Monthly Archives: December 2013

It must be true. I read it in the Wall Street Onion …

bigstock-red-onion-bulb-half-isolated-o-43447396If you are not familiar with the satiric newspaper, The Onion … well, I just don’t know what to do with you.   How have you managed to get on for so long without reading the Onion?  

It is beyond my capacity to understand.

The Onion’s headlines are where the comedic magic happens:   Nation’s Snowmen March Against Global WarmingCoddled Potted Plant Could Never Make It On Outside;  Kevin Bacon Talking About His Band Approved As Prescriptive Sedative … and my all-time favorite Onion headlineStandard Deviation Not Enough for Perverted Statistician.  

Onion articles have no substance.   The headline is the whole of the joke.

More and more I observe the same phenomenon in the mainstream press.   The headline is the whole of the story.   The article has no substance … or it’s misleading … or its content is just plain wrong.

Damian Paletta’s recent article in the Wall Street JournalSix Changes bigstock-Surprised-Salesman-1490027Social Security Is Making to Its Disability Program, listed six changes Social Security is not necessarily making to its disability program.   His article, Government Pulls in Reins on Disability Judges, is similarly overblown.

OMG!   The Wall Street Journal is journalistically on par with the Onion?!?!  

The headlines make the point, but the articles are … insubstantial, poorly researched afterthoughts.   Journalists are not writing to contextualize factual information, edify and explain; they are writing to advance a political agenda.   Headlines alone are sufficient to the task of advancing a political agenda, just like they are sufficient as punch lines to jokes where the facts don’t really matter.

Sad to see these venerable old newspapers jumping the shark.   Sobering that so many consumers are misinformed and led astray.

Folks knowledgeable about Social Security are not led astray.   For example, Charles Hall, in Social Security News wrote of Mr. Palleta’s piece, “[o]ne could argue about which of these [proposed changes] may actually come to pass or mean anything but one cannot argue about the fact that Palleta is confused.”   Indeed.

bigstock-Focused-businesswoman-reading--53031901Mr. Paletta is confused.   And, through his confusion, the Wall Street Journal delivered confusion to its readers.

Confusion was delivered to National Public Radio’s listeners through the error-riddled, Trends With Benefits.   Confusion was delivered to 60 Minutes’ viewers through the one-sided, Disability, USA.   These pieces were full of falsities, cherry-picked facts … even lies straightaway.   But the cumulative effect is something more than mere confusion.

The cumulative effect is that recipients of erroneous information do not understand themselves to be confused.   They believe themselves to be well-informed.    The falsehoods were delivered to them by trusted news sources – the Wall Street Journal … National Public Radio … 60 Minutes after all!   Can you think of more trusted sources?

Yes, yes!   The Daily Show … the Onion.   Very funny.   I should have seen that coming.

When people believe themselves bigstock-Unicorn-3401036to be well-informed about problems that … may or may not exist – they will demand solutions.   And the already overworked Social Security Administration, its staff and judges will scramble to slay these fictions.

I am buoyed that the headlines coming ’round these days are that there are now fitting imaginary solutions to Social Security’s imaginary problems.

Numbers, numbers everywhere, but not a whit to think …

I read an article entitled SSA:  Disability Recipients Soar, Funding Nearly Depleted Under Obama bigstock-Dg-Obamaclt----8125094published on Newsmax.

Basically the article said:

“I say ‘Obama!’  You say, ‘freak out!'”

Obama!  Freak out!
Obama!  Freak out!

The article offered nothing else.   Seriously.   Nothing else.

Oh … there were numbers … which give the illusion of substance, but the numbers were untethered to sources that could be fact-checked, untethered to citations that could be looked up, untethered to … reality.  bigstock-Freak-Out-Sign-43721791

I asked a person with a background in statistics to see if he could make heads or tails out of it.   After reading it over, he said it made no sense, “but it is very anxiety-producing.”

Mission accomplished.    Obama!   Freak out!

The structure of the argument is:

1)   there are more people on disability now than when President Obama took office, and
2)   the Social Security trust fund is running at a deficit, and
3)   that’s Mr. Obama’s fault.

The article made no claim that the Obama Administration or Social Security have made any policy or rules changes that have caused the increase in the numbers of people on disability.   The article just … left it there.   Case closed.

bigstock-Man-with-living-liquid-mind-32070152“Your Honor, the numbers of people on disability have increased.   And I don’t like it.  And … … I rest my case.”

Huh?

That argument is the nutritional equivalent of marshmallows for dinner.

Math geeks celebrate Pi Day every March 14th.   Get it?  3.14 … the first three numbers of pi … the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter?   It’s a big day for math, and if you do nothing else to commemorate it, make sure to  watch Theresa Miller reciting the first six hundred and fifty digits of pi while simultaneously hula hooping and solving a Rubik’s Cube!

Did you catch that?    six-hundred and fifty digits of pi, hula hooping, and solving a Rubik’s Cube … all at the same time.

But, I digress.

In 2013, the House Ways and Means Committee celebrated Pi Day by taking testimony from Stephen C. Goss, Social Security’s Chief Math Geek (Actuary) on exactly the issues addressed in Disability Recipients Soar.  

Mr. Goss testified that there are “drivers” of the increases in the costs and numbers of recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.

These drivers are:

1)  a 41% increase in the total population at ages 20 through 64 between the years of 1980 and 2010;

2) the demographic changing age distribution which is due to the drop in the birth rate following the baby boom years;

3) increased numbers of women who are “insured” to receive disability benefits due to the large numbers of them who came into the workplace and stayed there – instead of working in the home where they were not paying Social Security payroll taxes, and not becoming “insured;”

4) a 42% increase in the prevalence of disability in people “insured” to receive disability benefits since 1980 due to the nation’s aging population now reaching its ‘disability-prone’ years.   

These are tedious factors.   I know.   I’m sorry.   This is why you don’t invite actuaries to your bigstock-Accountant-With-Abacus-37671250angry mob.   And … also, sorry to disappoint, but this is not Mr. Obama’s doing.    It’s not rampant fraud.    It’s not abuse.    It’s not lax judges.   It just is … and it’s going to be this way for a bit … and then it’s going to level out as the anomaly that is and was the baby boom … dissipates.

Everybody relax … and consider memorizing pi in 10-digit chunks so that you can recite it, hula hoop and solve a Rubik’s Cube for your friends next March 14th to be known forever as one of the coolest people on Planet Earth.

Civil obedience … and other lawful rebellions

bigstock-Multi-ethnic-business-group-gr-26892467Recently an attorney-friend said, “not long ago, when I told people I represented disabled people – helping them to obtain Social Security disability benefits – I was met with admiration and kudos for helping vulnerable people … for being one of the ‘good guys.’   But not anymore.   Now I’m as likely to encounter an uncomfortable silence, or an expression of disdain, an uncomfortable, ‘oh,’ or even outright derision.

Now I am a villain helping scoundrels?   How did that happen?   I am doing what I’ve always done.  The change was sudden,” he says.bigstock-Angry-man-pointing-his-finger-46605823

Social Security disability attorneys have stood still, and public opinion has shifted 180° around them.

Standing in the center of this negative whirl are attorneys, Administrative Law Judges, the Social Security Administration itself, and … disabled people.   We stand together.

The problem that disabled people have not being able to fend for themselves in the competitive economy is not only a personal problem, it is one that affects nuclear and extended families, communities, society, and the nation as a whole.   Disability has a ripple effect that first and most drastically devastates the person, then the family, and then dissipates as the circle widens, but still negatively impacts the wider community, including school systems, society and the nation.

bigstock-beautiful-woman-sitting-on-a-p-47465599Standing at a distance from people who are disabled, it is common to hold the opinion that their maladies are not real, their claims are fraudulent, their problems can be wished away.   Standing at a distance from people who are disabled, it is common to hold the opinion that the attorneys who help them obtain Social Security disability benefits are aiding and abetting a fraud … that the judges who grant the benefits are lax, incompetent fools.

But standing close in … the picture of disability becomes sharply focused.   Disabled people, their attorneys, and the Social Security Administration are understood quite differently when viewed up close and personal.

Up close and personal you see that disabled people have tried everything in their power to succeed, but they have been unable to do so.

Up close and personal you see that families with disabled family members struggle financially, and you see the heart-breaking decisions families are faced with that funnel their resources of money, time and emotion into the disabled person, leaving non-disabled family members wanting.

Up close and personal you see that the all-important safety net of family is small, and often inadequate to the task of supporting disabled family members.   And, up close and personal, you see that family needs support from community and from society.

Numerous times I have seen an individual shift position from thinking that the Social Security disability program is a poorly administered, bogus, mass-deception to understanding its value, and seeing its necessity as a national safety net that is much, much too hard to obtain.

This 180° shift happens pretty much on cue when a person suffers a traumatic injury; when they go from able-bodied to disabled – quickly.

Disability can happen to anyone … at any time.  

My client had been a hard-working, affluent, white-collar, upwardly mobile, family man.  He and his wife did everything right.   They followed all the rules.   When he was injured in a car accident, fracturing his pelvis, and damaging two discs/vertebrae in the lumbar-region of his spine, everything changed.

There were two failed back surgeries, a few years of chronic pain + more pain … immobility … weight gain … the pain-killing medications lost effectiveness … more pain …bigstock-Father-hugs-son-5655891 depression (of course) … despair.   My client’s wife worked full-time, but they could not afford their house on one salary.   They sold the house at a loss, and moved into an apartment, uprooting their children from schools, and friends.

My client came to me already having been denied benefits by Social Security.  His appeal period had lapsed, and he needed to reapply.  When Social Security denied the second application, he confessed his desperation to me, but not to his wife.   He said he lay in bed most days planning a suicide that would likely be viewed as an accident so his wife would receive his life insurance.

He said, “I never understood this before.  I never understood how precarious we all are.  How bigstock-Risk-Planning-46825366much anybody can wind up needing these benefits.”  He said, “I used to watch Fox News all the time listening to them accusing damn near every disabled person of faking.  Now I feel like they’re talking about me.  And I know they’re talking about you!   And they have no idea what they’re talking about.   I know that now.”

Up close the “situation” of a disability looks very different, and so do the cast of characters – the disabled people, the judges, the lawyers.

I am uneasy that people are more likely now than before to have a negative opinion of me and my colleagues, of our work, and of the people we represent.   But we know who we are.   And, we know what we’re doing.   We stand with people who lack economic and political power.   We stand with the families of disabled people who need our help, and need the help of society, and we take on their cause of obtaining that help.

I would like to fancy myself fighting for the poor and disenfranchised among the elite attorneys bigstock-Superman-isolated-on-the-white-34940144in history.   Attorneys who were truly persecuted.  Attorneys whose civil disobedience changed the course of history.   Nelson Mandela, for example, and his law partner Oliver Tambo were frequently prevented from traveling, forced to prove their professional status just to appear and speak in court, faced threats of disbarment because of their political activities, prohibited from gatherings, prosecuted and jailed.   They represented truly disenfranchised citizens in the context of unjust laws that afforded them few effective arguments.

I would like to pretend myself into that class of attorney, but in our time and place, we are not persecuted.  People who don’t know any better think and say bad things about us – and sometimes to us.   Okay.   We can stand up to that.

In our time and place, it is not necessary for us flagrantly to disobey unjust laws.   Civil disobediencebigstock-The-saying-Work-for-a-Cause-No-43914400 is unnecessary.   Our rebellions are far less dramatic inasmuch as they are compliant and decidedly obedient to an essentially just and proper law – 42 U.S.C., Titles II and XVI.   Ho hum.

As such, we toil away in oblivion.   Uncelebrated and unknown to the ages.   But we know who we are.   And, we know what we’re doing.   We stand with people who lack economic and political power … people who are sometimes viewed with disdain.   We stand with their families, and we take on their problems.

A quiet, obedient, lawful rebellion much appreciated by our disabled clients, by their families, and – when they understand it – by society.

 

Senator, I served with federal workers. I knew federal workers. Senator, you’re no federal worker.

American People! bigstock-Politics-Winner-7043276

Please elect me as your Senator.

I am photogenic and like it when cameras are on me.  I like to be lobbied and cajoled.  I LOVE to fly First Class!   I want want WANT an entourage!   I very much need to feel important.

I have no real interest in “governing” per se.  In fact, I’ll be honest with you … I see no purpose for government.   I’m definitely willing to shut the government down.  “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem!”   Right?  Am I right?   (Hold for applause.)

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people ….”   (Wow, I’m doing really awesome with the presidential quotes!   They’re eating it up!)

But anyway … where was I?  .. oh yeah, the PEOPLE.   Now when we say “the people” let’s define the term – we’re not talking about the elderly, the disabled, anyone unemployed, or the working poor … not anyone earning under $ 200,000.00 per year, right?  And not unelected federal workers either?  Those aren’t “the people” we’re talking about, are we?   Because if we’re not, then, yeah … government of not those people, by not those people, for not those people.   Yeah, I’m definitely cool with not those people.

So … anyway … God Bless America!   Oh, and … uh … the Troops!!!  (Whew!   Almost forgot.)

Vote for me!

xoxo, Joe the Politician

bigstock-Doubtful-handsome-businessman--48698081Often, as I listen to political candidates, I reflect nostalgically on my own, less public, attempts at performance-art-job interviews!

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years, Mr. Dunk Tank?”

“Well by that time I would hope that the effects of my hard work and visionary policies would have depleted your company such that we could “drown it in a bathtub” so … I guess I see myself drowning your company in a bathtub.   Yes, yes … in five years, I should like to accomplish that!”

When politicians who hold and speak those beliefs are elected, we should not be surprised when their hard work and visionary policies are at depleting the American government.

What did you expect, you silly goose?

The American public does not think much of the American Congress.   Our elected officials do not miss an opportunity to show themselves to be small-minded, bigstock-America-In-Danger--1913085selfish little men and women seemingly incapable of acting in the best interest of the country.   With few exceptions, they are maddening, media-seeking buffoons.

9% approval rating.   What do you expect, you maddening, silly little gooses?

I find solace in the fact that the foolishness of Congress is not emblematic of most of the federal workforce.

It is galling when the zeitgeist and pervasive rhetoric of politicians, journalists, and the American public denigrate the federal workforce for inefficiency and incompetence without knowing that the United States’ federal workforce is, as a whole, fantastically efficient and competent

According to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,

Budget data for the major low-income assistance programs – Medicaid, food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), the Supplemental Security Income program for the elderly and disabled poor, housing vouchers, the school lunch and breakfast programs and the Earned Income Tax Credit – show that, in every case, federal administrative costs range from less than 1 percent to 8 percent of total federal program spending.

A perusal of Charity Navigator – Your Guide to Intelligent Giving a website providing data on the overhead costs of charities shows that almost no private-sector charity’s administrative and fund-raising overhead is at or below 8% of total program spending.   Furthermore, these charitable entities provide the tiniest patchwork of services to relatively minute numbers of people as compared with the United States government.

In 1985, journalist Don Feder wrote in an article published in the June-July issue of Conservative Digest magazine that “no one has to teach us to detest public workers.  It comes naturally, by a process of observation and experience.” 

I do not detest public workers.   My observations and experiences have led me to quite an opposite estimation of them.   With rare exception, I respect them.   For the most part, I have encountered federal workers who are knowledgeable and efficient, and who manage a volume of work that most would find daunting, if not debilitating.

While it is galling when federal workers are insulted and defamed, it is particularly chafing when they are insulted and defamed by politicians – of all people.

Senator, I worked with federal workers.  I knew federal workers.  Senator, you’re no federal worker.