Monday, December 31, 2012

We're in Freefall

Everyone has been up in arms over the fiscal cliff. As expected, it looks like Congress may be pulling its collective head out of its ass to catch the New Years fireworks and maybe, hopefully, agree to a deal that averts the biggest problems set to hit us on January 1st. Keep in mind, though, that last year Congress was congratulating itself on creating the fiscal cliff in the first place...

Anyway, it seems everyone is glued to this story about fiscal policy in Washington. But they're missing some of the more depressing and distressing news going on. Specifically, everything happening in state legislatures around this country when it comes to funding some of those pesky human services programs that have been unfortunately labeled "entitlements."

Well, let me clear that up. These are not entitlements in the commonly used sense of the word. They're not food stamp programs, medical voucher programs, housing/fuel assistance programs. True, all of those have seen their budgets slashed, and they can no longer meet the needs of the people. But we're not talking about those. We're talking about mental health.

It's an interesting fact that most state governments have now lumped mental health into the same agency or department that deals with things like housing, food assistance, etc. In fact, mental health has come almost exclusively under the umbrella of government control. Why? Because private mental health practicioners who are appropriately licensed and accredited get most of their money from the system anyway, they may as well be.

In my job, I deal with mental health professionals on a regular basis. The biggest mental health agencies run almost entirely on state and federal contract. They are for-profit, and charge groups that they contract with (including schools - think of that, a government-sponsored agency charging a government-sponsored agency enough money to turn a profit) some pretty hefty fees for their services. So, what happens when state money dries up, and the federal government can't figure out which way is up long enough to fill in the gaps?

What happens is, we get fewer beds available for non-crisis individuals. We have to deny services to all but the most extreme cases. We have to do more with less, because the prevalence of mental illness increases when the economy is bad.

We've seen what happens when there is inadequate mental health services. Those who need treatment end up hurting themselves or others. They are unable to function, and the system has to find a place for them. In the worst of scenarios, they become violent, and can even become deadly.

We can gripe and complain all we want about the fiscal cliff, and how Congress is a do-nothing institution, etc. and on. But we should take the time to look at what is happening in our own back yard, because that is where the truly concerning things are happening. Even now, states are looking for ways to slash budgets. We know the usual suspects: education, infrastructure, contracting, and those pesky entitlement programs. But if we really delve into those numbers, we see that cutting those programs is hurting our future, and those in our current society that need the most help are finding themselves lost in the shuffle.

So, we're already in a kind of free-fall. States have been employing austerity for months now, even years, and we're starting to see the effects in our mental health system, as well as in education and social programs. Whether you believe austerity is helping, or whether you believe that it's hurting, the fact remains that this is the dark secret of spending cuts: spiraling crises that will end in catastrophe, and no way of preventing them. I hope that this next year brings more serious contemplation of these issues, and I hope we come to an agreement where we say that some things are just too important to cut.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sense and Sensibility

As the year draws to a close, and worries mount over the fiscal cliff that's staring us down next week, it's worth considering how we got ourselves into this position where things seem to be falling apart.

First of all, are things really as bad as they seem? It depends on who you listen to. Once you escape the American Media bubble, things look a whole lot better. In fact, some people are calling 2012 one of the best year's ever!

But it wasn't all fun and games. For one thing, we saw some very serious political dysfunction. Look at what's happening now, where politicians can't get out of their own way, can't seem to stick to one political opinion, and can't seem to figure out which way is up when it comes to our finances. And when I say politicians, I really am talking about Republicans (but I'm trying to be more neutral, for some reason). The problem, as many people have pointed out, is that Republicans have been going out of their way to be argumentative with the Obama administration and Democrats. Even when those groups agree to things that Republicans like and support (state-based health insurance exchanges, for example), Republicans backtrack and disagree with them. In the case of those exchanges, which are part of Obamacare, the result is that many conservative states are allowing the federal government to control their health insurance, when they could have done it themselves.

And what else has this led to? Why, a breakdown in talks over the fiscal cliff deal, of course! Normally, negotiations mean that two groups make concessions until they've reached a deal. In the case of the new Republican party, concessions are forgotten and a death-grip on core values is all that matters. When Boehner broke out of step with his party and crafted a plan that would have gotten us very close to a final deal, Republicans themselves shot it down. Now, even Republicans want their party back.

There's no sense in how the GOP is acting at this point, and there is no sense in believing they'll somehow snap out of it in time to save us from this fiscal cliff, or any of the other issues they've helped bring around (remember, they hold a majority in the House, and a filibuster in the Senate; anyone who says they're not part of the gridlock problem in Washington is either an idiot or a liar). All we can hope for is that, following this LAME duck session of Congress, there will be more movement on the national issues than we've seen recently.

Happy New Year (I hope).

Friday, December 21, 2012


It's good to be back in the USA, even if the world seems to have gone hell in a handbasket in my absence. I'm going to keep my distance from the big stories that have exploded through our media in the last few weeks, because there's not much I can say that will be constructive, original, and/or helpful.

And so, we arrive at HSBC, that multi-billion dollar firm that was found to be involved in a whole slew of questionable projects. Despite a mountain of evidence, HSBC was given a deal by which they paid a little over a billion dollars in fines (less than 10% of their profits from last year).

This is another stark contrast to the flesh-and-blood person and the corporate person in America. While an organic person would have been locked up for money laundering schemes of this magnitude, HSBC gets away with next-to-nothing in repurcussions for their actions. And the reason? According to the NY Times, "State and federal authorities decided against indicting HSBC in a money-laundering case over concerns that criminal charges could jeopardize one of the world’s largest banks and ultimately destabilize the global financial system."

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bon Voyage

You may have noticed I have been somewhat lax about posting recently. I have been planning a vacation and have not had time to do a lot of research.

I will be out of town for about two weeks, and so will not be posting in that time. I appreciate everyone who has been checking out the blog, and I hope you continue to do so in my absence.