Wading Through Disability Paperwork

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) provides benefits to 11 million individuals, costing $140 billion annually. Its trust fund will become insolvent by 2016, so policymakers have little time to reform the system.

Funding is not the only issue facing the program. A new report from the Washington Post highlights the long list of disability cases waiting to be adjudicated.

Individuals apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) to claim disability benefits. The file is reviewed by an administrator who makes an initial ruling, with 32 percent of applicants qualifying. Individuals who are denied can appeal the ruling. Eleven percent of appeals are approved for benefits. More than 633,000 individuals are waiting on initial claims with 170,000 waiting on appeal.

An individual’s second appeal goes to one of SSA’s 1,445 judges, whom are tasked with more than 990,000 individuals waiting on appeals. The average wait for a hearing is longer than a year.

The backlog for a hearing before an appeals judge is not new. It started during the Gerald Ford administration and SSA has never caught up. The agency tried various tactics to solve the problem, but nothing seemed to work.

Several years ago, the SSA tried a different approach. The SSA pressured judges to decide 500 cases annually, but that led to a different problem.

Ebola Travel Restrictions – Marginal Measures

The recent story of a Liberian man in Dallas who had Ebola sparked a political conflagration around travel restrictions for countries where there are Ebola cases. The virus does not appear to have spread from him to anyone that did not come into direct contact with him in the Dallas hospital.

Many are arguing that his arrival in the United States means that all travel from the affected West African countries should be shut immediately. Others are arguing that travel should remain as open as it currently is – which is still heavily restricted. 

What happened to policy responses on the margin

Fortunately, the federal government took a marginal action yesterday. Fliers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will have to enter through one of five ports of entry and undergo an interview as well as a temperature check once they arrive in the United States. These restrictions are far less than the total ban sought by some folks and still more restricted than the current system  These checks do not interrupt the flow of aid to these West African countries either and will affect roughly 150 travelers per day.

Immigration or movement restrictions for legitimate health concerns are proper and already written into law. Travel restrictions to contain viruses different than Ebola have not been successful in the past. Ebola is far less communicable than the flu so the comparison to previous travel bans might not be appropriate.  

Americans have a very low chance of contracting Ebola while in the United States, let alone dying from it. The only person to die from Ebola in the United States contracted it in Liberia. I took a bigger risk of dying from a traffic accident this morning commuting to the office than I will ever face from Ebola.

More Americans are killed every year from their furniture than all Americans who have died from that dreaded hemorrhagic fever.

Those Americans who worry about Ebola focus on the freakishly high death rates for those who contract the virus – 50 percent for most strains of the virus (only 20 percent of Americans who have contracted Ebola have died.) But the death rate is not the most important figure; the chance of contracting the virus in the first place is the most important factor. 

So far, two American nurses who treated the Liberian man contracted Ebola from him. Both nurses are recovering. For the rest of us, that means the chances of contracting Ebola is about zero. No matter the death rate, a zero chance of contracting the disease means we will not die from it.     

Still, a few marginal precautions, like those put in place by the federal government, will impose a very small temporary cost and likely stop any future Ebola patients from coming to the United States on a commercial flight.    

Stop Squandering “Defense” Dollars on Rich Allies and Failed States

America accounts for nearly 40 percent of globe’s military outlays, but Washington hawks believe that the federal government never spends enough on the Pentagon.  The United States should scale back its international responsibilities and cut Pentagon outlays accordingly.

Military expenditures are the price of Washington’s foreign policy.  And the cost is high—about $627 billion budgeted this year, before counting extra expenditures for the latest Mideast war. 

The war lobby minimizes the magnitude of America’s military spending through statistical legerdemain:  real outlays have been falling and account for a lower percentage of GDP.

But the United States leads the world in military spending and is allied with every major industrialized state save China and Russia.  America and its allies collectively account for two-thirds of the globe’s military expenditures.

While Washington’s inflation-adjusted outlays have recently dropped, they previously rose significantly—almost 165 percent between 1998 and 2011.  It is only natural for expenditures to fall as Washington wound down two wars. 

Moreover, the percentage of GDP is irrelevant.  America’s GDP this year is almost seven times that in 1952, at the height of the Korean War.  Today’s GDP is roughly 3.5 times that in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War and almost twice that in 1989, the peak of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War military build-up.  Washington today spends more in real resources on the military than in any of those years.

Is Idaho Really Forcing Ministers to Officiate Weddings?

It’s important to push back against the tendency of modern anti-discrimination law to trample the rights of private business and property owners to follow the dictates of their own religious scruples or other personal conscience. It’s also important to get the facts right in each of these controversies as they arise, lest we be stampeded into mistaken assumptions and alarmist misreadings. At Overlawyered, I’ve got some thoughts on the Hitching Post wedding chapel case from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, which may pose dangers in both of these directions. 

Wastebook: 100 Silly Government Projects

The office of Senator Tom Coburn released its fifth annual “Wastebook.” The report highlights “100 silly, unnecessary, and low priority projects” funded by federal tax dollars or government debt. The 100 projects in this year’s report cost taxpayers $25 billion and represent the enormous scale of the federal government.

Among the waste in the report:

  • The National Institutes of Health’s grant-making is roundly criticized. NIH provided $533,000 to study the “effects of meditation…from reading Buddhist texts,” $1.5 million to develop a smartphone game to help parents of children with picky-eating habits, $387,000 to provide Swedish massages to rabbits, and $371,000 to study whether moms love dogs or their own children more.
  • The National Science Foundation awarded an $856,000 grant to train three mountain lions to use treadmills to study mountain lions’ use of energy while hunting. This follows NSF’s earlier grant to study shrimps’ ability to walk on treadmills.
  • A small bridge in Morrison, Colorado may be removed and rebuilt for violating the federal government’s “Buy American” provision. The original bridge, built with $52,000 in federal highway dollars, contains $3,300 in American steel that was rolled into sheets in Canada. Reconstruction costs are estimated at $20,000.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development provided a $1.4 million grant to build a luxury hotel in Cary, North Carolina. The hotel features afternoon tea, facials, and an “upscale cocktail bar.” There are 50 hotels within 15 minutes of driving distance.

The report also includes several other boondoggles that I’ve highlighted recently:

  • Customs and Border Protection built 21 homes in Ajo, Arizona for its agents. CBP overpaid for land, added unnecessary amenities, and wasted $4.6 million on these extravagant homes.
  • The Department of Homeland Security’s vehicle fleet is underutilized. Fifty-nine percent of the agency’s vehicles are driven less than 12,000 miles a year, wasting up to $48.6 million.

These projects represent a fraction of the federal government’s almost $4 trillion in annual spending, but illustrate a larger trend. Agencies spend wildly and Congress refuses to provide the necessary oversight.

Entrenched interests encourage policymakers to allow wasteful spending to continue. For instance, the Department of Agriculture tried to close a $2 million sheep research station in Idaho, but “politicians in the region stepped in to keep it open.”  There are many similar examples.

Policymakers applaud themselves for the recent drop in the budget deficit, but Senator Coburn’s “Wastebook” shows that a lot of work is left to complete.

Immigrants Don’t Grow Government

Many critics of immigration claim that immigrants will grow the size of government.  As their argument goes, allowing for more lawful immigration to the United States will produce a larger government through immigrant voting behavior or their children’s voting behavior.  However, if another factor like institutional changes can explain the growth of government, we would expect government to grow independently of the size of the immigrant stock.

There are many measures of the size of government, many of which are included in the Economic Freedom of the World: 2014 Annual Report.  As excellent as that report is, the data does not go back far enough to show whether government growth a century ago tracks well with growth in the immigrant population.  Older data is essential because there have been radical changes in immigration policy over the last century and larger changes in the growth of government.  By looking at the more distant past, a clearer picture can be formed over how immigration has impacted growth in government – if at all. My charts below focus on the federal government only.

Below I use two measures of the growth of the federal government from 1901-2010:  Real outlays (2010 dollars) per capita and government outlays as a percent of GDP.  I use figures for every decade as yearly data is more difficult to attain. 

 imm and outlays per capita

 

Source: Table 1.1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals & U.S. Census

Real government outlays per capita go up no matter what happens to the stock of immigrants.  Two forty-year periods had very different immigration policies: 1930 to 1970 and 1970 to 2010.

U.S. Floods, Droughts and Global Warming: Another Wardrobe Failure

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

It is the current rage in the mainstream media and the government to tie almost everything into human-caused global warming—from a sluggish economy to Ebola,  and everything in between (and then some).

In fact, virtually none of these claims are supported by a consensus of evidentiary science. Here is (yet) another example, debunking the popular notion floods are being worsened by dreaded climate change caused by pernicious economic activity.

Clinically speaking, a “flood” is actually an extreme excursion in streamflow. So, if changes in streamflow are related to long-term changes in climate, and we accept that the majority of those latter changes are caused by said economic activity (we don’t), then our activities should increase streamflow and therefore the frequency of floods (or their opposite, droughts).

Two scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Gregory McCabe and David Wolock, recently examined historical (1951-2009) streamflow records from 516 rivers and streams that they considered to be only minimally impacted by human development. They first sorted the data into regional patterns, and then compared the temporal behavior of these patterns to  common historical climate indices—such as well-known patterns of atmospheric circulation, sea surface temperatures, or even large-scale warming.

It turns out that there weren’t any relationships between streamflow and the larger atmospheric phenomena.  Or at least, so very few that they are hardly worth mentioning.

Here is how McCabe and Wolock describe what they (didn’t) find:

Comparing time series of climate indices…with the time series of mean [stream] flow for the 14 clusters [patterns] indicates weak correlations that are statistically significant for only a few clusters. These results indicate that most of the temporal variability in streamflow in the conterminous U.S. is unpredictable in terms of relations to well-known climate indices. [emphasis added]

In other words, trends and/or variability in larger-scale features of the climate (including rising temperature from global warming) are not very strongly (if at all) related to regional and temporal characteristics of streamflows across the U.S.

And before anyone starts to argue that we have left out the direct (i.e., local) effect of global warming—that warmer air holds more moisture and thus it can rain more frequently and harder—McCabe and Wolock report very few long-term trends that would be indicative of steadily rising moisture levels. Instead, the find the historical records dominated by periods of multidecadal variability. In their own words:

Analyses of the annual mean streamflow time series for the 14 streamflow clusters indicated periods of extended wet and dry periods, but did not indicate any strong monotonic trends. Thus, the mean cluster streamflow time series indicate nearly random variability with some periods of persistence.

The bottom line is that McCabe and Wolock do not identify any behavior in historical U.S. streamflow records that is suggestive of an influence from human-caused global warming.

So next time you hear that there are increasing droughts or floods in the U.S. and that they are, through some convoluted explanation, “consistent with” global warming, remember two things: 1) “consistent with” is not the same as “caused by” and, 2) the consensus science linking global warming to changing streamflow characteristics across the U.S. is lacking.

Reference:

McCabe, G. J., and D. M. Wolock, 2014. Spatial and Temporal Patterns in Conterminous United States Streamflow Characteristics. Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2014GL061980

 

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