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Monday, March 24, 2014

Honoring Bob Ball on his 100th birthday

Tom Bethell, National Academy of Social Insurance

Robert M. Ball had every intention of living to 100, and he almost made it. Born on March 28, 1914, he was just two months shy of his 93rd birthday when he died in 2008. Until the very end he worked ceaselessly to promote the evolution of social insurance and to protect the programs he had administered and championed — notably Social Security and Medicare — against every attempt to weaken them. His name may have been unfamiliar to most of the Americans whose security he made his life’s work, but, as Senator Edward M. Kennedy said of him: “Few if any in the long history of our country have done so much for so many for so long.”

Bob Ball devoted his entire adult life to public service, which he saw as a high calling. Now, as we mark his centennial on March 28, how would he most want to be remembered?

He was a deep thinker, a brilliant administrator, and a patient and confident negotiator who took quiet pride in always being the best-informed person in the room. As he once wrote, describing the qualities of a successful Social Security administrator, “As a general principle, timidity is to be avoided.” He avoided it in style. The photo that accompanies this post shows Bob in his element — holding forth in the East Room of the White House in 1966, describing the flawless implementation of Medicare to a rapt audience. He was justifiably proud of his accomplishments, and of the remarkable men and women who served under him at the Social Security Administration — but what concerned him greatly was the urgent need to ensure that the programs he cared so much about would be preserved and improved by future generations of leaders.

That concern prompted him to found the National Academy of Social Insurance in 1986. As Treasury Secretary and NASI member Jack Lew said of him: “He was a role model for several generations of policymakers who learned from Bob what it means to be a great public servant.” It is as mentor — to many, many of NASI’s members and staff, past and present — that Bob would want to be remembered. And what would please him most would be the knowledge that the Academy he created is succeeding in its mission of leadership development.

Today, former NASI interns and staff members serve in key leadership roles in government, academia, business, advocacy organizations, and the media. And currently — continuing a 24-year tradition — NASI members and staff are in the process of selecting, from more than 100 applicants, 15 to 18 individuals who will serve 12-week internships this summer with social insurance-related policy projects in Washington, D.C.

Like their predecessors, this year’s interns will gain a deeper understanding of what NASI founding member Ted Marmor meant when he wrote that “humane societies require stable institutions of social insurance to soften the blows of capitalism’s harshest features” — and why the continued stability of these institutions can never be taken for granted. If past experience is a guide, many of this year’s interns will take that message to heart and pursue careers that serve the common good. (Indeed, two former interns — Kristine Quinio and Kristen Arnold — now serve on NASI’s staff.)

The National Academy of Social Insurance will honor Bob Ball’s 100th birthday and his vision with a new fund to support and sustain the Academy’s leadership development initiatives — including individual mentoring by NASI members and staff. (You can learn more about the memorial fund here.) As Bob Ball knew so well, there is no better way to invest in the future of social insurance than by identifying, educating, and encouraging tomorrow’s leaders.

Posted on March 24, 2014  |  Add your comment
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One of my recollections of Bob was his being so even-handed and open-minded in his readiness to discuss/debate issues when I would be more right-leaning than many of my associates. Just that willingness to discuss opened doors of opportunity for learning and the recognition of alternative views that contribute to the richness of our programs. He was a great example for us all.c
Carson Beadle
I had the honor of being chosen by Bob Ball and his colleagues to help organize the National Academy of Social Insurance over a quarter of a century ago. As one of the Academy's Founding Board Members, I had the unique and priceless opportunity to witness first hand Bob's extraordinary skills and impeccable style. He truly personified the concepts of unwavering dignity, intellectual honesty, and principled compromise.

From that point on, Bob was always available for invaluable guidance and sage advice. I still have and treasure his handwritten notes to me. On every challenging Social Security issue since Bob's passing in 2008 - and there continue to be many - I always ask myself "What would Bob Ball do?" I greatly miss being able to pick up the phone and ask him.

As one of Bob's most significant legacies, our Academy plays an indispensable role in the ongoing effort to promote public understanding of the importance of social insurance. He envisioned it, in Nancy Altman's words, as a "network for existing experts and a magnet to draw new professionals." Now more than ever, we need the network to thrive and the magnet to attract a new generation of social insurance scholars.
Bob Ball dedicated his professional career to the advancement and strengthening of our nation's social insurance system. His commitment to, depth of knowledge of, and passion for social insurance were unmatched, and remain so today. He truely was a giant -- an exemplary leader. Bob was a great teacher for all who were fortunate enough to be in his presence -- Presidents, Senators, Representatives, Committe Chairmen, Cabinet Secretaries, Executive Branch appointees, Congressional staff, Civil Servants, the members and staff of NASI, and the media -- all learned from him about the meaning and importance of Social Security to average Americans and how the system's financing and benefits could be strengthened.

Above all, it was his integrity, his decency, his modesty, his dedication, his fairness, his desire to educate, his ability to let others take the credit for work well done, which made him one of the greatest public servants to bless our nation.

Bob never sought the lime light. He did not seek credit in public forums for his great achievements. He understood that to make advancements, the politicians would seek the credit and attention. Bob's reward was the advancement of good social insurance policy.

Washington, DC is loaded with those who seek attention and media coverage -- who consider themselves to be smarter and more informed than the workers and beneficiaries served by social insurance programs. Bob was the opposite of this -- he led by his example -- by what he did. His leadership is sorely missed in the Washington, DC of today. We all can learn from his example and seek to emulate what he was teaching us every day of his life.
In everyone's career there are a few very special people who are a great influence and affect our thinking and development in a profound way. This was obviously true of Bob ball for very many people.

While I started working at Social Security in the Office of the Actuary in 1973, I did not have significant contact with Bob until almost a decade later, with his work on the "Greenspan" Commission. I was lucky enough to get to know Bob a lot better starting 1994, during the last Social Security Advisory Council which ran through 1996. In this Council Bob was masterful in making his points and directing the flow of discussion. Any who were there learned a lot not just about Social security, but also how to effectively work in a group of individuals with widely divergent and deeply held views.

I was lucky enough to have frequent contact with Bob thereafter on one of his favorite topics, potential adjustments to the Social security program to improve its financial status so that young people would always maintain confidence in this program. Bob had a remarkable ability to focus on the essence of a problem, distil it, and think creatively about an optimal solution. Noone could ask for a better mentor in critical thinking and dozens of people benefited immensely from being to work with Bob. He was that prolific.

Bob's commitment to family, taking time off (well sort of) to go to Bear island each summer was a lesson to us all. His commitment to a broader family, particularly NASI was intense and ever present. Bob had the unusual ability of making everyone he talked to feel that they mattered. He did this of course by listening carefully and reacting to other's ideas, and diplomatically telling you were wrong with a gentle touch.

I like many have many little personal stories about times with Bob, many unique and extremely special. Mine was at the retirement (from the Senate) reception for Bob Kerrey when it had just been announced by NASI that there was going to be a Bob Ball award starting that year. Talking to Bob at the reception, I shared with him my suggestion that one of my predecessors as Chief Actuary of Social security be the recipient of this award for the first year. You can imagine my shock when he said to me no he thought I should get this award for the work I had done and hopefully would do in the future. When I learned later that in fact I had been selected for this singular honor I realized that as wonderful as it was, it came with an enormous requirement to try to follow in Bob's footsteps, always doing all we can in the most objective and honest way we are able to in service of the American people.

Working with Pam Larson and all at NASI, and all in the policy community in years since has been rewarding and fulfilling beyond imagination. Striving to be a little more like Bob is something we all should do every day. Bob's influence will hopefully never fade.
Bob was for me, as for so many others, a respected mentor. Before I knew him well, an old DC veteran said, 'you know, Washington is full of high-paid lawyers, but Bob Ball is the best advocate in town.' Sure! I thought. It took a while, but I learned that this observation was correct. In working to bring one to his side, Bob was respectful, relentless, honest, and sincere. You can't beat that. He did what he did because of his convictions. The combination was formidable.

Bob was proud of what he did, but he was most proud of some things. One of the high points I think was the roll-out of Medicare, a success that has particualr resonance these days. How did it happen, I once asked him. 'We were in the room when the bill was drafted," he said, "so that we made sure it would work." It is also well known that enactment of Medicare was so long delayed largely because of the fear by Southern senators and representatives, who chaired the key committees, that Medicare would lead to desegregation of Southern hospitals. Bob made sure that when the Medicare finally became law, their fears would be borne out--and he took particular pride in it.

No one, I suppose, is truly irreplaceable, but Bob Ball comes close. His departure from the world of policy, in which he was enormously influential until virtually the day of his death, is a loss that I and many others feel to this very day.

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