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Friday, May 9, 2014

Harry Clay Ballantyne, a Great Contributor to Social Security

Stephen C. Goss, Social Security Administration

Harry was such a class act. Many of us in the Office of the Actuary, where Harry served his entire career, learned so much from Harry, as we did from the Bobs- Bob Ball and Bob Myers.  Harry was a mentor to several generations in the office. 

As longtime actuary at SSA, he worked on all components of the OASDI program. Harry was involved in every detail of the computations and the presentation and was hugely respected by all.  Harry was soft spoken, but he was strong and decisive.  His work until 1982 in the Short-Range estimates component of the Office of the Actuary spanned several major reforms, including the 1972 and 1977 Social Security Amendments.  His leadership and ability to command the respect and confidence of policymakers vastly expanded the ability of the office to assist and influence policy in Congress and in the Administration.   

His bio is remarkable in its brevity but the job titles say it all. “Harry C. Ballantyne was the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration from 1982 through 2000. He began his career with the Social Security Administration as an actuary in 1958.”  Harry received his BS from Iowa State College. He majored in Physics, and was such an impressive student that he was hired upon graduation, on the basis of a phone interview.

What many may not realize is that Social Security is a living program, with technical changes nearly every year.  And dozens of potential changes are considered each year that do not result in legislation. One of the most important and fundamental changes came for Social Security in the 1983 Amendments.  Harry was elevated to Chief Actuary during this period and played an influential role in developing the Amendments, working tirelessly with Congressional staff.   Even after the dramatic legislative changes of 1983.  Harry supervised continuing work for the Trustees of OASDI, making sure everything was as accurate as possible, so Americans would have accurate information on Trust Fund solvency over the 75 years horizon.

And for us who chose government service as a career, we note with pleasure his recognitions: Mr. Ballantyne received several Commissioner's Citation Awards, two Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Awards, and two Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Awards. We miss Harry, but his legacy lives on.

Posted on May 9, 2014  |  Add your comment

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A consumate civil servant who viewed public service as public "service," not just a job. And he did so even though some Chief Executives (Presidents) and many legislators (Senators as well as members of the House) denigrated him and other civil servants as just "bureaucrats" who were feeding at the public trough. In his way he helped build a stronger America and we honor him for that.
I didn’t know Harry Ballantyne well. But after Bob Ball died, in 2008, I wrote a piece about him for the Baltimore Sun — and promptly received a very complimentary email from Harry. It’s about Bob. But it’s also about Harry. Here’s an excerpt:

“I had the honor of knowing Bob Ball and working under him, from 1958 through 2000. It's true that he left SSA in 1973, but… he never really left social insurance until the day he died. As John Snee and I used to say, we had several bosses after 1973, including Bob Ball.

“There is a brief tribute to Bob Ball on SSA's History Site that describes him so well. It starts:

"’The man who runs the biggest retirement and insurance system in the world is calm, helpful, friendly, caring, immensely competent and virtually anonymous even to most of the Americans he helps.’

“I worked as an actuary in SSA. When I first came to SSA in 1958, I worked in the short-range office under the supervision of Larry Alpern, also now deceased. I always thought that Larry was a very demanding person, and quite difficult to please… Once, many years ago, Larry asked me to get some information for Bob Ball about some program matter. It was a difficult request, and I had not been able to do it before Bob Ball called Larry for the information. So, Larry handed the phone to me for my first direct contact with Mr. Ball; and I found out that dealing with Larry Alpern was just dress rehearsal for dealing with Bob Ball. Not that I found Bob Ball to be a difficult person at all, though he was demanding. But I always found him to have the qualities so well stated in the above quote: calm, helpful, friendly, caring, and immensely competent, and he had all those qualities, I believe, in the greatest measure of anyone I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I long believed that he would have made the greatest President that this country has ever had; but actually, I think you could make a very strong argument that he probably made a greater contribution to this country, and to the whole world really, by serving it as he did.”

Re-reading Harry’s message today, I’m struck by what it says about the quality of the people who made the Social Security Administration the exemplary model of public service that it was and is. SSA has been a magnet for calm, helpful, friendly, caring, and immensely competent people. Harry was one of those, as is his successor as Chief Actuary. At a time when government routinely gets a bad rap, it seems all the more important for us to pause and say a grateful farewell to Harry Ballantyne: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I worked very closely with Harry from the time he became acting chief actuary in October 1981 until I left the government in 1988. During those almost 7 years, I discovered that the shy, quiet man who sometimes seemed to hide in the background was extremely knowledgeable, very willing to share his knowledge and actually held strong opinions about quite a few things, though he never trumpeted those opinions outside of a small circle of mostly other actuaries. I must have emerged from a different mold and couldn't help being fascinated by Harry's personality.

It's also interesting to observe that Harry was one of several SSA employees who had the respect and, really, the friendship of the two Bobs: Ball and Myers. Because the two Bobs took diametrically opposed positions on many issues -- but never regarding their mutual love of the Social Security program -- Harry sometimes helped them (and others, too) to reach common ground. Harry was quiet but clever, and his approaches to policy matters could be ingenious.

Harry was never one of the "giants" who shook the earth when they entered a room. But his contributions to the Social Security program should not be underestimated.
It was my privilege to work with Harry for almost 30 years. I was a Director in the legislative development area of the Retirement and Survivors programs for most of those years, so I was often the one hounding Harry for estimates of the costs of various legislative proposals. Given the nature of the legislative process in those days, always fast-paced, but often chaotic and frenetic, many of my requests involved complex legal changes and often came well after business hours. Tensions were often high and tempers on full display.

No matter the stresses, Harry was unfailingly polite and and more than patient in explaining the arcane calculations that he his crackerjack team had developed. His integrity when faced with political pressures to shift the estimates in one way or another to meet the demands of legislators, was, as they say today, "awesome."

To me, Harry was an intellectual marvel and a prince. I will always remember him with great admiration and affection. Rest in peace, Harry.
Harry Ballantyne is one example of what has made Social Security the rock solid program it has been. He personified the ideal of public service with which Bob Ball did so much to infuse this most successful public program. He was not glamorous or electrifying. But he was utterly dedicated to honest, responsible service. He didn't panic when the program was under assault. He was steady, dependable, and a quiet reassuring presence
when the going was rough.
Merton Bernstein who experienced Harry's solidity when working as the Principal Consultant to the 1982-1983 National Commission on Social Security Reform.
A truly terrific person, who was a pleasure to work with. Always a very steady and professional executive. He will be missed.
On behalf of the entire family, I want all of you to know that we feel supported and comforted by the outpouring of good wishes and memories of Dad expressed by all of you as well as other friends and associates. At a time when we feel such loss and grief, it is so good to hear about other lives that Dad touched and from those who appreciated his passion for his work. He cared so much about Social Security because he cared so much about people. He was always aware that everything he did in his professional life had a direct impact on men and women and their ability not only to survive, but to live their lives with dignity. I learned so much from him! Many thanks to all of you for your kind words at this time - they mean a great deal to us.

For those of you who are interested and may not yet have this information, we have planned a memorial service for Dad on Thursday, May 22. It will take place at the Wesley Freedom United Methodist Church at 961 Johnsville Road, Eldersburg, MD, 21784. We will begin receiving visitors at 2:00 P.M., and the service itself will take place at 3:00 P.M. There will not be any viewing or funeral, since Dad's wishes were to have his body donated for science.

Again, thank you for your expressions of condolence, and especially for your remembrances of Dad. We are humbled and honored by your kind words.
I can't resist a brief tribute to Harry. I always thought that he was the quietest, most unassuming GIANT I ever knew at SSA. He was the quintessential public servant. We never worked closely, but I loved every minute I spent in a meeting with Harry.
Harry Ballantyne was a great civil servant and private citizen. Long after his retirement, he co-authored an Economic Policy Institute report dispelling the myth that Social Security--which must operate in long-term balance--was driving our nation into debt. Though in weakening health, he was determined to defend the program he devoted his career to. And though he wasn't the type to say "I told you so," an important part of the story was that Social Security's actuaries, far from being taken by surprise by the Baby Boomer retirement, increases in life expectancy, and other supposedly calamitous demographic trends that critics like former Senator Alan Simpson liked to suggest had crashed the system, had accurately predicted them years ago and dealt with them. What no one inside or outside Social Security had predicted was that wage stagnation, rising inequality, and the Great Recession would erode the program's funding--a problem that suggests entirely different solutions. It was an honor to work with him. Monique Morrissey
http://www.epi.org/publication/social_security_and_the_federal_deficit/

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