Senator 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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.