Joe's Road Trip 2011

Road Trip Day 4: ADHD and Social Security

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Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME

Republicans watch the tea party debate at Hal's Landing in Laredo, Texas, September 12, 2011.

Austin, Texas

I watched the Republican debate on Monday with the Webb County Republicans, down in Laredo (where there aren’t very many Republicans) and you can find my report here, if you pay your money and subscribe to TIME. There was some interesting stuff I couldn’t fit into the column, so I’ll let ‘er rip:

The Laredo Republicans had a natural tilt toward Rick Perry, who graces the cover of TIME Magazine this week, and I do agree that he comes across well, on occasion, with Republican audiences who buy his wacko notion that anything the government does is socialism. The Republican desire to question even the most basic staples of governance, like Social Security, reflects a more general desire among moderates and even many liberals to take stock of what we’re doing and hash out some basic principles, given the economic fix we’re in.

Perry doesn’t help matters when he calls Social Security–a bare bones old-age insurance system that could be made whole with a few relatively easy fixes–a Ponzi Scheme and unconstitutional. But his willingness to take on this issue so boldly comes across as courage to conservatives. On the other hand, watching the debate, I began to get the impression that Perry may have a glass jaw. Both Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum knocked him into catatonic, deer-in-highlights mode when they attacked him from the right (mostly for being reasonable about an anti-cancer vaccination program and immigration); Mitt Romney’s challenge from the center didn’t work so well with the Laredo Republicans. On the third hand, Bachmann was particularly vile in raising the folk-nonsense that vaccinations can cause mental retardation.

As I’ve written in the past, liberals can’t just scoff at the attacks on existing social programs–especially when those programs aren’t working or are silly. When Randy Blair, chairman of the Laredo Republicans, told me that children with ADHD were eligible for Social Security disability payments, I thought it was another of those right-wing, welfare-Cadillac fantasies, but I promised to check it out.  It turns out that Blair was right. Katy Steinmetz found this, which seems a bit over the top to me. (I’ve raised a child with pretty severe ADHD and I know how challenging it can be–by the way, Ritalin can be a terrific drug for kids who really have severe attention problems–but Social Security disability money? I don’t think so.)

Last year, a Boston Globe investigation found that 53% of the 1.2 million low-income children who received such checks in 2009 qualified because of mental, learning, or behavioral issues. In 1990, that figure was 8 percent. The top two disorders “by significant margins”: ADHD and delayed speech in young children. Update: SSA got back to me with current numbers. There are now 210,000 recipients under the age of 18 who are getting disability benefits for ADD/ADHD.–KS

The Laredo Republican reaction to some of the lesser candidates was interesting as well: Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum did well in the debate, in their eyes–especially Gingrich, who seemed smart to them. It is not impossible, if Perry flames out, that The Newtron Bomb will get another look as an alternative to Romney. Ron Paul crashed and burned–his apparent sympathy for Osama Bin Laden’s 9/11 rationale simply killed him with a crowd that had expressed some respect for him before the debate. Jon Huntsman also crashed and burned–his sense of humor was incomprehensible to the Laredo Republicans. Kurt Cobain?* As for Bachmann, the women in the group liked her and the men didn’t think she was a plausible nominee.

Moving on: We had a great event at the LBJ Library here in Austin last night. I interviewed three Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were featured in my recent cover story–Tommy Sowers, Seth Moulton and Matt Pelak. The large crowd was wowed and moved by their eloquence–including those who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (a not inconsiderable cohort in Austin). Seth Moulton said that he had mixed feelings about the war in Iraq, too, but he felt a tremendous responsibility to the 18-and-19-year-old infantrymen in his platoon. He felt it was his duty to serve; he didn’t feel comfortable having someone else–poorer, less privileged (Seth graduated from Harvard)–do his fighting for him. He also repeated something he told me previously, “80% of my classmates who went to Wall Street were unhappy in their work, but 100% of those who chose the military loved it.”

Both Sowers–a former special forces operator–and Pelak, a former sergeant who is part of the Team Rubicon disaster relief group,  also had memorable things to say about the difficulty of serving in combat…and the difficulty coming home and trying to make do without the close friends and support network they had in the military. Sowers, who lost a Congressional race last year, talked about the importance of the new GI Bill, passed by the Congress last year.

Note to Rick Perry and the Tea Party: There is no mention of the federal government having the right to send returning veterans to college in the Constitution, but it seems to have worked out OK.

And Finally: I was on Morning Joe today, which is always a pleasure–a TV show that avoids the pompous, fake-formal bullpucky that attends most news on television. Before I came on, Rep. Paul Ryan was lamenting, with good reason, the overcomplicated, loophole-ridden tax code. Joe Scarborough was pretty much in agreement, mentioning Warren Buffet’s oft-stated outrage at the fact that he pays a lower rate of taxes than his secretary does. But neither Scarborough nor Ryan directly acknowledged the reason why Buffet’s rate is so low: most of his income comes from capital gains, which are taxed at 15%. I’d be very curious to know if Ryan would be in favor of taxing capital profits at the same rate as labor. Somehow, I doubt it.

*Jon Huntsman sarcastically suggested that Mitt Romney’s book, No Apology, was written by Kurt Cobain, whose band Nirvana had a hit called “All Apologies.” He later defended the comment, saying, “You can’t say ‘no apologies’ on the 20th anniversary [of Nirvana album Nevermind] and not have Kurt Cobain come to mind.” Though most people (who don’t sigh wistfully for the high times of Seattle grunge) would probably beg to differ.–KS