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I’ve been catching up on This American Life podcasts this week. My mind is still fixated on the programme from a couple of weeks ago, “Trends With Benefits”.

Apparently, the number of Americans receiving federal disability payments has nearly doubled over the last 15 years. There are towns and counties around the nation where almost 1/4 of adults are on disability.

Planet Money‘s Chana Joffe-Walt spent 6 months exploring why this is the case and returns with a complicated picture of what this means about the US economy as well as the larger industry that supports this structure:

Chana Joffe:  Joseph and Ethel Thomas live in a depressed town in a poor state in a national economy that is basically in the process of fully abandoning every kind of job they know how to do. Being poorly educated in a rotten place, that in and of itself has become a disability.

This is a new reality. This gap between workers who are fit for the US economy and millions of workers who are increasingly not. And it’s a change that’s spreading to towns and cities that have thrived in the American economy. Places that made cars and steel and batteries and textiles.

The disability programs are acting like a sponge, sopping up otherwise desperate people. This is happening so often in so many parts of the country, this shift from work to disability programs, that I have actually been reporting on it for years, and I didn’t even know it.

David Autor:  Well, that’s kind of an ugly secret of the American labor market, that part of the reason our unemployment rates have been low until recently is that a lot of people who would have trouble finding jobs are on a different program. They’re on the disability insurance program. And they don’t show up in the labor force statistics. And so it artificially reduces the unemployment rate that we observe.

Chana Joffe:  So you’re saying we all already knew it was bad. It’s actually worse than we think.

David Autor:  It is. It’s been worse than we thought for a long time. This has been going on pretty rapidly for now more than 20 years.

Chana Joffe:  David Autor says disability has become a sort of de facto welfare for people without a lot of education or job skills. Except it is the worst kind of welfare program, because it includes one feature you never, ever want from your social safety net.

David Autor:  Once people go in that direction, they’re unlikely to come back.

Chana Joffe:  The problem with using our disability programs as a sort of quiet de facto welfare system is they’re not designed to help people to deal with their disabilities, to get jobs, to make increasingly more money over a lifetime. They’re not there to catch you when you fall down and help you back on your feet.

Once a worker gets on disability, there are really only two ways out. You get old enough that at 65, 66-years-old, you move on to a different government program, Social Security for seniors, or you die. Those are the two ways people exit disability. Almost no one gets better. The benefits don’t get you rehabilitative services or supportive technology. They just give you a monthly income.

And it’s not a great income, about $13,000 a year. But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you $15,000 a year– a job you may or may not be able to get, may or may not be able to keep, that probably won’t be full time, and very likely will not include health insurance– disability may be a better option.

Well let’s just think about what that option means. You will not work. You will not interact with coworkers, get promoted, make more money, get whatever meaning people get from work. And assuming you rely only on those disability benefits, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That is signing up for disability. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have chosen for themselves.

–This American Life, “Trends With Benefits” (bolding added)

The entire programme is worth a listen and really illuminates an integral aspect of how US federal benefits work that has been missing from most of the policy debates I’ve heard.  A lot to mull over, but so insightful in understanding why these problems seem intractable.

…We need to talk about families, but we also need to talk about sex. We need to talk about mothers, but we cannot ignore the existence and the rights of women who are not mothers.The GOP is waging a “War on Women”, and the Democrats are fighting back – but only on behalf of certain kinds of women.Women-with-children-first framing is politically potent: it humanizes women who use birth control, or patronizes Planned Parenthood. It enables the Democrats to speak about family values (political ground that is usually ceded to the Republicans). And it makes the case for reproductive freedom without having to talk about sex – a subject that apparently makes Americans terribly uncomfortable. It’s far less awkward to talk about families and motherhood, and women who get pregnant through terrible acts of sexual violence, rather than through consensual, orgasmic, sweaty hay-rolling.

It boggles the mind that in a year when we all learned the phrase “transvaginal ultrasound”, we are somehow still uncomfortable talking about why women like me and my friends take the pill. We don’t take it so we can be good mothers, we take it so we can have good sex. There’s nothing wrong with that. And as a party that claims to be fighting for women in this political war, the Democrats need to stop implying that there is. The same goes for the pro-choice advocates – myself included – who are speaking out against Republican encroachments on reproductive freedom.

We should keep talking about mothers of three and about pregnant rape survivors, because those people exist and they need birth control. Their stories are also far more likely to sway people who are on the fence about birth control access than my friends’ tales about casual consensual encounters. But the point that pro-choicers ought to be making is that every woman is entitled to reproductive freedom, regardless of marital status. Every woman, regardless of how many kids she has. Every woman, not just the ones who make for good talking points or political props. Every woman, even the ones who dare – unspeakable though it apparently is – to have pleasurable, non-procreative sex.

–Chloe Angyal, “Sex: The missing term from the contraception and abortion debate

Yes. Yes. Just yes.

I should probably write some insightful analysis reflecting on Angyal’s brilliant points. But you know what I got? Just frustration.

A lot of us ladies wanna have sex and that is reason enough to want access to contraception and abortion. Our reproductive and sexual rights are not conditional on our marital status, if we have experienced sexual violence that resulted in pregnancy, or if we already have kids.

Dunno if reproductive & sexual health and rights will come up in the debates tonight (maybe through a question on if contraception will be covered by insurance) but I’d put money that neither Obama or Romney will be saying the word ‘sex’.

My conclusions are that the US will not be an area where groups will spring up; Americans do not, by tradition petition foreign governments or intervene on behalf of individuals who have been tried, sentenced and imprisoned. Nor are [US] prisoners men who can be aided to any extent by AI [Amnesty International]. None-the-less some group can and should be organized, funds can and should be raised, and information can be gathered by someone acting as liaison between AI and US civil rights and civil liberties organizations, and sent to AI headquarters in London. I promised to do what I can.

–Michael Straight, a former communist spy, who would later go on to be AIUSA’s first chair in 1961, quoted in “Exporting Amnesty International to the United States: Transatlantic Human Rights Activisms in the 1960s

History is funny. Because now AIUSA is Amnesty’s largest country section, with nearly 250,000 members. #americanexceptionalism

The American Dream is really two dreams. There’s the Horatio Alger myth, in which a person with grit, ingenuity, and hard work succeeds and prospers. And there’s the firehouse dinner, the Fourth of July picnic, the common green, in which everyone gives a little so the group can get a lot. Markus’s work seems to suggest the emergence of a dream apartheid, wherein the upper class continues to chase a vision of personal success and everyone else lingers at a potluck complaining that the system is broken. (Research shows that the rich tend to blame individuals for their own failure and likewise credit themselves for their own success, whereas those in the lower classes find explanations for inequality in circumstances and events outside their control.) But the truth is much more nuanced. Every American, rich and poor, bounces back and forth between these two ideals of self, calibrating ambitions and adjusting behaviors accordingly.

–Lisa Miller, “The Money-Empathy Gap“, pg 6 (bolding mine)

In the cover story for New York Magazine, Miller brings light to a new group of psychology studies trying to understand the role socio-economic class has on personality, from interpersonal relations to physiological response. Turns out, despite our cultural denial about the significance of class in America, money matters. And you can see it all over our confused little minds.

[Also, super clever to use dogs to visualise class and power dynamics in the pics accompanying the article.]

So much interesting in this burgeoning field. Definitely an area to watch out for.

Happy 4th of July, folks.

To an economist, perhaps, there is no difference between activity and inactivity; both have measurable economic effects on commerce. But the distinction between doing something and doing nothing would not have been lost on the Framers, who were “practical statesmen,” not metaphysical philosophers.

–Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, National Federation of Independent Business v Sebelius, 28 June 2012, pg 24

Didn’t expect to LOL at the SCOTUS decision. But calling economists ‘metaphysical philosophers’? Maybe Supreme Court Justice Roberts and I agree on more than I thought…

Also, yay for the Supreme Court deeming it is constitutional for Congress to try to expand health care to virtually all Americans. Seriously having a whatwillItellmykidswhentheyaskmeaboutthisdate moment. Talk about historic, folks.

My friend Josh sent me an amazing paper that combines “99 Problems” with legal analysis of the Fourth Amendment in the US.

Essentially the paper

“… is a line-by-line analysis of the second verse of 99 Problems by Jay-Z, from the perspective of a criminal procedure professor.”

Said professor Caleb Mason specifically discusses the legality of traffic stops, vehicle searches, drug smuggling, probable cause and racial profiling according to Jay-Z’s account in the song.

Some useful take-aways in case you don’t have time to read this awesomeness but want to avoid getting busted for carrying drugs, or bust someone who is:

  • Racial profiling does not give rise to a Fourth Amendment suppression claim if there was objective probable cause for the stop (p 571). That’s what the Fourteenth Amendment is for.
  • You are always better off having drugs found on you in a potentially illegal search than you are fleeing from a potentially illegal search and getting caught (p 572).
  • Locking your trunk does not keep the cops from legally being able to search it. All cops need to search your car is probable cause, not a warrant (in contrast to what Jay-Z raps).  So sans warrant in any vehicle stop, the officers may search the entire car, without consent, if they develop probable cause to believe that car contains, say, drugs (p 581).
  • Basically then, it all comes down to the ‘bitch’, i.e. the canine-unit. Without a dog sniff, there will most likely be no probable cause for a search for drugs in your vehicle if you’ve hidden them well (p 574).
[As an aside, Mason has also footnoted his phone number should anyone have additional queries “on either side of the game”. Points for keeping it old school, sir.]

(Thanks again, Josh!)