Binder explains how the government defines a real, awardable disability: You must have some impairment that prevents you from performing any job whatsoever in the American economy that could support you.
And then things get fuzzier. “It would be great,” Binder writes, “if Social Security would just grant benefits to everybody who told them a true story about their disability.” That story may well be premeditated: Binder notes that “so much can be done before the question of disability comes up, even when you are perfectly healthy.” He doesn’t elaborate much on that, but his book is full of what he terms “good, well-tested pieces of advice,” reminding the reader that “these are not tricks.”
Among this repertoire of suggestions: When it comes to determining whether you’re capable of sedentary office work, “remember, sitting in a lounge chair with your feet up is not ‘sitting.’ Sitting means sitting in a work setting on a regular work chair. We doubt you were allowed to work with your feet up.” As for prospective claimants who might be capable of participating in some limited way in the workforce: “The only sure-fire way to pass [Social Security’s guideline for whether or not you can work] is to be doing no kind of work at all — no part-time work, no under-the-table work, no volunteer work, nothing. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t get away with a little work . . . but you’d be taking your chances.”
Binder makes the perfunctory statements about disability fraud, noting that they “take money away from the people who truly need it, and that is more unfair than anything.” While he does caution applicants to always answer truthfully, he also coaches them to “answer only what the [administrative law judge] asks.” (His emphasis.) And given Binder & Binder’s documented history of withholding relevant medical evidence that might hurt a client’s claim, that stance becomes more ethically questionable by the moment.
Granted, Social Security has some checks in place to keep people who aren’t really disabled from getting on disability. (Whether they are effective is a subject for another article.) But Binder seems to resent the existence of any precautions that might prevent any of his clients from getting on disability.
He laments that Social Security would require applicants to see a doctor of the government’s choosing to double-check the veracity of medical claims: “We may be cynics but most [doctors who perform consultative examinations for Social Security] seem to remember who pays for the examination.” In other words, how dare Social Security demand a second opinion before giving out a disability award with an average lifetime value of around $300,000?
Binder is also critical of many administrative-law judges who rule on disability cases: “Some of the judges who run the hearings can be pretty difficult. . . . At times, judges will even seem like they are taking Social Security’s side,” by which he really means the taxpayers’ side. Of course, he never mentions the 23 American administrative-law judges who ruled favorably in 90 percent or more of the disability cases they heard last year, costing taxpayers more than $1.46 billion.
But Binder’s book, for all its philosophical and typographical sloppiness, is worth the read. Why disability is going bankrupt is a big question, and Binder has — and is — the answer.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.