Rand Paul’s empathy deficit

Of course there is room for legitimate debate about the standards for granting disability payments under Social Security. But Rand Paul’s laughing comments about the problem reflect less a political orientation than a moral failing.

The audio on the tracker tape

is hard to decipher; Michael Hilzik makes it out as:

The thing is that all of these programs, there’s always somebody who’s deserving, everybody in this room knows somebody who’s gaming the system. I tell people that if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check. Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club. Who doesn’t get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts? Everyone over 40 has a back pain.

Jeremy Diamond at CNN points out that “over half” is absurdly contrary to the actual numbers: all the psychiatric diagnoses and all the musculosketal disorders added together don’t account for half the Social Security Disability caseload, and anxiety is a small part of the psychiatric caseload while back pain is a small part of the musculoskeletal caseload. Hilzik also shows the sort of anxiety and back disease that qualify for disability payments have nothing to do with routine pre-work jitters or backache.

The definition of disability for Social Security purposes is twofold:

1. The claimant must have a medical condition that severely limits his or her capacity do “basic work activities” including “walking, sitting, and remembering” that will either last more than a year or terminate in death.

2. The impairment must be such that the claimant is unable not only to perform his own job but any other job: a construction worker who loses an arm isn’t “disabled” if, for example, he could work as a call center operator or Wal-Mart greeter.

So the Senator either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or is simply making stuff up, in the great tradition of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” story.

But the affect is even scarier than the words. Rand Paul, who would like to have his finger on the nuclear trigger, thinks that people crippled by pain or psychiatric illness are funny. and he manages to get a laugh from the heartless crowd he’s addressing.

Not being a psychiatrist, and not having examined the Senator personally, I’m not qualified to make a diagnosis, but here’s Wikipedia’s definition of narcissistic personality disorder.

People who are diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder are characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance. They have a sense of entitlement and demonstrate grandiosity in their beliefs and behavior. They have a strong need for admiration, but lack feelings of empathy.

 [emphasis added]

Sound like anyone you’ve heard of?

The political game here is obvious. The new Republican rules will forbid the Social Security trustees to make what would otherwise be a routine transfer from the Old Age Insurance fund to the Disability Insurance fund when the latter runs dry next year. The goal is to set up a battle between (richer, whiter) retirees and (poorer, darker) people with disabilities.

In answer to a question asked long ago to another Republican Senator: No. even at long last, Rand Paul has no shame at all.

Footnote Yes, I take this personally. For years I had the sort of back disease (spinal stenosis) which meant I had to decide every day between having a manageable level of pain and being mentally sharp. And that wasn’t nearly the level of problem that would qualify for Social Security disability. So, unlike the Senator from Aynrandistan, I have a bit of a grasp of what the people who are disabled by degenerative spinal disease have to go through. At the risk of sounding like a humorless liberal, it’s not funny.

Campus date rape and due process

A previous post here defended (1) having university authorities investigate accusations of on-campus date rape and impose university discipline, whether or not the complainant chooses to pursue criminal charges, and (2) imposing discipline on a standard of proof something short of “beyond reasonable doubt.” That still seems right to me.

But Nancy Gertner’s careful analysis of Harvard’s new policy shows that complaints about procedural unfairness toward the accused in such cases are sometimes very well founded. Under the Harvard system, the accused has one week to respond, no right to call witnesses or cross-examine, and only a limited right to legal representation, while the accuser has unlimited time and assistance The university officials in charge of enforcing rules against gender discrimination act as investigator, judge, and jury, and their findings of fact are unreviewable. Can you say “kangaroo court”?

Gertner also shows that Oberlin’s policy does the same job much better.

Putting the adjudication of such charges, and the review of the performance of the campus officials who manage the process, in the hands of on-campus  Title IX compliance officers and Title IX administrators at the Department of Education is a recipe for disaster. 

 

 

This weird-looking Medicaid expansion map would sadden Dr. King on his holiday

(This column is cross-posted at the Huffington Post.)

I wonder what Dr. King would think about the current health reform debate. OK I don’t really wonder. Here, for example, are his comments, apparently made here in Chicago:

Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.

Martin Luther King supported health care as a human right. He also knew how far we had to go as a nation in making that right a reality.

King was the energizing force behind the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). I suspect he would be ashamed but unsurprised to see his home region so resistant to the basic expansion of health insurance coverage to Americans with incomes below the poverty line. To some extent, the extent of southern resistance is obscured by maps such as the one below, that display which states have rejected the Medicaid expansio­­­n around the country:

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 3.13.50 PMMany of the shaded states such as Wyoming and Montana are huge but sparsely populated. Others such as Wisconsin have small populations left uncovered for other reasons.

Harvard post-doctoral researcher Laura Yasaitis is an expert at drawing different kinds of maps. At my request, she made me a map in which the size of every state was proportional to the number of people who landed in the “Medicaid gap.” (She couldn’t quite do that, since states such as California and New York would simply vanish. We drew each of these states as if they had shut out 2,000 state residents instead of zero. She also taught me how to make Cartograms. SO you may see more such items in this space.)

When we did all that, here’s what the US map would like if it were scaled by the number of affected people in each state (see below): Continue Reading…

Alan Dershowitz calls Binyamin Netanyahu an anti-Semite

Binyamin Netanyahu, in a Tweet posted today:

“I believe that Jews know deep in their hearts that they have one country – the state of Israel, home for all of us.”

Alan Dershowitz, two years ago:

It’s the kind of virulent hate speech you’d expect to find on a neo-Nazi website or in a Patrick Buchanan column: American Jews who support current Israeli policies are accused of dual loyalty and called “Israel firsters.”

AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) fares even worse: “Saying AIPAC is guilty of dual loyalty is giving it credit for one more loyalty than it holds.”

In other words, this widely respected American organization, and the hundreds of thousands of Jews (and Christians) who support it, have absolutely no loyalty to our nation; their sole loyalty is to the foreign nation of Israel.

This false accusation of disloyalty to country was a central tenet of Nazism, Stalinism and other anti-Semitic regimes. Today, it is the mantra of Jew haters and neo-Nazis.

So, according to Alan Dershowitz, Binyamin Netanyahu is spreading neo-Nazi propaganda.  Abe Foxman, call your office.

 

Pub Quiz: Horses and Riders

Below is a list of 12 horses and their 12 riders. Google not and match the pairs. Post scores and critiques/comment at the end.

HORSES

Bucephalus
Buttermilk
Champion
Fury
Horse
Pie
Rocinante
Scout
Seattle Slew
Silver
Thunder
Tony

RIDERS

Alexander the Great
Dale Evans
Don Quixote
Dudley Do Right
Gene Autry
Jean Cruguet
Jimmy Stewart
Joey Clark
Lone Ranger
Red Ryder
Tom Mix
Tonto

Continue Reading…

Legal cannabis in Vermont? RAND lays out the options

Last year, the Vermont legislature asked the Vermont governor for a report on the options for legalizing cannabis. The governor’s office hired RAND to do the research. That report is now public. (I’m listed as the third author for alphabetical reasons, though I doubt I did as much as 2% of the enormous amount of work that went into it.)

The Vermont process holds out great promise, because the normal legislative process – ugly as it can be – has the possibility of producing a result much more nuanced and more carefully considered from multiple viewpoints than the initiative process, under which propositions are drawn up by advocates with the advice of pollsters, no one ever holds a hearing, and any idea that can’t be explained in a 30-second TV spot has to be dropped. The key point of the RAND report is that there are legalization options other than full commercialization.  Niraj Chokshi of the Washington Post “GovBeat” blog provides an excellent summary. 

The key design question – this is my view rather than the one expressed in the report, which is scrupulously neutral – is how to make cannabis legally available for use by adults and wipe out the illicit market while at the same time minimizing the growth in use by minors and in the number of people with diagnosable cannabis use disorders (currently about 4 million people nationwide, about 10% of past-year users, 20% of past-month users). There are many ways to skin that cat, but I doubt that commercialization is the best approach.

But however you come out in the end, the major contribution of the report is to break through the simple prohibit/legalize dichotomy and display the wide range of options we have to choose from.  

Mitt Romney Says the Thing That Is

I notice that progressive bloggers and Tweeters are pointing and laughing at poor little Mitt Romney for his sudden outburst of populism. But it seems to me that, as pleasant as laughter is, what’s really called for is a smile of grim satisfaction. He has told the truth – albeit probably insincerely – and there’s every reason to hope that he and his party will come to regret it.

It is among the core Blue-Team beliefs  that the current level of income inequality is unjust, inefficient, and socially destructive, and that public policy should attempt to reduce the degree of inequality.

The Red team – up until today – has believed, or at least said, that market-driven inequality reflects natural differences in economic contribution and is therefore just, while taking from “producers” and “job creators” and giving to the “47%” is unjust, and that the great inequality of outcome maintains incentives and thus contributes to efficiency. They love to criticize redistributive policies as “class warfare” and emphasize the importance of making the pie bigger rather than carving it up more equally, along with (formal) equality of opportunity rather than equality of result.

So when Mitt Romney describes rising levels of disparity – the rich getting richer while the number of poor people increases – as “income inequality getting worse,” he is making a major rhetorical concession to the good-guy side.

Of course he doesn’t really believe it, but hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Once the GOP concedes the claim that, from where we stand now, more equality would be an improvement, I don’t think it’s hard for the Democrats to win the argument about whose policies would do better at moving money from the rich to the middle class and the poor.

Hurrah for Eric Holder!

Eric Holder, on his way out the door, seems to be letting his inner criminal-justice reformer run wild. (Which, of course, he wouldn’t be doing without the OK of his boss, Barack Obama.) Latest target: forfeiture abuse.

The move bans a trick called “adoptive forfeiture.” Here’s how that trick works:

Many states require that forfeited funds be deposited in the state’s general fund, rather than going directly to the law enforcement budget. That’s a sensible provision, avoiding what would otherwise be an obvious conflict of interest. The federal government has the same rule.

BUT (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) the federal law allows federal agencies that process a forfeiture to share the proceeds with local law enforcement agencies that contributed to the case. That avoids the state-law process which would otherwise send the money to the general fund. The “share” can be up to 90%, at the discretion of the federal agency.

So when a local agency seizes an asset, instead of handling the forfeiture through the state courts, it goes to the DEA or some other federal outfit, which “adopts” the forfeiture, takes it through federal court, and gives 90% of the take back to the locals. That, of course, creates precisely the conflict of interest the general-fund laws were designed to avoid: cops wind up paying their own salaries by taking cash and other assets from people, who in many cases are never charged with any crime and in some cases are entirely innocent. Unlike a criminal defendant, the victim of a forfeiture has very few procedural rights: no presumption of innocence – in effect, he has to sue to get the money back, and carries the burden of proof -no right to a speedy trial, and no right to publicly paid counsel.

The order excludes federal-state-local task forces, but – if I read it correctly – does include the multi-jurisdictional local task forces where much of the worst mischief has been done; some of those agencies are entirely dependent on forfeiture funds (plus Byrne Grant money) and thus under no control whatever from civilian authorities.

There’s more to be done to rein in the forfeiture system, but this is a terrific start.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Pygmalion

pygmalion-1938-05-g It’s a fun bit of trivia that George Bernard Shaw is the only person to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature and an Academy Award. He secured the latter for a truly brilliant adaptation of his own stage play: 1938′s Pygmalion.

The plot: Eliza Doolittle is a poor Covent Garden flower girl (Wendy Hiller) with a lower-class accent thicker than a London fog. She is taken on as an experimental subject by imperious, brilliant and eccentric language expert Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), who intends to pass off this “squashed cabbage leaf” and “incarnate insult to the English language” as a fine, upper class lady. Higgins doesn’t do this out of kindness, but because he wants to show off his abilities as a language and etiquette coach and along the way to win a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland, in an appropriately warm portrayal of upper-class decency). The result is abject hilarity underlain by Shaw’s caustic observations on social class hierarchies. There is also, infamously, a strange romance which resolves in a fashion that is still much debated.

There is so much to praise in this movie! Shaw’s peerless source material is only the beginning of the joy for audiences. Co-Directors Leslie Howard and Anthony Asquith give a clinic in how to open up a play with the possibilities of film. Howard is also an antic marvel on screen, consistently watchable and funny without making Higgins more sympathetic than he should be.

But as good as Howard is, and he’s very good, the then-unknown Wendy Hiller is a revelation. She had garnered raves for her Eliza on stage and it’s easy to see why. She wrings all the laughs out of the part but also portrays heart-touching vulnerability and fiery spirit. She later won an acting Oscar for Separate Tables but this is her performance of a lifetime and ranks with the best 20th century turns by a British film actress.

This is also a good-looking film, especially if you treat yourself to the restored Criterion Collection version. Cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. had a fine eye for London life from its poshest to grimiest bits, and he was aided by a soon-to-be famous film editor named David Lean.

Pygmalion is near-perfect cinematic entertainment that remains tremendously appealing today. And though it doesn’t sound or look as good as The Criterion Collection version, you can watch a not bad copy of this public domain film for free at The Internet Archive.

SPOLIER ALERT: Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film. Continue Reading…