We recently sat down with Ken Buffin, a Member of the National Academy of Social Insurance since 2008, to learn more about his career as an actuary and what motivates him to stay active in policy development work. It has been many years since Ken retired, but he is still going strong in his field.
There are many actuaries among the Academy’s 1,000+ members, and though they may be working quietly at what they do, these Academy Members are active in decision making that affects millions of Americans. Academy Members and actuaries, like Ken Buffin, provide critical input on debates about Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and related policies.
Ken has been involved in the Academy’s Social Security policy and education work over the years. Through the Buffin Foundation, he has also been a generous financial contributor to the Academy’s programs, and mostly recently, as a major donor to the Rashi Fein Internship in Health Policy. We are inspired by his drive to use his expertise and experience to improve social insurance in the U.S. and across the globe.
For Policy Decisions: You Don’t Need an App, You Need an Actuary
Actuaries are at the heart of effective policy recommendations, which can either move decision-making forward or thwart its progress. “An actuary predicts the long-range cost implications of any new program, or any modification to systems that already exist,” Ken explained. “This requires very detailed, professional, and reliable cost analysis. Some politicians may put numbers into the air without any basis, just to suit their political purpose. However, when implementing policy, an assessment of long-range costs is crucial if programs are going to be sustained, grow, or be cut. Sustainability is a word I revere.”
It’s not just about numbers. “When writing a policy brief, actuaries are more focused on an intellectual approach to policy alternatives rather than actual number crunching,” Ken said. “Official cost data backs up the projections that actuaries quote in a policy brief. The brief, with its recommendations and costs can then be distributed to policy makers, members of Congress, staffers on the Hill, and the media.” Meetings and hearings are also important to the release of policy recommendations.
During the George W. Bush administration, Ken exercised his expertise to comment on the Commission to Strengthen Social Security (2001). “I considered my role as a counter balance to the effort to convert Social Security to a savings and investment plan with individual accounts. I wrote extensively at the time about the solvency and sustainability of the current system.” Ken was active as a co-author of several actuarial issue briefs around that time and subsequently became Chair of the Social Security Committee of the American Academy of Actuaries.
A Global View
Ken Buffin now devotes his time to working with The Buffin Foundation. He is a firm believer that if your profession gives you rewards and status, you should use that advantage to give back to the world. Ken lives up to that aspiration through involvement in, and financial support for, a number of organizations, including the National Academy of Social Insurance. His broadest scope of work is with the United Nations.
“I see my role as an advocate for humanity’s key issues; women’s rights, children’s rights, poverty, and universal health care,” he said. “I pick up from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These frame my philosophy of the global issues I’m advocating for; peace, security, and equality.” His efforts take him around the world—to speaking engagements in London, in creating a webinar for South Africa, to meetings in Mexico, and more.
At a recent workshop at the Institute of Actuaries in London, he aimed to educate actuaries on the role they can play in meeting the 17 key elements of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “There are certain goals that are particularly amenable to having actuarial input and guidance,” Ken said. “For instance, I challenged the workshop participants who may be in investments and insurance to think about the strengths, knowledge, experience, and technical qualifications they have and how they might support the goal of reducing global poverty (the U.N.’s number one goal).”
Ken Buffin is not slowing down any time soon. “How might actuaries help with the economic development of the less fortunate, those living in conditions of hunger, poverty, or disease?” he asked. “Or look at climate change; actuaries have to assess climate change risks and implement, or assist in implementing, certain mitigation strategies to provide some protection not only to insurance companies, but also to people and the planet. We want to take the profession out of its comfort zone to transform the world; to address all of the social and economic issues in need of a global response.”
Ken Buffin was previously president of Alexander Investment Consulting Group, a leading research and investment advisory company. Ken has chaired a number of committees for the International Actuarial Association and has shared his expertise with several international organizations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.