main target of the critics' wrath is the National Academy of Social Insurance, which bestows the award and, as it happens, was founded by Ball. The organization created the Ball award in 2004 to honor Ball on his 90th birthday. (He died in 2008.) Some NASI members are talking about resigning in protest.