The Performance Art of the Deal

By David Trend:

As I write these words, many Americans remain up in arms about President Donald Trump’s peculiar relationship with the truth.  On a seemingly daily basis, the nation is greeted with a new round of accusations or indignant retorts from the President–– most of which bear little resemblance to objective reality. Let’s just say The Commander-in-Chief has a very “creative” approach to factuality––about everything from crime and immigration to science and the judiciary. Perhaps he’s joking or trying to shock people. Or maybe he’s a pathological liar. Time Magazine devoted a cover to the President’s “Truth and Falsehoods”;  the Los Angeles Times ran multiple “Why Trump Lies” editorials; and The New Yorker is now 14 installments in its ongoing “Trump and the Truth” series. Unsurprisingly, the President doubled-down on his claims, and––in keeping with his fondness for conspiracy theories––has labelled the entire field of journalism “the enemy of the American people.” Endless pundits and commenters have tried to discern a logic in the President’s bizarre behavior––in which mischief and chaos seem the only constants.

Say what you will about Trump, his ability to get public attention is astonishing. And while some critics question the President’s grasp of “reality,” others see a calculated shrewdness in his behavior––an underlying strategy not unlike what Naomi Klein discussed in The Shock Doctrine.  “We already know the Trump administration plans to deregulate markets, wage all-out war on ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ trash climate science and unleash a fossil-fuel frenzy,” Klein recently stated, adding, “It’s a vision that can be counted on to generate a tsunami of crises and shocks.” She predicted economic shocks (as market bubbles burst), security shocks (as blowback from foreign belligerence comes home), weather shocks (as the climate is further destabilized), and industrial shocks (as oil pipelines spill and rigs collapse, especially when enjoying light-touch regulation).

“All this is dangerous enough,” Klein added, “What’s even worse is the way the Trump administration can be counted on to exploit these shocks politically and economically. Trump himself forecasted as much often in promising a “radical break” from the past––described by Fox News as a “shock and awe campaign against the Washington establishment.” This new agenda bears little resemblance to earlier “culture wars” between conventional liberal and conservative camps. Moral idealism has no place in Trump’s program of disruption and dishonesty. But his ability to confuse and deceive is not to be taken lightly. The Trump phenomenon raises important concerns about the role of knowledge in contemporary society––and the ways different worldviews are conceived, put into circulation, and frequently politicized. Continue reading “The Performance Art of the Deal”

On teaching style

Professors who want to establish classroom connections with their students receive lots of advice. And some experts have over the years advised the use of “self-disclosure,” telling students stories about themselves, using self-deprecating humor as a way to make students feel comfortable and to view the instructor as an ally. InsideHigher Ed discusses the finer points of this:

“Ignore that advice. That’s the recommendation of a study being published today in Communication Education, a journal of the National Communication Association. imgresThe study was based on surveys of 438 undergraduates at a Southeastern university. The students — from across disciplines — were asked about the class they had attended just before taking the survey. And for that class, they were asked both about their instructors and about whether they engaged in certain “uncivil” behaviors, such as packing up books before class was over or texting during lectures. The researchers then compared attitudes the students had about professors and the students behaviors.

“The study notes that professors’ styles only go so far in predicting whether students will be posting status updates on Facebook or actually paying attention, but they do matter.

“Although it is clear that a range of factors outside of instructors’ control contribute to uncivil behavior in the classroom — such as societal shifts toward student entitlement and students’ being raised in homes where manners are not adequately taught — results of this study indicate that there are at least some things instructors can do to minimize uncivil behavior,” the study says. “This model, taking into account only instructor-related factors, explained 20 percent of the variance in self-reported uncivil behaviors among our participants — not a huge proportion, but enough to make a noticeable difference to a frustrated teacher.”

“Based on the surveys, the paper argues that students are least likely to engage in uncivil behavior when they view the instructor as having high levels of “credibility,” meaning that through actions and nonverbal cues, the instructor conveys command of the material and the class, a sense of knowing what should be going on in class, and so forth. When students have that confidence level, they are more likely to pay attention. Continue reading “On teaching style”

On suspending professors

It would be hard to find a faculty advocate opposed to the suspension last week of a University of Florida professor of veterinary science who was secretly taking videos of students’ body parts with a device hidden in his pen. Administrative — and police — action came swiftly, without any public objection from fellow instructors.

But as InsideHigher Ed reports today: “Beyond such a clear violation of professional conduct, and, in this case, the law, faculty advocates often are quick to criticize institutions for jumping the gun with punishments. imagesA spate of forced leaves for professors in recent memory raises the question of what exactly constitutes suspension-worthy speech and action — particularly a suspension made unilaterally by administrators.

“In other words, does a line exist and, if so, where?

“The answer, some experts said, is another question: Does the faculty member’s exercise of his or her rights violate anyone else’s? And some fear that institutions may be becoming too quick to suspend in cases in which faculty conduct may have resulted in hurt feelings but not actual harm.

“The proper line to draw is where a professor’s actions interfere with the legitimate rights of others,” said John K. Wilson, co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog, editor of AAUP’s Illinois Conference Academe journal, and author of the book Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.

“If, for example, a professor commits a crime against students (such as video voyeurism), it’s punishable, Wilson said in an e-mail. So, too, is unfairly grading or meeting the “high bar” of discriminating against some group of students; making verbal threats in violation of the law; or engaging in academic fraud. And professors can be suspended for failing to do their jobs, such as refusing to teach.

“Still, that’s all with due process – and the professor should keep teaching as his or her case is being adjudicated, outside of being an immediate threat to students or others on campus. (Even the Florida professor deserves the right to defend himself before fellow professors at some point, faculty advocates said.)

“But a professor can’t be punished if he or she “merely says something that offends someone,” Wilson said. “When a professor is suspended for expressing controversial ideas, it violates the rights of students to hear those ideas, and the rights of everyone on campus who must live in a climate of fear about freedom of expression.”

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/09/25/are-colleges-being-too-quick-suspend-professors#ixzz2fxWZpAgb
Inside Higher Ed

Selling out the university

This essay starts with utopia—the utopia known as the American university, writes Thomas Frank in The Baffler

“It is the finest educational institution in the world, everyone tells us.”Indeed, to judge by the praise that is heaped upon it, the American university may be our best institution, period. With its peaceful quadrangles and prosperity-bringing innovation, the university is more spiritually satisfying than the church, more nurturing than the family, more productive than any industry.

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“The university deals in dreams. Like other utopias—like Walt Disney World, like the ambrosial lands shown in perfume advertisements, like the competitive Valhalla of the Olympics—the university is a place of wish fulfillment and infinite possibility. It is the four-year luxury cruise that will transport us gently across the gulf of class. It is the wrought-iron gateway to the land of lifelong affluence.

“It is not the university itself that tells us these things; everyone does. It is the president of the United States. It is our most respected political commentators and economists. It is our business heroes and our sports heroes. It is our favorite teacher and our guidance counselor and maybe even our own Tiger Mom. They’ve been to the university, after all. They know.

“When we reach the end of high school, we approach the next life, the university life, in the manner of children writing letters to Santa. Oh, we promise to be so very good. We open our hearts to the beloved institution. We get good grades. We do our best on standardized tests. We earnestly list our first, second, third choices. We tell them what we want to be when we grow up. We confide our wishes. We stare at the stock photos of smiling students, we visit the campus, and we find, always, that it is so very beautiful.

“And when that fat acceptance letter comes—oh, it is the greatest moment of personal vindication most of us have experienced. Our hard work has paid off. We have been chosen.

“Then several years pass, and one day we wake up to discover there is no Santa Claus. Somehow, we have been had. We are a hundred thousand dollars in debt, and there is no clear way to escape it. We have no prospects to speak of. And if those damned dreams of ours happened to have taken a particularly fantastic turn and urged us to get a PhD, then the learning really begins.”

 

More at: http://thebaffler.com/past/academy_fight_song

Those boring lenses and frames

Certainly, the lens and the frame are useful as metaphors, but as used, they are also quite limited. As an experiment, the next time you see one used, replace “frame” or “lens” with “context,” adjust the necessary conjunctions, and see if any meaning is lost. If in a given piece of writing, “seen through a queer lens” could just as easily be “seen in a queer context,” then the optical device isn’t living up to its potential as metaphor.

The chief ways in which optical metaphors can be improved in our writing are through diversity and specificity. imagesThese go hand-in-hand: the more diverse our optical metaphors become, the more specific they are able to be. Lenses, for example, can be convex-convex (the usual “lenticular” shape, which incidentally I suspect of being where lentils got their name, though I’ve done no research on this), but they can also be flat or concave on one or both sides. So, some lenses are plano-convex, others are convex-concave. These lenses behave differently and have different applications, and so could be employed in a diverse range of metaphorical applications.

“Lens” and “frame” get used a lot in theory writing. A recent post on Bad-at-Sports i getting cranky about this:

“The difference between a lens of any type and a frame is that we are directly aware of the ways in which lenses alter the image we are seeing. A biconvex lens held at the right distance from the eye will magnify the image. (At this distance, the image is not inverted; held out further, the image inverts, but the reason why is beyond my ability to explain from memory, so go Google a diagram.) This is the classic magnifying glass. Other types of lenses, such as eyeglasses, subtly alter the focal distance of our eyes (or rather, adjust the image to account for a flawed focal distance). Multiple-lens apparatuses like binoculars and microscopes magnify and can be focused. The point is that we are immediately aware of this alteration of the image we are seeing, because it is inherent to the function of the lens-based device. Continue reading “Those boring lenses and frames”

Rediscovering the library

When I started teaching, books were easier to find than articles, whose references were buried deep in voluminous, thin-paged indexes. Students took different paths in their research and came up with wildly different sets of texts, states a piece in ths weeks Chronicleof Higher Education:  imgres

“Some checked out the better books early, leaving the others to scrounge for what was left. Sure, there was overlap, but students often ended up with individualized research materials, exercising their critical abilities to integrate what they found into a coherent, cohesive discussion. As periodical-search engines blossomed, students, ever adaptable, started using more articles. While the electronic card catalog remained more or less static, the search engines became increasingly user-friendly. It became so difficult to get students to use books in their research that I started stipulating that they use a minimum number in my assignments.

“Then the development of Google and of electronic journals essentially converged. Why bother with books and the stacks when you can search full-text articles online? The process has become even more alluring with database products like Discover (which our libraries enthusiastically characterize as “the scholarly version of Google!”). It searches millions of entries, including all of the library catalog, the most-used journal databases, and local historical collections. Like Google, Discover ranks findings according to relevance. With the aid of our reference librarians, students easily set up their searches to obtain exactly what they think they’ll need, usually in the form of full-text articles.

“Consequently, my students hardly ever consult books. Circulation statistics support this impression. In 2005 our libraries checked out or renewed 86,807 books or other media. That number has been steadily declining. By 2012, the number had dropped to 45,394, down 48 percent in seven years.

Why am I bothered by these developments? Well, partly because modern library design mirrors student preferences. Increasingly, libraries are social spaces—with Wi-Fi, study nooks, coffee shops, chat areas, and movable furniture—and not homes for books, which are relegated to off-site repositories, save for a few recent acquisitions. If a student wants a book, she can requisition it. I cannot imagine students already deterred by the stacks having much patience for the repository.”

 

Full article at: http://chronicle.com/article/Unintentional-Knowledge/139891/

On asexuality

In 10 years, activist David Jay hopes your kids will be learning about asexuality when they’re getting “the talk.” This week an essay on Huffington Post explores this topic”

“What is ace culture going to look like in a decade? I don’t know,” he said. “Will it look like gay culture? That might happen, but I’m not invested in that. What I am invested in is that as more aces come out, a much larger percentage of the population will have access to the term ‘asexual’ than there is right now. I hope asexuality will be far more visible, with more out aces and asexual characters on TV shows and movies. I hope it becomes a part of the bigger world of sexuality.”imgres

“Mark Carrigan, 27, a PhD student at the University of Warwick who has been studying asexuality for half a decade, concurred. He’s eager to see an increase in asexuality awareness as he believes it will not just benefit the ace community but the world at large.

“More visibility for the asexual community will be very important,” he said. “And that’s not just because it’ll make their lives easier as a stigmatized group, but because there are cultural implications beyond those who are asexual themselves.”Carrigan, who is not himself ace, says he sees many similarities between the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement and that of the asexual struggle for broader acceptance, writes todays Huffington Post

“I’d argue that gay pride and the LGBT rights movement was a very civilizing movement,” he said. “It had broader ramifications for the culture we live in, inculcating a greater degree of tolerance and more awareness of sexual difference. Similarly, more awareness for asexuality will likely lead to awareness of a different sort of sexual difference.” Continue reading “On asexuality”

Dystopian secrecy leads to mindless war

The prosecution of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks’ source inside the U.S. Army, will be pulling out all the stops when it calls to the stand a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden – writes Chase Madar in today’s edition of Le Monde:imgres ” The SEAL (in partial disguise, as his identity is secret) is expected to tell the military judge that classified documents leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks were found on bin Laden’s laptop. That will, in turn, be offered as proof not that bin Laden had internet access like two billion other earthlings, but that Manning has “aided the enemy,” a capital offense.

“Think of it as courtroom cartoon theater: the heroic slayer of the jihadi super-villain testifying against the ultimate bad soldier, a five-foot-two-inch gay man facing 22 charges in military court and accused of the biggest security breach in U.S. history.

“But let’s be clear on one thing: Manning, the young Army intelligence analyst who leaked thousands of public documents and passed them on to WikiLeaks, has done far more for U.S. national security than SEAL Team 6. Continue reading “Dystopian secrecy leads to mindless war”

Jon Stewart may need a break

Some will surely consider this a sacrilege. But could we use a bit of a break from our dear friend Jon Stewart? Writing in Salon.com this week Daniel D’Addario suggests that Steward may be reaching just a tad too far in some of his humor, which we all know can get a bit grating at times:

“Jon Stewart departed “The Daily Show” last night in favor of guest host John Oliver — Stewart will return in September after spending the summer directing a movie. His break is coming none too soon.images

“As he prepares to shoot his film (a Middle East-set drama called “Rosewater“), Stewart’s continued to rely on the same tics — goofy accents, for instance — he has since taking over the show in 1999, and seemingly has struggled to find ways to cover Barack Obama’s second term. Earlier this week, he led the show with a sequence about the Iraq War culminating in a joke about George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner. Timely — for a time traveler from the days when we were all waiting for the fall of Speaker Dennis Hastert and looking forward to seeing “Wedding Crashers.” (The joke also includes Stewart’s most maddening accent, one where he imitates “The Simpsons”‘s Professor Frink to goose audience laughter.) Continue reading “Jon Stewart may need a break”

Third World in Every First World

Years ago, Trinh T. Minh-ha famously wrote that “there is a third world in every first world, and vice-versa.” In todays le Monde Jo Comerford and Mattea Kramer write about the growing reality of this in the United States:

“The streets are so much darker now, since money for streetlights is rarely available to municipal governments. The national parks began closing down years ago. Some are already being subdivided and sold to the highest bidder. Reports on bridges crumbling or even collapsing are commonplace. images-2The air in city after city hangs brown and heavy (and rates of childhood asthma and other lung diseases have shot up), because funding that would allow the enforcement of clean air standards by the Environmental Protection Agency is a distant memory. Public education has been cut to the bone, making good schools a luxury and, according to the Department of Education, two of every five students won’t graduate from high school. Continue reading “Third World in Every First World”

Americans care little about Benghazi

The public paid limited attention to last week’s congressional hearings on Benghazi, reports the Pew organization. “Fewer than half (44%) of Americans say they are following the hearings very or fairly closely, virtually unchanged from late January when Hillary Clinton testified. Last October, 61% said they were following the early stages of the investigation at least fairly closely.

“The national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted May 9-12 among 1,000 adults, finds that Americans are deeply split over how both the administration and congressional Republicans are handling the situation. images-6Four-in-ten (40%) say the Obama administration has generally been dishonest when it comes to providing information about the Benghazi attack, but 37% say they have been generally honest. And when it comes to the GOP-led investigation, 36% say Republicans have gone too far in the hearings, while 34% say they have handled them appropriately.

“Not surprisingly, these reactions divide cleanly along partisan lines. Among Republicans, 70% say the Obama administration has been dishonest and 65% say the hearings have been handled appropriately. Among Democrats, 60% say the hearings have gone too far, and 62% say the administration has been honest. Continue reading “Americans care little about Benghazi”

Arts feminism considered

Sometimes people claim that we don’t need feminism any more. Women have rights, they argue, so what more could they possibly want or need?

A recent post from the UK office of Huffington Posts carries an essay saying: “One only needs to look around the world at the terrible situation for many girls and women to realise that feminism is still necessary and vital. But even once females have better living conditions and more rights, feminism still has a role to play as women try to shape careers.images-7

“Several recent news stories have made it clear that women are way behind when it comes to careers in the arts.

“VIDA’s overview of who got published in literary magazines in 2012 suggests that it is still – no surprise – overwhelmingly men. Not only is it men who more often get their literary work published, but it is also primarily men who get their work reviewed and who are the reviewers, too. Continue reading “Arts feminism considered”

Traumatic times

Each American generation has its characteristic psychiatric diagnosis, and, typically, a drug or medication that represents the times, states Salon.com

“When the world was on the verge of blowing up in the Dr. Strangelove 1960s, we lived in the Age of Anxiety. Valium, the drug that symbolized that period, was celebrated in books and movies like “Valley of the Dolls” and songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.” The 1970s was the Age of Malaise, and the drug that attempted to mediate that malaise was cocaine. Starting in the Prozac-fueled late 1980s and 1990s, the omnipresent diagnosis was depression. Later, the diagnosis was attention deficit disorder and the representative drug was Adderall.images

“If this is so, the appropriate diagnosis of the last decade — since Sept. 11, 2001, to be exact — may be PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course legions of American soldiers have received the diagnosis, and enormous resources, appropriately, have gone into its treatment. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that nearly 30 percent of the more than 800,000 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated in veterans’ hospitals and clinics are diagnosed with PTSD.

“But in the past 10 years, even non-veterans have been engaged in an ongoing narrative of American trauma. After 9/11 came Katrina, then the economic meltdown and the recession that never seems to end. This past year saw Sandy followed by Newtown. Along the way there’s been the mass killings at Virginia Tech, at Northern Illinois University, and in a Colorado movie theater. There also seems to be a deepening sense that one can never fully escape from potential catastrophe, not on a Boston street on a promising spring day or in a Connecticut elementary school a few weeks before Christmas.

“In the popular perception, the locus, both psychologically and geographically, of the tragedies has shifted. They’ve gone from being “out there” — in, say, the remote parts of the South or West, or the inner cities — to “right here,” in respectable, suburban America. The latest chapter is the bombing in Boston, with its indelible images — the 70-year-old runner laid out on the ground; the impossibly innocent smiling face of the 8-year-old boy who was killed. And it further cements post-traumatic stress in the popular psyche and lexicon in a similar way in which depression, bipolar disorder and ADD — and the drugs to treat them — were popularized in earlier eras. Continue reading “Traumatic times”

No wealthy child left behind

Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. As today’s New York Times puts it: “Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.

“Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.

“What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially. Continue reading “No wealthy child left behind”

Prestige versus value in college choice

Having a choice is generally a good thing, and being able to choose among several college acceptances should be a wonderful thing indeed, as Paul Sullivan wrote this past week in the New York Timesimages

“But let’s face it: the cost of a college education these days ranges from expensive to obscenely expensive. So the decision is likely to be tougher and more emotional than most parents and children imagined as they weigh offers from colleges that have given real financial aid against others that are offering just loans.

“While some students will be able to go to college only if they receive financial aid and others have the resources to go wherever they want, most fall into a middle group that has to answer this question: Do they try to pay for a college that gave them little financial aid, even if it requires borrowing money or using up their savings, because it is perceived to be better, or do they opt for a less prestigious college that offered a merit scholarship and would require little, if any borrowing? It’s not an easy decision.

Full story: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/20/your-money/measuring-college-prestige-vs-price.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Considering gender and shame

Women and men experience shame differently, according to Brene Brown in a new book discussed in a recent article in the Atlantic.  As the essay begins: “I recently devoted a lot of energy to avoiding an uncomfortable conversation with my wife. It involved, as many uncomfortable conversations with spouses do, the distribution of unpaid labor in our house, as well as the distribution of responsibility for paying the bills. It was difficult for her to see, and for me to explain, why it seemed like she was shouldering more than her fair share of both.images

“The reason for the imbalance was that I had been devoting more time to chasing implausible dreams of the writerly variety than to doing household chores, which, in my capacity as a (mostly) stay-at-home dad, would seem like something I should be able to stay on top of.”I started thinking about this book I had read, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown, on a hunch that it might shed some light on why I was dreading this conversation.  Continue reading “Considering gender and shame”

The appeal of conspiracy theories

Psychological forces like motivated reasoning have long been associated with conspiracy thinking, but scientists are learning more every year, states today’s Salon.com, continuing:  “For instance, a British study published last year found that people who believe one conspiracy theory are prone to believe many, even ones that are completely contradictory.images “We’ve written before about the historical and social aspects of conspiracy theories, but wanted to learn more about the psychology of people who believe, for instance, that the Boston Marathon bombing was a government “false flag” operation. Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Western Australia, published a paper late last month in the journal Psychological Science that has received widespread praise for looking at the thinking behind conspiracy theories about science and climate change. We asked him to explain the psychology of conspiracy theories. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

“There are number of factors, but probably one of the most important ones in this instance is that, paradoxically, it gives people a sense of control. People hate randomness, they dread the sort of random occurrences that can destroy their lives, so as a mechanism against that dread, it turns out that it’s much easier to believe in a conspiracy. Then you have someone to blame, it’s not just randomness. Continue reading “The appeal of conspiracy theories”

Check out “Recaps”

RECAPS is a wonderful online magazine, bearing the subtitle: “Reclaim Culture Art Politics Sexuality.” As editor Martabell Wasserman (among others) writes in the “about” page:

“RECAPS Magazine is a forum for conversation. Our mission is to explore what emerges when content from different historical, geographical, methodological, aesthetic and political vantage points is brought together. The magazine includes work that ranges from the canonical to the provisional, the abstract to the polemical, the timely to the archival. RECAPS explores the relationship between virtual community and embodied activism. The (re)print section is the most literal example but this line of inquiry structures the entire project.

RECAPS attaches uses the prefix “re” in categorizing the content because the magazine is built on the ideas that resistance is a process of repeating ideas, reworking strategies and reimaging what seems possible. “Re” reflects the belief that ideas are collectively produced and an engagement with the political present requires looking backward”. Continue reading “Check out “Recaps””

Let’s actually talk about student loans

There is more student loan debt outstanding — $1 Trillion — than credit card debt! And the government is making a huge profit on it — an estimated 36 percent profit margin, reports the Huffington Postimages-1

“Here’s the real shame: The government gets to borrow for 10 years paying less than 2 percent interest on U.S. Treasury notes, while students must pay 6.8 percent interest on the loans they get from the government!

“The government is ripping off college students, leaving them with a burden of debt that averages $27,000, and for many exceeds $100,000, while they are forced to pay above-market interest rates.

“Students will spend so much time and pay so much interest getting out of student loan debt that most will never be able to afford to buy a home. Today’s homebuyers can get a 3.5 percent, 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. But today’s students may never get to take advantage of today’s low mortgage rates, because the government demands twice that rate to pay off their student loan debt. Continue reading “Let’s actually talk about student loans”

U.S. disability system in crisis

Social Security’s disability program is overwhelmed by so many claims that judges sometimes award benefits they might otherwise deny just to keep up with the flow of cases, according to a lawsuit filed by the judges themselves.

The Social Security Administration says the agency’s administrative law judges should decide 500 to 700 disability cases a year. The agency calls the standard a productivity goal, but the lawsuit claims it is an illegal quota that requires judges to decide an average of more than two cases per workday.

“When the goals are too high, the easy way out is to pay the case,” said Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges and a judge in Charlotte, N.C. “Paying the case is a decision that might be three pages long. When you deny benefits, it’s usually a 15- or 20-page denial that takes a lot more time and effort.”

The lawsuit raises serious questions about the integrity of the disability hearing process by the very people in charge of running it. It comes as the disability program faces serious financial problems.

The disability program’s trust fund will run out of money in 2016, according to projections by Social Security’s trustees. At that point, the system will collect only enough money in payroll taxes to pay 79 percent of benefits. That would trigger an automatic 21 percent cut in benefits.

Congress could redirect money from Social Security’s much bigger retirement program to shore up the disability program, as it did in 1994. But that would worsen the finances of the retirement program, which is facing its own long-term financial problems.

The lawsuit was filed by the judges’ union and three judges on Thursday in federal court in Chicago. It names the agency and Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin as defendants. Colvin took over in February after Commissioner Michael Astrue’s six-year term expired.

The union announced the lawsuit at a press conference Friday in Washington. A Social Security spokesman declined to comment. In an interview, Astrue disputed the union’s claims. Continue reading “U.S. disability system in crisis”