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Everyone else must fail

Dean Baker rightfully calls out the Washington Post for suggesting, at one and the same time, that there is both a surplus and a shortage of workers, and that to alleviate the shortage, we should “reform” the social security disability system.

At a time of unprecedented inequality, the Washington Post is quick to seize on the country’s real problems: a Social Security disability program that is too generous. The editorial was good enough not to get bogged down in phony arguments. It tells readers explicitly that rampant fraud is not a problem:

“Nor is the program’s growth the result of rampant fraud, as sometimes alleged; structural factors such as population aging explain much recent growth. Nevertheless, at a time of declining workforce participation, especially among so-called prime-age males (those between 25 and 54 years old), the nation’s long-term economic potential depends on making sure work pays for all those willing to work. And from that point of view, the Social Security disability program needs reform.”

So the problem is that the program is too generous for people who might still be able to work in spite of a disability.

Addendum: Where are the Robots?

I forgot to ask this important question. Just last week the Post ran a column that had us terrified that the robots were going to take all the jobs. Now they want us to worry that we don’t have enough workers because they are all living on their $1170 a month disability benefit. In economics this is known as the “which way is up problem?” Ostensibly intelligent people don’t have the slightest clue what they are talking about when it comes to the economy.

via Beat the Press

There’s another point to be made here, and I feel quite qualified to make it, as the bulk of my law practice consists of representing disability claimants. The Post presupposes that getting on disability is a piece of cake, and that all you have to do is quit working, file your application, and start collecting.

But it’s not quite that easy. The threshold question is this: how many people would give up the chance to work and make decent money in order to apply for benefits that can take anywhere from two to eight years to get, when the odds of success over that period are, perhaps, 40%. I’ve been representing claimants for more than 25 years now, and I’ve watched incredulously as relatively reasonable judges have been replaced by people whose sole objective is to deny claims, be they ever so meritorious. Let me share a few war stories, which, I assure you, are now typical. Let me start by clarifying that to get disability you don’t need to be a quadriplegic, you have to be unable to work on a sustained basis, which is a perfectly reasonable standard.

Consider this language, taken from a case involving a gentleman who has extremely bad knees. The judge is required to explain why he didn’t believe the claimant’s testimony about the extent of his physical limitations. Bear in mind we’re talking about a guy with bad knees.

“The claimant told Dr. [Name redacted]that he lived with his two children, ages 4 and 5, and he continued to drive (Exhibit 1F), which implies he takes care of them. At the hearing, the claimant testified that he lives with his younger, 9-year old son, and his girlfriend, who works as a manager of a wine and spirits shop. He said that he has a driver’s license, has no car, but drives rarely. The claimant testified that he came to Connecticut in 2009 by airplane. He said that since living in Connecticut, he has traveled by airplane to Florida to visit a friend. The claimant testified that he passes time by lying in bed and watching television. He said that he socializes with his girlfriend, but they do not go out. This level of activity is inconsistent with the allegation of total disability (Emphasis added)

That’s right. Somehow watching television lying down is inconsistent with a claim that you have bad knees, as is living in an apartment, and flying in a plane twice in five years. On appeal, the federal court remanded the case. That means the same judge hears the case again, with instructions not to screw up the same way he did the last time. This judge always finds another ridiculous reason to deny. This case has now been going on for 7 years.

Another example. The rules make it a bit easier to get on disability if you are near retirement age anyway. A younger worker must prove there is nothing in the world he or she can do. If you’re over 60, often you need only prove that you can’t do your past job, as the rules recognize the practical difficulty an older worker faces in starting a new career. My client was 62, had experienced several heart attacks and survived cancer. His old job was classified as medium, meaning he was required to lift over 50 pounds frequently. All the doctors that examined his case came to the obvious conclusion that he couldn’t do such a job. But the judge disagreed, because he did therapeutic yoga and he told an examining psychologist that he “took care of the stove”, whatever that means (The judge never asked). The US attorney agreed to send that case back as soon as he looked at the file.

These cases are not unusual. The intellectual dishonesty indulged in by some of these judges almost puts Donald Trump to shame. It is beyond belief that any appreciable number of claimants would opt to experience years of poverty on the off chance that they might get to live on $1,700 a month 5 or 6 years after they apply for benefits.

But, as Baker has pointed out in the past, Jeff Bezo’s rag wants very much to destroy social security. If the elderly should live in poverty, why not the disabled? It comes back to that great line the villain capitalist uttered in Superman 3, with which Jeff surely agrees: It is not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail.

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