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Risk Has Been Opportunity for This Pioneer

Risk Has Been Opportunity for This Pioneer

A. Haeworth Robertson, FSA, MAAA, began his actuarial career doing everything by the book—education, good–paying job, moving up the ranks. But as much as he enjoyed these, he wanted more. So he took a leap of faith and followed his dream.

By Sam Phillips and Jacque Kirkwood

In 1975, at age 45 and after many years of searching, A. Haeworth Robertson found his "actuarial mission" in life while he was serving as chief actuary of the U.S. Social Security Administration: to alert the employee benefit community and the public—as well as the actuarial profession—to the problems that lay ahead for Social Security and Medicare. Currently, he is president of The Retirement Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at haeworth@aol.com.

Did you always plan to become an actuary? At the University of Oklahoma, I was a mathematics major intending to become some sort of engineer. In a career guidance book I found a statement about actuarial science. Basically, it noted that the disadvantage of becoming an actuary was that it required long, hard hours of study. I liked school, studying and learning. If long, hard hours of study would set me apart from the rest, that's what I would do. So, in 1951, I enrolled at the University of Michigan in the master's degree program in actuarial science.

What did you do after graduation? I spent two years in the Air Force, initially on a task force that performed the first actuarial valuation of the military retirement system, and then in a section that reviewed pension plans of government contractors. I also worked part time for an employee benefits consulting firm performing actuarial valuations.

Upon leaving the Air Force in 1955, I worked for a major employee benefits consulting firm, specializing in employee benefit plans. I chose consulting over a large life insurance company because I wanted as much responsibility as I could handle without having to deal with problems of seniority or a bureaucracy. My primary goal was to earn a good living for my family and for me. For the next eight years, I worked for three such firms in four different cities, with ever–increasing responsibility and earnings.

Is work your passion? While conventional work can certainly be gratifying, it wasn't enough for me. I wanted to travel, learn about the world and its people and consult worldwide on a part–time basis. But this required a strong financial base, which I didn't have at the time. An assessment of my skills and experience suggested that I start some kind of life insurance venture. So this is what I did for the next five years. It was the most difficult period in my life, but I survived it and came away with a modest nest egg that enabled me to do what I wanted—within limits—for the next 35 years. I traveled to more than 100 countries, lived and worked in many of them and frequently consulted on social insurance matters.

Do you feel your travels helped to bring North American actuarial and business expertise and perspective to other parts of the world? I was fortunate to be able to be part of a host of activities and to work with a variety of officials in other parts of the world. I provided actuarial advice, consulted on social security programs and social insurance and was guest lecturer at several universities.

What has been your most memorable career achievement? My most memorable career achievement was writing my three Social Security books, particularly the first one in 1981, The Coming Revolution in Social Security. This book was a comprehensive exposition on U.S. Social Security, its problems and proposed reforms. It was the subject of a hearing in 1981 before the Senate Finance Committee's Subcommittee on Social Security. I believe this book influenced adoption of the Personal Benefit Statement, advising workers what they might expect to receive from Social Security so they could plan appropriate supplementation. The book was placed on the study syllabus of both the Society of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society.

My 1992 book, Social Security: What Every Taxpayer Should Know, was placed on the study syllabus of the Society of Actuaries, the Casualty Actuarial Society and the American Society of Pension Actuaries. It was also translated into Chinese in 1994. Writing and publishing my third book, The Big Lie: What Every Baby Boomer Should Know About Social Security and Medicare was also a significant accomplishment for me.

What was it like to be the chief actuary of the U.S. Social Security Administration? The chief actuary has certain prescribed duties, principally preparing—in conjunction with the system's Trustees—an annual report on the financial outlook for Social Security and Medicare; and financial analyses of proposed changes in the systems. After overseeing these technical analyses for a few months, I concluded that the systems would have almost insurmountable financial and design challenges in the years ahead as the baby boom population matured; that the greatest obstacle to effecting rational changes was the lack of understanding—both among the public and within the administration—of the nature of Social Security and its financing; and that no one in the administration or elsewhere seemed concerned about, or was addressing, these problems.

It was time to step outside my important—but relatively narrow—role as a technician, and inform the public, as well as the legislators and the administration, about the long range consequences of continuing obliviously down this path. This I proceeded to do and in October 1976, received the Commissioner's Citation (the Social Security Administration's highest honor award) and in April 1978, received the Arthur J. Altmeyer Award (conferred by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) for "superior performance in planning and directing the actuarial activities of the Social Security Administration, and in recognition of especial efforts in interpreting the status of Social Security financing for public organizations and individuals."

What prompted your resignation? After only three years as chief actuary, it became evident that I should leave the administration to have more time and freedom to continue this educational outreach activity. So, in 1978 I resigned and spent the next 25 years trying to alert the public, legislators and administrators and actuaries to the problems that lay ahead. This entailed writing three full–length books and more than 100 articles, and giving hundreds of formal presentations to thousands of people.

Are there any particular events that stand out during your actuarial career? In January 1980, I was asked to appear on the MacNeil–Lehrer Report "to keep Henry Aaron honest." This was a nationally televised 30–minute news–interview show entitled, "Social Security: Facing the Cost." Dr. Aaron was chairman of the 1979 Advisory Council Report on Social Security, which falsely assured the public "it would receive all the benefits to which it was entitled" and then proceeded to recommend that benefits be curtailed in various ways.

My appearance on the MacNeil–Lehrer Report generated a lot of significant fan mail. Charles A. Siegfried, a prominent actuary and former president of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, wrote, "I thought your comments were very good and I was especially pleased with your concluding remarks. Congratulations." Ray M. Peterson, another prominent actuary, wrote, "The McNeil–Lehrer Report last evening presented the best Social Security TV discussion that I have seen or heard. I was particularly proud to have the actuarial profession so well represented. Your calm, informed remarks should have had an excellent effect upon the viewers."

In May 2004, I received the Robert J. Myers Public Service Award for distinguished contributions by an actuary in public service. In June 2007, The Actuarial Foundation presented me the Wynn Kent Public Communication Award for my "contributions in seminars, media interviews, articles and public appearances in communicating important issues to a wide variety of audiences over many years."

Are you proud of your profession? I believe the actuarial profession is not only a very honorable one, but one that is essential in today's society. We help people identify and manage many of the risks of everyday life. If the profession is deficient, it is because we are not more vocal in calling these risks to the attention of those concerned.

Have you expanded the frontiers of actuarial practice? I believe I have been articulate in explaining actuarial findings and the consequences of these findings to a broad public. By speaking out forcefully about the future financial and design problems of Social Security and Medicare, I would like to think that I have not only educated the public but have inspired actuaries and other professionals to stand up and be counted on other issues. In my writings and speeches I have advocated periodic benefit statements advising Social Security participants of the amount of their future benefits, so they can plan properly for retirement and other contingencies.

What risks have you taken? I've taken a number of risks throughout my career, but some stand out more than others, like helping to organize and serve as president of a start–up life insurance company in 1964 at age 33—one of my biggest financial risks. I gave up a secure, well–paying job and borrowed well beyond my means (and sold my house to access the equity) to bet that I could succeed in a venture I knew very little about, in order to gain a small nest egg that would give me more freedom of choice in my career.

Moving from St. Louis to Geneva, Switzerland in 1973 for a two–year assignment with the International Labor Office, and taking the entire family into a foreign culture, severing all social and community ties for the family, was also a considerable risk. Virtually all of my many international assignments involved significant risks of one kind or another.

Returning to the United States in 1975 to become chief actuary of U.S. Social Security Administration is top on the risk list as well. I had no experience working in a large bureaucracy, or supervising a 65–person office of actuaries and support staff; I knew very little about the day–to–day work of this office; and I was fairly certain that Social Security and Medicare would have significant financial problems in the future.

Writing The Coming Revolution in Social Security in 1981, and calling attention to Social Security's and Medicare's long–range financial condition and the consequences thereof was particularly risky to me as well as the public.

Do you consider yourself an actuarial pioneer? I was the first person from Oklahoma—born, reared and educated there—to become a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries. In that regard, I guess you could say I am a pioneer of sorts.

What are your future plans? My future plans include compiling a chrestomathy, a selection of passages from my books, articles and speeches over the past 30 years to demonstrate that it is indeed feasible to anticipate the future consequences of financial and policy decisions made today—something that actuaries are trained to do.

Sam Phillips is staff editor and Jacque Kirkwood is senior communications associate at the Society of Actuaries. They can be reached at sphillips@soa.org and jkirkwood@soa.org.