In Memory of Chuck Willis

Chuck Willis Teaching about Peak Oil

Major contributor to this blog, and my dear friend Chuck Willis, died suddenly on Tuesday, Oct 30, 2012 in Wichita, Kansas.

Chuck has contributed 54 blog entries during his years of writing for Peak Oil Blues.  He was working on another one right before he died.  His son will finish it and forward it to me.

Here is my tribute to him.

 

Early Years

College

In 1960 – 1965, Chuck received his B.S. in both Math and Physics at The University of Texas at Austin.

Chuck spent his professional career doing many things.

Early Work in Computers

He worked on the earliest prototypes of computers.  In 2008, he wrote to me about it:

I was one of 1900 who turned the world upside down 43 years ago. I went to work for IBM straight out of college in their Advanced Systems Development labs in the mountains outside of San Jose California.  I was part of the team that  developed the System 360 computer, the foundation of nearly every computer since. Before the 360, no computer could talk to another computer. Every time a new model computer came out, all of the programming had to be re-written before it could be used.  A computer then could only run one program at a time. The 360 design changed all that. This is why your PC is called an IBM compatible PC, it is compatible to the old 360 design, which is at the heart of every computer system since (except Univac/Unisys and Apple MAC, which are built on a different design).

My job was to design a new data access method for Disc called BDAM. It was very fast, but fragmented the disc drive (sound familiar?), and fell out of favor in the mainframe world in the mid 70s, except for check processing, where it is still at the core. I designed and developed that access method with 3 other guys, 2 in San Jose and one in White Plains, NY. If you have a hard drive on your PC, a variant of that access method is storing your information right now. As such, I have had a very unique view of the beginnings of the information age.

When I joined IBM, the computer industry was at the stage of where aviation was in 1912. With the 360, we took it to where aviation was in 1940.  I am seriously thinking of writing a book about that era.

To our great loss, he never did write that book, to my knowledge.

Chuck never bragged about his past.  He just stated it, as a fact. And when he wrote to me, I always learned something new and interesting:

The three most costly projects in the decade of the 1960s were NASA’s race to the moon, the IBM 360, and a distant third, the interstate highway system. The race to the moon would not have been possible were it not for the 360 that ran the Apollo missions.

Navy Years

When I went into the NAVY, I remained on the IBM payroll and they paid the difference between my NAVY salary and my IBM salary, in case there were problems that arose that the other 3 guys couldn’t handle.

You got that?  IBM kept him on the payroll, despite his being in the Navy, because they needed him “just in case.”

Fighter Pilot and Flying Stories

He was a fighter pilot in the Navy, and used to remind me of the old chestnut: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”

He used flying stories to encourage and inspire his readers. Here is a story from his early flying days, in response to a very intimate and revealing post I wrote, that I was unsure about, a post that explained my long absence in my contributing to this blog:

When I was learning to fly, on my second solo, my instructor sent me out to the practice area about 15 miles from the airport to do the “stall series”, one of my least favorite activities in a plane(where you make it quit flying).  I was immediately surprised by the steep angle it took to stall the plane with only one aboard.  I completed the power off stalls with no big problems.  I started the full power stalls from about 3500 feet above the ground.

On the first stall, I must have gotten sloppy with the rudder, and when it stalled it did something I totally didn’t expect, the plane dropped instantly into a spin, not just a spin but an upside down spin.  For an experienced pilot with proper training, spins are a non problem, but years before I took my training, spin recovery had been removed from the training requirements because so many were killing themselves practicing it.

Everything I tried to recover just made it worse.  In desperation, I turned loose of all the controls and to my utter joy the plane righted itself into a spiral dive, which I could recover from, and I recovered about 500 ft above the ground.  I climbed up to 3000 feet, trimmed the plane for level flight, and was shaking like a leaf in a windstorm.  I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to land the plane at the airport as all my confidence in my training and abilities was totally gone.

I got back to the airport and somehow got it on the ground.  I was sure I would never try to fly an airplane again, I didn’t think I had what it took.  When I went back in the hanger, my instructor asked me what had happened as I was still shaking and pale as a ghost.  I told him I was throwing in the towel, it was more than I could do.  He would hear nothing of it, took the keys from me and marched me back to the plane.  We took off and flew back to the practice area, and he told me we were going to de-mystify the terror of the spin.  I was protesting loudly, but he proceeded to spin the plane and have me follow his movements with the controls.  Then we climbed back up, and he spun the plane and had me recover it.  We did that 5 more times, then went back to the airport.

I still had apprehension on my next solo, but I also had the self confidence that hey I’ve done this before and now have the experience to do it again and recover if necessary.  Over the years I have been so thankful that my instructor encouraged me to face my fears head on, get back in the saddle, and go further down the path of life.  I have had to do that many times in my professional and personal life.  Your writing is a perfect example of that.  You have returned to the saddle with a firm idea that hey, I can conquer this, and make a great contribution, not only to others, but myself.

He was not a person prone to hyperbole.  Instead, he delivered his terrifying messages about what was to come calmly and evenly, in his slow Texan drawl.  He had many of the features others would call a “pilot persona.” While there is a Hollywood lore about fighter pilots having the”right stuff,” (Wolfe, 1980) possessing extreme levels of confidence, assertiveness, and competitiveness, the true psychological profile is more complex. What appears to be true is that both male and female combat pilots are considerably less neurotic and more conscientious than others.

Conscientiousness – (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; planned rather than spontaneous behavior; organized, and dependable.

Low Neuroticism – individuals who score low in neuroticism are less easily upset and are less emotionally reactive. They tend to be calm, emotionally stable, and free from persistent negative feelings.

Career Challenges as Teaching Tales

At the end of 2010, when my husband was at a low point, Chuck sent me his own personal story about his early career life, to inspire my husband to “hang in there,” when dealing with unreasonable bosses. He also sent my husband a key chain with a logo my husband still has “(Expect the Best and Deliver What You Promise)”.  Here is Chuck’s story to Dan:

Chuck started working at the Fourth National Bank and Trust, one of the oldest banks in Kansas, in the fall of 1980.  He worked for a department with a turnover rate running about 70-75% a year, a staff of 26 under him, and a completely incompetent Department Manager. In addition, each terminal was on a Lazy Susan type of turntable between cubicles and shared by two programmers, so only one person could work at a time.

His boss would regularly promise a program or enhancement to a system to others in the company, and commit to a delivery date without a clue about what it would take or what work it would interrupt, to accomplish it.

Then, he’d ask Chuck to make sure it got done.

The 26 employees were upset with all the work coming down the pipeline without a break and had to work 60-70 hour weeks at lower pay than what the aircraft companies in the area normally paid. Chuck began working with his team, asking them for ideas to improve their situation, and blind copying them on many of the memos he was sending to his boss requesting changes. They began to accept that he was on “their side” and started drastically increasing productivity. The turnover rate dropped from 70-75% to about 20% in one year, under his leadership.

Two years later, Chuck was asked by his boss’s superior to run a conversion program from DOS to MVS, a job that had thousands of programs, all which had to be re-written to run under MVS, and at the same time keep up the bank’s normal maintenance of daily operations and changes. He would be given no additional personnel.

This was the largest project he was ever to undertake in his professional career, and agreed to it only if he could set the timelines and control the entire project.  His bosses’ superior agreed, promising rich financial rewards upon its success.   Over the next 16 months he and his staff put in nearly 50 man years of work to get us converted.  He personally put in over 2100 hours of overtime above normal work hours, while several of his staff put in over 2500 hours of overtime.

I used the old Navy Plan of the Day format for my daily reporting to management.  Every morning at 8:30am I met for 30-45 minutes with my staff managers, IBM, and computer operations, discussing current problems and solutions, and what our goal was by the end of the day.

The year 1983 was a blur, more intense than anything I had ever done.  We ran ourselves crazy trying to tame this elephant.  How Linda endured my preoccupation, late hours, short temper, and total physical exhaustion is beyond me.  No member of my staff was immune.  I sent out regular letters to the spouses of my staff trying to explain as best I could the magnitude of what we were doing and how much I appreciated their understanding and support.  Tempers were on a short fuse for everybody.

The conversion was a strictly one-way proposition, once we switched over, there was no going back to the old systems, it had to work.  It was a very successful conversion. IBM indicated it was the smoothest they had ever seen. We had converted over 4000 programs and tens of thousands of files, while keeping the everyday business running.

His higher-level superior died suddenly at the age of 44, and the incompetent one took over.  Upon completion, this man never sent as much as a one line memo congratulating the staff on this extraordinary achievement.  In addition, no one got even a penny for their efforts, including Chuck.  He found out later that his boss took all the credit for the success of the project, and received large bonus payments at year end.

He wanted my husband to know that he had been where he was, and that if my husband kept putting one foot in front of the other, he would eventulaly get his bearings back.  Chuck was offered a job he loved, and stayed in for 30 years shortly after this.

Here is the part of the story that I really loved:

I had become mentally and physically exhausted by March of 1984.  Linda and I went over to Riverside park one warm afternoon to talk about what we could do to restore me and us together, something we have done frequently.  One thing we fell back to was that we had really enjoyed the camping experience at the World’s Fair, even with all the inconveniences.  We brainstormed about what we could do to recapture some of that freedom, and hit on the idea of acquiring an old VW camper van, which would be about 2 steps up from tent camping.

I started looking around in the classified ads at the library for all the area newspapers.  One showed up in the Kansas City newspaper for a 1973 model van for $1200, which I could borrow, and using the tax refund we had just obtained.  We drove up to Kansas City on a Saturday and took it for a test drive, and found it to be in pretty good condition, but it was a bright orange color.  We closed the deal and I drove the beast back to Wichita with Linda following me.  We promptly named it the “Great Pumpkin” from an annual cartoon series in the Charlie Brown cartoons around Halloween.

Linda and I decided that our first outing in the Great Pumpkin should be back to Oshkosh, so she could enjoy the serenity of Partridge Lake.  Being that the trip would be the first long trip in the Great Pumpkin, we weren’t sure of what adventures would lie ahead of us.  It didn’t take long for the “adventures” to start.  When we went out to leave, the VW refused to turn over to start.  We pushed it down the hill to get rolling and popped the clutch to start it and returned dejected back to Wichita.  I got up early next morning and did some trouble shooting, and was able to jury rig it to start.  I went back in and announced to everybody that we were off again, and we loaded up for the second try.  This time it behaved for the most part, except about every 3rd time I tried to start it, I would have to crawl underneath and jumper from the battery to the starter solenoid.  We made it to Partridge Lake.  It was worth it.  I taught  We gradually adjusted to camper living, and found it to be very relaxing.  On the way back we discovered one of the drawbacks to the bright orange color, it attracted bees like crazy.   Over the next 18 years we owned the VW, we constantly worked on it to improve its usefulness.

The three worst years I had at work, were years I would get the greasy hands and work like crazy on that van ( I souped it up with a Corvair engine and gearbox that I rebuilt from the ground up – first and only engine I have ever rebuilt).  We enjoyed that van for close to 20 years before we sold it.  Something good can come out of working out your frustrations, even if you have to learn by trial and error.

At other times I have painted pictures, taken up the banjo (absolutely no musical talent, but enjoyed taking lessons and learning to plink and plunk), so encourage Dan to find a physical creative outlet.  Currently Linda and I carve ships (the Edmund Fitzgerald) and sell to the Great Lakes Shipwreck museum near Whitefish Bay, MI, something we have been doing for about 12 years.  Carve all winter, paint in the spring, sell in the spring summerand fall.  We have created close to 1000 of the small ships and around 220 of the large ones.

 

Contingency Planner for B of A

Next, he went to work for Bank of America, a job that he loved, and retired after 30 years as a Vice President and Senior Contingency Specialist.  His nickname there was “Doctor Doom,” because his work depended on his ability to understand how complex systems interrelate, and to predict the trajectory of how they break down and how to mitigate this impact. The largest bank in the USA, and the 10th largest in the world can hire the best and the brightest to do this work.  Chuck was one of them.  It was in this capacity that he learned about Peak Oil.

Storm Spotter for Tornadoes

After he retired, he continued his work at a trained volunteer of storm spotters, spending 27 years at it, intentionally putting himself in harm’s way, but no doubt saving thousands of lives.  Meteorologists use radar to forecast where tornadoes might form. But, the radar can’t detect actual tornadoes. People like Chuck are needed to do that.

Storm spotters are different that storm chasers. Spotters work in organized networks to observe and confirm severe weather events for the NWS and for local emergency managers.

I talked to a meteoroligist here last week, and she said the severe storms forecast center in Oklahoma is very apprehensive about the tornado season from late March through mid June.  I’ve been going out into the western part of the county from Wichita two going up and down roads with a map noting safe observation points and possible places with storm shelters, as well as making sure there are no dead communication areas with my equipment for when the weather bureau sends us spotters out into the field.  Our county is about 40 miles by 30 miles so we have a lot of territory to cover.

[I am ] Working on getting all my equipment ready for the upcoming FEMA exercise on April 7-8, had to design and currently building out a new power supply for my mobile FM transmitter that I will have to use at the hospital I’m assigned to as their equipment broke down, and so I will have to use mine instead.   Having to learn some new technology, but that is a good thing, got to keep the little grey cells humming!!

Humanitarian

Chuck was also an active humanitarian and did many acts of charity.  This excerpt gives you a sense for his empathy, compassion, humanitarianism, and vision.

Tonight our small bible study and discussion group has our monthly duty of serving the evening meal at the Union Rescue Mission.  Linda and I worked that last month.  It was sobering.  We had prepared ourselves for the burned out druggies and alcoholics, but what caught us off guard was that more than half of the 230 people we served that evening were clean cut, well dressed (compared to most homeless folks) and polite young- to middle-aged individuals, the Joe Average you pass on the street.  You could look into their eyes and just see the hurt and bewilderment at how they went from a functioning part of society to unemployed homeless, being fed by strangers.  The Union Rescue Mission purchased a nursing home on the outskirts of the city that was closed by the state, and uses it to provide two meals a day and house the folks for sleeping at night on rubber mats.  It really drove home the point of how bad the economy has really become.  When you see true hard core hunger that close up and close to home, it really shakes you to the core over what is coming.

I talked to him about how he saw the future, and how I could be more useful to people who read me.

One of my major concerns that is starting to be formulated in my mind, is that the peak oil onset may not allow time for an orderly transition to a downsized lifestyle. Political action to do something on a large scale is just not going to happen, for one thing, because of limited tax revenues. I’m beginning to feel like we will be thrust suddenly into a reduced lifestyle in the next couple of years, sort of being laid off from the energy society. Most people will not have the time or inclination to research all the ramifications this has for them personally, and how to develop a survival mindset, when the politcal correctness crowd has given the word “survival” such a negative connotation. They will however read the “Dear Abby of Peak Oil” perhaps.

Deep Religious Faith

Chuck was a man of profound religious faith, that was a guiding force in his life.  It was woven into the very fabric of his being, not a coat he tried on one day a week.  His faith was unshakable and provided him with enormous personal comfort.

Support and Encouragement

I will leave you with one final quote for now.  As I’ve already mentioned, 2011 was a very difficult year for me.  My Mother died, a foster child got into a car accident, my husband was depressed over a difficult employment situation, and several other personal trials drove me to write to Chuck for support and guidance.  He wrote the following back in his email:

You sound like you have the February blues. When you get up in the morning, look to the east.  Somewhere in the trees and clouds you will find the sun. No matter what happens with the economy, energy or environment, the sun will be there, each and every day. You and Dan have had everything and the kitchen sink thrown at you the last 60 days. It has got to be overwhelming.  When I have more crap than any individual person should endure, I remember Elton John’s song, “I’m Still Standing.”  For some reason it always encourages me to take another step.

Wish I had some profound words of wisdom to offer, but that is the best I can come up with.


I will miss those words of  encouragement.  Thank you, Chuck, for your tremendous contribution to this blog and my life.

I will forward any messagesof gratitude or condolences left in the comments section of this post to his wife, Linda.

If you’d like to take a look at the 54 (soon to be 55) articles he’s contributed gratis over the years, you can find all of them at The Best of POB under the heading “Chuck Willis.”  I will also be posting more of his writings, some I found in my inbox recently.

 

Communing with the Dead

by Kathy McMahon, Psy.D.

(I extend my sympathies to all of those who have lost loved ones, or are suffering as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  It is my hope that this post (updated from last year) will be of use.*)

Over this next week, too many people who survived Hurricane Sandy will die from preventable causes. The living can learn a lot from the tragic death of disaster victims. What killed them? What were they doing when they died? Their death can become a “teaching tale” that benefits the living.

Tales from the Grave

Behavioral researcher Wendy Joung studied firefighter errors in judgment, and determined that firefighters who reviewed case histories of fatal errors showed improved judgment and a higher order of adaptive thinking than firefighters who went through “positive” training. The study involved reviewing case histories of errors vs. accurate decisions made in similar situations.

Laurence Gonzales argues that reading accident reports in your chosen field of recreation informs you of the mistakes that others have made. It puts you on the lookout for similar situations, and teaches you how to avoid them. Here are the major categories to pay attention to during Hurricanes and related disasters:

Water

Puerto Rico: A 62-year-old woman was killed as she tried to cross a river in her car and was swept away.

New Jersey: The body of a 20-year-old woman was recovered from a gray Honda Accord in floodwaters in Pilesgrove, 35 miles southeast of Philadelphia, said a police spokesman. A diver found the woman in the submerged car about 150 feet off of Route 40, eight hours after she had phoned her boyfriend and police to report she was “up to her neck” in water. Emergency crews who were looking for that woman rescued another stranded motorist.

Eighty-one percent of those surveyed about hurricanes believe their risk of harm due to wind was medium or high, while 42% perceived their flood risk to be so. In other words, we think wind dangerous, but we tend to critically underestimate the dangers of flooding.

Stop trying to play “chicken” with natural disasters. Get off the road, until public officials tell you the streets are clear. Water does tremendous damage not only to houses, but to roads as well. When immediate danger is over, drivers can find themselves the victims of collapsing roads that were invisibly damaged by flooding followed by receding water.

It is easy to underestimate the power of a raging surge of water. Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars causing loss of control and possible stalling. Without sonar or a ruler, you can’t “tell” how deep the water is in the middle of that “puddle.” A foot of water will float many vehicles. Two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles, including sport utility vehicles (SUV’s) and pick-ups. Don’t risk it.

Electrocution

New York: A rabbi was electrocuted while trying to rescue a child who was trapped under a live cable downed by Hurricane Irene. A relative said both father and son were looking for storm damage outside their house. The boy touched a metal fence that was in contact with a live wire and a pool of water, and the father was hurt trying to save him. The rabbi was driving by and stopped his car and also tried to free the boy from the cable, but was killed by the high voltage.

Miami, FL: On streets with 2 to 6 inches of water, three teenagers and a woman in her 50s were electrocuted in an intersection after a power line fell, Fire Rescue said. Minutes later a child was electrocuted in another part of the county. “We’ve been giving out the message all day that you need to stay inside,” the official said. “This is not the time to do damage assessment. We have lines down throughout the county.”

One of the greatest risks after a storm has dissipated comes from fallen power lines. People don’t have to actually touch power lines to be injured by them. You can be badly burned even if you are standing a distance away, because the wet ground can transmit electricity from the wires.

Storm Surges

While most people tend to focus on the intensity of hurricane winds, more will consider evacuating if they believe flooding is likely. Storm surges during hurricanes do the most damage. There were 13-foot storm surges in New York City during Hurricane Sandy: that is 13 feet above mean sea level. Know whether you are at or below sea level, or are close to oceans, rivers or even streams. Not sure? Here’s a handy map where you can check sea elevation where you live, and how increases in sea levels or waters surge will impact you. This map covers almost everywhere on Earth.

Once you know the dangers, consider flood insurance. Few people have it. More will in the future. Flood insurance premiums are established by the US Federal Government, and your rate is the same from any insurer, so you can easily estimate your premiums. If your rates are high, perhaps you should ask yourself why the risk to the insurer is so great. The policy does not take effect for 30 days. One of the reasons hurricanes are so damaging today, is that more and more people are insisting on living closer and closer to the water. And the oceans are rising. The one-foot rise in our oceans over the last century means that a five foot ocean break built a century ago is only 4 feet of protection today. We’ll perhaps see fewer hurricanes touching down on land because of the conditions of the oceans, but scientists agree that those that make landfall will be more powerful and destructive.

The cost of an evacuation – travel expenditures, lost wages, and missed vacations – is modest when considered against the cost of living in these areas, yet it figures prominently into decision-making for both public officials and insurance agencies. Especially in cities like New York, where hurricanes are a relative unknown (until now), how much public monies will be increasingly spent shoring up against rising tides? One study found that hurricane evacuation costs for ocean counties in North Carolina ranged from about $1 million to $50 million (in 2000 dollars) depending on storm intensity and emergency management policy. How will governments bear this cost repeatedly? Flood insurance alone for these “high risk” areas will soon become even more prohibitive. How great will it be to live in some of the “best” neighborhoods in wonderful cities, if part of the price is periodic evacuations, flooding, and possible death?

Preparation and Clean-up

The Bahamas: A banker died trying to repair a window shutter before Hurricane Sandy approached. The gust pushed him off a ladder.

Much of surviving or staying safe during a natural disaster is the work you do well in advance:

• The gutters you clean and repair using the right sized nails to secure it.
• The propane tanks you filled last month.
• The car wipers that were replaced yearly and the tires that have good tread.
• The extra month’s supply of medicines you got from your MD, so you don’t have to run out today to the pharmacy.
• Your food storage.

Flooded basements can also be dangerous. And toxic. Sewage backup is common. This pamphlet by the City of Columbus Department of Public Utilities provides basic information.

Trees

New Jersey: A sixty-one year old banker, who had previously survived a brutal stabbing, was cleaning up his driveway of debris when a tree fell on him and killed him.

Maryland: A woman was killed in Queen Anne’s County after a tree fell on her house, collapsing the chimney, said a spokesman for the state emergency management agency.

Prospect, Connecticut: One fatality has been reported, after an unidentified senior citizen died in a house fire caused by a falling tree limb, according to a fire department spokesman.

Newport News, VA: an 11-year-old boy was killed when a tree crashed into his apartment building, said a spokeswoman for the city.

Berks County, PA: An 84-year-old man was killed Saturday afternoon while napping in his living room recliner when a large tree fell on his home.

Hurricanes can uproot trees. Trees overhanging your house are best cut down, or trimmed back. Keeping them pruned and healthy is one less threat to safety. It is an expensive undertaking, but far less expensive than replacing your roof or losing a loved one.

Carbon Monoxide

Connecticut Dept of Health: Last year’s storm (2011) resulted in one of the largest outbreaks of carbon monoxide poisoning ever seen in the nation, with 143 cases of CO poisoning and five CO-related deaths. Most of the cases were related to the improper use of portable generators and charcoal grills.

Chicago, Il: Five people between the ages of 14 and 54 were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning, after being found by fire officials. Their generator was operating in a garage, and should have been outside. Fire officials believe the fumes seeped into the family’s house, resulting in a dangerous carbon monoxide concentration of 600 parts per million. “We had used the generator for the last storm and set it up in exactly the same place,” one family member reported. The family became alarmed when everyone was getting up to urinate frequently in the night, and then began getting headaches.

University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston: After Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, more than half the patients treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at a Houston hospital had turned on the generator to power TV or video games, according to a 2009 report in Pediatrics. Parents worry that it’s too dangerous to let kids play outside because of debris or fallen power lines, the researcher said.

The risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning goes up after a hurricane, as people who lose electricity run portable generators, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. CO is odorless and colorless, and it can kill in minutes. Opening windows and doors, and operating fans is not sufficient to prevent the buildup of CO in a home. Of those that pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning, one-third die, and another third have permanent injuries.

Install carbon monoxide alarms outside sleeping areas and on every level of the home to protect against poisoning. They are cheap protection. Change the alarms’ batteries every year, on your birthday, so you remember. Many are fearful that generators will get stolen, and so choose, instead, to run them in their basements or garages. This is a bad idea. Even running them close to your house is risky. The safest way to set up a generator is on a permanent concrete slab, ideally 50 yards from the house, (a minimum of 15-20 feet away) secured with a metal chain. This takes money and planning ahead but like cutting down or pruning trees, it is a worthy investment.

Fire from Candles and other Alternative Lighting

Between 1984 and 1998, candle-related deaths from home fires following hurricanes were three times greater than the number of deaths related to the direct impact of the hurricane. Kerosene lamps require a great deal of ventilation and are not designed for indoor use.

Battery Powered LED Puck Lights are an inexpensive alternative to candles. They are cheap enough to put up in every room, and leave there until an emergency. Put them near light switches, because it is natural to reach for the light switch during a power outage, even days later. With the Puck Lights, you can apply this habit.

Evacuation

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.: A huge wave completely decimated a family’s home, killing an eighth grader and her father. Her mother remains in critical condition. The family stayed behind because their home was looted when they evacuated during Tropical Storm Irene last year.

Evacuating your home requires knowledge and thoughtful reflection. Decision-makers in your family must determine if, when, how, and where you will go if you are presented with evacuation directives. Would you go if it were a voluntary evacuation, or only in response to a mandatory evacuation order? Most of those who evacuate stay with friends or family. Check with loved ones ahead of time about whether they’ll have room for you, and whether you can bring your pets, or know what you’ll do with your pets, that can’t go with you. Learn how to close up a home to keep it safe, while you are gone. The best book I know on how to do that, complete with detailed instructions, is Kathy Harrison’s “Just In Case.”

My Experience Last Year

This brings me to my closing thoughts about my own experience. Last year, my husband and I drove home a long distance after a wedding, while Hurricane Irene was in full swing. I consider myself prudent about emergency preparedness, and our family has taken many steps to plan for a variety of disasters. But my husband and I decided to spend an extra hour or two sleeping in, after a joyful evening of celebration. We still left relatively early and as we drove, the wind was hardly gale force. Wind, we believed, was our greatest concern.

Imagine our shock and increasing panic as we got closer to home, and watched one road after another wash out ahead of us. We were met with multiple road closings that required considerable detours, or roads that were no longer passable because rivers were gushing across them. Those few hours we delayed now appeared reckless. The delay could have cost us our lives.

When we think about disaster, we often imagine taking immediate action to minimize the damage, such as boarding up our windows or pulling in the lawn chairs and flower pots so they don’t become hurricane projectiles. But more often, preparing for the impending risks requires more careful long-term thinking and learning about the real dangers which flow from the seemingly harmless decisions we make ahead of time. With our large picture windows, and friendly hiking trails, we have come to think of nature as “our friend,” but during a natural disaster, nature is not our friend, and is not invested in keeping us alive. If we don’t respect the sheer magnitude of its force, we put ourselves needlessly in danger. Hubris and carelessness are as deadly as ignorance. During this Halloween Season, if we listen and learn, the dead can teach us profound lessons.

* I’m aware that the people who most need to read this are probably without internet power.  Print it out and put it with your preparations. If you are in contact with those folks who are without power, read it to them.

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Another Reason to Welcome Out the Age of Oil…

A new study by UCLA scientists has shown that even brief exposure to ultra-fine particles found near freeways is enough to boost the tissue inflammation that exacerbates asthma. Air pollution particles one-thousandth the width of a human hair incited inflammation deep in the lungs.

The ‘Peak Shrink’ will be on HUFFPOSTLIVE today!

Come join me at HUFFPOSTLIVE today at 3:50 pm, for a live broadcast on How Quickly We Forget After Natural Disasters, with interviewer Nancy Redd.

In times of crisis, Americans are quick to respond with precautionary measures, but why do we let our guard down in the calm between the storms?

Please join me!

Pining for Pig Farmers

 The economic hardship of one farm family, if they are our neighbors, affects us more painfully than pages of statistics on the decline of the farm population.  Wendell Berry

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Today, as I read about the price of pork, and how we’ll be experiencing a world-wide shortage (less so in the USA) I feel sad.  I don’t feel bad about the prices rising, or even  a shortage, if there is one.  I feel bad because I know that there are farmers who won’t be farmers soon.

Yes, I realize that most pig farmers are corporations.  That of the 73,150  pork farms in the United States, about 20 percent of these account for about 90 percent of revenue. And many of the corporations that will lose $45 for each pig they sell will just write it off on their balance sheet. And I know that 4% of pork farms that produce over 5000 pigs per year, and that the current growth of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations)  is considered one of the most influential factors to the disappearance of family farming. 

But I also know that 70% of pork farms produce 100 or less pigs per year.  And I figure that after this year, that figure will go down to 60% or perhaps 50% but that won’t make the news.  And instead of making money for 5-6 months of work,  families raising 100 pigs are losing $4500.  A corporation has the cash to hang in there and wait.  A family that relies on yearly income can’t.

The other reason I’m feeling bad is because I know there are a lot of people out there who could really use a pork roast, or a pound of bacon.  And I also know that there are now 50,000 pig farmers who would really like to at least break even on the pigs they grew over the last half year.  I’m certain that  Smithfield Foods is hardly interested in how many pig farmers go out of business this year, and perhaps prefer that more would, consolidating their choke hold on the industry.

But as I wrote many years ago, about dairy farmers in New England, every farmer we lose today is a farmer we’ll grieve the loss of tomorrow.  And while I don’t personally know any pig farmers, I’m grieving that loss today.

So I’m hearing the jokes from newscasters about this, and the lamenting about the BLT that some restaurant may not be able to sell, and I’m adding my voice.  Here is to the farmers who don’t find the news too funny, and here is to the families who are worried about how they’ll swing another rise in food prices this winter, never mind eat a BLT in a restaurant for lunch.

Psychological Self-Defense for the Newly Unemployed

Got a pink-slip?  Are you one of the unlucky ones who had to face the chopping block?  Here are a psychologist’s ten best suggestions for managing emotionally when economic bad times hit your family.

(1) Make a pact that hard times come and go, but your relationship, your family, is here to stay.
Financial pressures destroy bonds between people, if you let them.  When the wolf is at the door, it’s no time to argue about who invited him.  Regularly sit down together for the sole purpose of sharing feelings-frustration, hopelessness, anger, sadness, shame, futility, irritation-without ‘blaming’ another family member.  And don’t forget to look at the moments of happiness and positive feelings, too.  Pull together to fight the circumstances, or you might pull apart.  Say “I love you,” more often and “We’ll pull through this,” even though you have your doubts at the moment.
(2) Find alternatives that can be used to vent frustrations.
Then take a walk or do some other form of exercise.  Keep a daily journal.  Start a blog. Recognize that there are better ways to express your anger than targeting your family members.  Conduct a personal inventory to identify character traits that make undisciplined spending possible, including low self-esteem, need to impress others, loneliness, or depression.
(3) Look squarely at gender roles.
You may say “I’m fine with my wife earning the money,” but take a closer look. Quite often when both people are working, there is a balance of power.  When men become unemployed, it is important to look at not only how the shift in domestic duties may (and should) shift, but also the impact of doing so. The couple’s idea of what “clean” is or what constitutes a “dinner,” or what is a productive way for the unemployed person to spend his/her day, (and whether the other partner should have a say,) can all bring about increased tensions in the relationship.
(4) Don’t dodge the emotional issue of spending cuts.
The loss of a needed job means spending less money or going into (or deeper into) debt. Those are your two options. Getting another job soon may be a goal, a desirable wish, but right now these are your options.  Too often the blow of losing a job is so damaging to one’s sense of self, that trying to maintain the rest of your life “like normal” is tempting. But it is a mistake. Sit down with all of the bills in front of you, and make a list of the ones you are going to pay, the ones you will pay later, and the monthly expenses you are going to stop spending money on.  Each of you take a turn adding a bills to the “spend” column until your income stops. This is a “values clarification” exercise.
(5) This is no time to rehash “perpetual problems”
You may notice that a conversation about cutting expenses can easily turn into an argument about who leaves the lights on, who never used the gym membership, or whether you really need a smart phone with those many minutes to talk to your Aunt Helen.  Put those issues on a separate piece of paper to discuss later. For now, if one thing has to be paid first, which is it?  The rent/mortgage?  Weekly food bill? Heat for the winter? Health Insurance? Yes, I know, they all have to be paid, but what is the most essential right now?  Draw a line where the “buck stops” in terms of steady available income. Then ask yourself if anything below that line is really worth going into debt for.Elizabeth Warren did a fantastic job explaining why families today, living on two incomes and losing one, are more vulnerable than families in the 70’s who had one- earner families. It’s not because they’ve been spending all of their money on clothing, electronics, or gadgets.  They’ve been spending it on fixed costs like mortgage and health insurance.  And while income has gone up 75% over the last 30 years, fixed costs have gone up 400-600%.
(6) Explore what it “means” to your partner that he or she is unemployed.
I was shocked when my husband told me, once things had stabilized for us, that as he was losing his business, he was certain I would leave him.  Had I explored with him what it meant to him to have the business fold, I might have saved him months of fear and insecurity.  What does it emotionally “mean” to you when you lose your job?  What does it mean to your family to not be able to (a) spend on the things you used to; (b) have to rethink the ‘typical’ holiday season; (c) eat differently to cut costs; (d) reduce the amount you spend on your children. Who are you, now that you aren’t working?  What dreams, expectations of what tomorrow will bring, have been violated?  When you are able to explore these questions in a safe environment, they are often accompanied by a lot of deep emotion.  Let it out.  Talk it out.  Then move on.
(7) Find different ways to spend your time.
Everyone in the family may have to find alternative ways to enjoy themselves or relate as a family together.  A teenager might be able to find a job, and he or she could contribute some income to the household budget, or help pay for essential expenses.  The stimulation of a shopping mall or movie theatre is sometimes a tough thing to go without for many people.  What can substitute, that will bring that same level stimulation or one that is equally satisfying?  A hike in the woods?  A pot luck with friends?
(8) Give Back.
Studies show that helping others is more rewarding than being helped.  Now that you are unemployed, use some of that time to volunteer.  A soup kitchen, food pantry, animal shelter, or your child’s school, gets active in community projects are all suggestions.  Work with other unemployed people to set up community labor exchanges.  Damage to self-esteem and depression are common side-effect of being unemployed.  Social engagement is an effective way to combat it.
(9) Talk directly about damaging behaviors
Suicide is a serious risk to the long-term unemployed. So is depression, which isn’t the same as being sad. So are increases in drug and alcohol use.  Talking about suicidal intention doesn’t give someone the thought, if they don’t already have it.  Be direct, and proactive if you hear from a loved one that they want to hurt themselves, or are doing behaviors that are self-destructive.  Get professional help, call a suicide hotline, or talk to a trusted friend or religious leader.  Don’t ignore these feelings.
(10) Be proactive in seeing alternatives
So much of the problem in losing a job for the middle class is their reluctance to be proactive about seeking alternative sources of income or assistance.  Talk to a tax accountant or financial planner.  Speak pro-actively to a bankruptcy attorney while you still have options. Investigate social services that can help you, including your religious institutions.  Accept these actions as potentially humbling experiences, and allow yourself to see the positive side of becoming humbled. You may be out of money, but you are not poor.  You can use your wits to figure out how to find every stop-gap measure to keep your family “boat” afloat.Your period of unemployment will make you more sensitive to others who experience the same thing.  If it has happened to you, and you know of someone else it is currently happening to, reach out. Go out with them and have a heart-to-heart. Share your own experience, and invite them to do the same.  You’ll deepen your friendship with that person, in all likelihood, and lessen their pain.

“Brother, Can You Spare the Time?”: Psychotherapists Don’t Reach out to the Unemployed

Our families, friends, and true companionship are thus among consumerism’s principal casualties…We are hollowing out whole areas of life, of individual and social autonomy, of community, and of nature, and, if we don’t soon wake up, we will lose the chance to return, to reclaim ourselves, our neglected society, our battered world, because there will be nothing left to reclaim, nothing left to return to.   -Gus Speth – America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Psychotherapists of all disciplines have long thought of themselves as social advocates.  We’ve been taught that individuals are embedded in families, and in extended families.  These families are embedded in neighborhoods, cities, regions and countries.  Ultimately, climate decimation is teaching us that countries are embedded in a shrinking planet that is seriously hurting.

So I began a research project to answer the questions “How responsive are psychotherapists today to the needs of their local communities?” “How do they reach out to those who are in economic as well as psychological pain?” “To what extent does their advertising suggest that they are well aware that the western world is in the worst economic crisis since the last Great Depression?

I made the task easy for myself.  I chose seven cities that have the worst rates of unemployment and related social problems, then did a Google search.  I had written previously about how unresponsive psychologists were during the last Great Depression, actually appearing to find the topic of world economic hardship  unworthy of study.  Surely in an age of global networking, instantaneous news, and easy mobility, we would see psychotherapists announcing their willingness to help the unemployed, not just those still prosperous “worried well.”  At least acknowledge that these are hard times.

Alas, little has changed.

My research found scant evidence in advertising profiles that psychotherapists in private or group private practices are aware or responsive to the economic crisis that is overwhelming their cities. While they may identify specific stressors that are the result of joblessness, they virtually ignore acknowledging the social, economic, and environmental issues that are dominant worries for many urban Americans today.

Seven Worst-Hit Cities

Below are the seven cities having both high unemployment and related social issues. In the parenthesis are the “official” unemployment statistics for that population:

  • El Centro, CA   (30.3%)
  • Yuma, AZ (28.7%)
  • Rockford, IL (15.7%)
  • Riverside, CA  (15.2%)
  • Detroit, MI  (14.3%)
  • Los Angeles  (12.5%)
  • Cleveland, OH (9.3%)

Those of you who read John Williams’ “Shadow Statistics” knows that you have to add at least 9 points (he says 14 points based on governments own stats) on to those numbers, if you were to take into account discouraged workers, involuntarily part-time workers, and the like.  So counting the truly under- or unemployed we learn that El Centro, CA  as a city with 4-5 of every 10 people without a job, could have twice as many workers unemployed than during the last Great Depression.

In Search for a Listening Ear for the ‘Lost-My-Jobbers’

I put myself in the mindset of an average person who has been laid off.  I want to find someone to talk about it.

I go to the internet, and read through the descriptions found on the first two pages of a Google search – keyword:  “therapist” and then individually add each of the worst hit cities listed above—(e.g. “Therapist” and “Cleveland, OH”).

Here is what I found:

There were hundreds of listings. Most describe themselves as “compassionate and kind.”  Some offered koans like:  “Each person is different, and we are all alike; or nautical themes like “helping you navigate your way through life’s difficulties…” They promised to help me “reach [my] full potential.”  Some asked the reader probing questions like:  “Are you falling apart?”

None of them mentioned that the planet  is falling apart.

Most talk about “meaningful change” that will help me to discover my “true self.” Does this include economic change that has caused chaos in the lives of so many people?

And when I’m asked whether my “productivity at work”  is off, I imagine I might blame myself if I were unemployed, asking:  “Is that the reason I’m not working?  Was I unproductive?”  Why don’t they mention the massive lay-offs that are happening in their cities?  Why don’t they mention the emotional hardship unemployment brings?

Some agencies clearly state their preference for seeing only the remaining “high- functioning clients” “seeking more fulfillment…and joy in their lives.” They also consult with employers to “uncover ways to reduce cost, [and] enhance employee morale.”

“Employee Morale” is a big problems when you let go a significant portions of your work force.  Often larger corporations hire “motivational speakers” days after the layoffs are announced, to promote a “positive attitude” as the “key to success” for their remaining work staff.  I wrote about this phenomenon in 2010:

In 1994, the same day that AT&T announced it would lay off fifteen thousand workers, it sent its San Francisco staff to a big-tent motivational lecture by Zig Ziglar who told the crowd:

“It’s your own fault, don’t blame the system; don’t blame the boss—work harder and pray more” p. 115.

No one in Los Angeles, CA mentioned that residence live in one of the most expensive housing market in the country, with a sharp rise in the crime rate.  Nobody in Riverdale, CA mentioned increasing poverty rates or a rising level of pollution that is impacting the children.

In Cleveland, OH, a city with more robberies per 100,000, than any other city in the USA, a psychotherapist proclaims: “Clients deserve to get what they want.

Okay,” I mused, “I have a list for you: I want my job back; and a planet with half the population, a city that is safe and neighborly, and cheap gasoline.”

Sometimes the listing shocked me with the insensitivity shown–like the therapist who worked with parents who argued:  “The cost of services is less than the cost of a child’s funeral…

I Get It.  Times are Hard.”

I wasn’t looking for much.  I just wanted some acknowledgement that the person clients were going to open up to, to reveal their deepest fears to, actually recognized larger scary concerns.

In Detroit, it is great to “shine my light,” but I wanted some indication that the psychotherapist knew that the city’s lights were being shut off.

I found one:

Hello, we live in a very stressful time and things are becoming more difficult for couples, families and children every day. I have over 7 years of clinical experience and I understand many of the societal, family, and interpersonal factors that contribute to the challenges we face today.” Gerald Mc Gee, MSW, LICSW.

Thank you, Mr. Mc Gee.

In Rockford, Il, a city as hard hit as during the Great Depression, David Heuser, a minister, wrote:

Lack of insurance should not be an obstacle to receiving help. If you do not have insurance, if money is tight, I am willing to discuss with you how to deal with the financial arrangements of receiving counseling while dealing with the real issues that are important to you.”  Mr. David Heuser,  Counselor , LCPC , CADC , MSEd, MDiv

Bless you, Reverend.

Of perhaps hundreds of profiles I read in the seven worst cities in the US for unemployment, pollution, or crime, only these two profiles gave any hint that clinicians knew that bad things were happening to good people.

Many of the therapists claimed to be “practical” or “down to earth,” but none had anything to say about the deteriorating condition of  the Earth or the fact that you had to be “practically blind” to not see the obvious: the cities they practiced in were financial war zones.

A Significant Source of Stress

As professions, we know the impact of terrible economic times. Information is out there. Seventy-eight percent of Americans report money as a “significant source of stress” (APA, 2009).  Economists Daniel Sullivan and Till von Wachter estimated “a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for older male workers in the years immediately following a job loss, if they previously had been consistently employed,” as well as a higher risk of suicide, disease and divorce.

And yet, only two psychotherapists gave any indication of the impact of job loss or community degradation in their profiles?

Position Mergers not Work Sharing

Countries like Germany are well aware of the emotional damage caused by unemployment, and have instituted ‘workshares,’ to keeps workers from being laid off.  The German government helps companies keep employees on their payrolls by subsidizing their wages with the money saved on unemployment benefits.  All work fewer hours, but all still work.  In contrast, in the US, managers are merging  two jobs, and increasing  the unemployment rolls.

The Stress of Being Unemployed

food lines in El Centro, CA

Food lines in El Centro, CA.
Modern-Day “Bread Lines”

Not doing productive work does terrible things to a person. According to the APA, the chances of depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, low subjective well-being and poor self-esteem double with unemployment. And those still working often end up with a heavier work load and the constant fear and anxiety that they’ll be next. Parental job loss even increases the incidents of punitive and arbitrary punishment of children.

And unemployment doesn’t only impact individuals, it impacts entire communities.

More from the APA:

Widespread unemployment in neighborhoods reduces resources, which may result in inadequate and low-quality housing, underfunded schools, restricted access to services and public transportation, and limited opportunities for employment, making it more difficult for people to return to work (Brisson, Roll, & East, 2009). Unemployed persons also report less neighborhood belonging than their employed counterparts, a finding with implications for neighborhood safety and community well-being (Steward et al., 2009).

While APA does call for extending the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, it continues to advocate for more research on the psychological impacts of unemployment, and pushes job re-training.  I argue that we know plenty about these impacts, and retraining only works if there are actual jobs to train for.  Often these programs provide good jobs only for the workers who run them.  Those who entered the computer programming field after being “retrained” can attest to the impact of repeated job displacement.

A Call to Action:

In the worst-hit cities, and indeed all over the USA, grass root action is happening, and I would like to invite my colleagues to join it or initiate it in their own communities.  We need to radically transform the way we provide mental health in this country, one psychotherapist at a time.

Our profession has become so tethered to health insurance companies, that we’ve stopped considering those without insurance coverage as “client eligible.”  The unemployed fall into this category.

It is clear that economic and psychological insecurity due to employment displacement is a real psychological issue.  How do you ignore 40% unemployment or underemployment?  How does that not get mentioned as a “specialty” under “problems treated”?  It is not enough to call it a “loss” or “life transition.”

And the silence about the context of psychological suffering in these profiles sends another message implicit:  Silence says that economic hardship, rising crime, deteriorating environmental conditions, and sky-rocketing energy costs aren’t appropriate issues to discuss in psychotherapists’ “safe offices.”  The message is “your pain is not connected to your deteriorating world.”

Reimbursed

Some will argue that those in financial need are served by public mental health clinics, and don’t belong in private psychotherapy offices.  This argument is spurious, at a time when funding to pay for public services are dwindling. The mental health clinic I worked at that served the poor exclusively had a six-month waiting list.

If psychotherapy is truly a ‘calling’ where empathy reigns, I urge my colleagues to find psychologically sound methods of providing these services to those in need, regardless of their financial situation.

And because productive work enhances mental health, “Sliding scales” and hand-outs aren’t the best solutions.

Community Exchange Systems

One way to provide mental health services to the un- or underemployed, a strategy used successfully during the first Great Depression, is Community Exchange Systems (CES).  To again quote my former article:

When the Great Depression fell upon the American public, Self-Help organizations sprang up as a “spontaneous mass movement” and became a part of daily life for many people. By the end of 1932, there were self-help organizations in over 37 states with 300,000 members (equivalent to 2.1 million people today). Their work involved direct exchanges of goods and services (partially in cash), cooperative production for sale or trade. The largest group, in Seattle, WA, the Unemployed Citizens League (UCL) had twenty-two local commissaries around the city where food and firewood was available for exchange for every type of service and commodity from home repairs to doctors’ bills. Local farmers gave unmarketable fruits and vegetables over to their members to pick and people gained the right to cut firewood on scrub timberland.

Bartering?

These systems are not direct bartering. “Bartering” poses ethical dilemmas for therapists and can, for example, muddy the therapeutic relationship.  Instead, trading system “clients” are in no way obligated to the therapist directly.  They instead are obligated to the community, “paying back” their psychotherapy by delivering/selling something to another trader in the community.  It is, in the true sense of the word, a “favor bank.”

Giving to the War Effort

Today, as during World War I, psychotherapists have rallied to help returning veterans and the US Military, and this effort demonstrates how effective Community Exchanges are as applied to psychotherapy. CES organizations like Give An Hour , ask clinical volunteer professionals to give an hour of their time to provide critical mental health services to U.S. troops and their families who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. This organization is proof that such a system can work well for our profession.

Surely the economic ‘War on Workers’ deserves our attention no less.

The Dangers of Psychological Terrorism

I’ve developed a deep respect for how powerfully psychology frames reality. Misuse this power, and we pathologize a person’s emotional reactions, attributing psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression to past traumas, when these reactions are perfectly appropriate given the current situation or potential threat that presents itself. The sorrow over the death of a parent, for example, is not a mental illness, it is an appropriate emotional response to what has happened to you.  Unemployment and the resulting social and economic damage is no different.

When we pathologize predictable responses to life’s difficulties, and disconnect  actual events from common emotion reactions to it, we inflict what I call “Psychological Terrorism.”

When, as a group, we psychotherapists don’t acknowledge economic hardship, energy depletion, or environmental degradation as legitimate concerns for exploration in therapy, we send a powerful message to people implying that these aren’t “real” concerns, or that these are “personal” as opposed to “collective” issues, that require only personal help.  Referring the un- or under employed to movements like UCubed allows them to see themselves as part of the 31 million Americans without work.  It contextualizes their pain.  It promotes collective action.  It enhances mental health.

While mentioning “I know these are hard times” or “I’m sensitive to environmental concerns’ in their advertising will hardly be a revolutionary act, it is an initial step in first and foremost labeling this severe economic depression as “real.”  Imagine if physicians, dentists…all health and allied mental health professionals included in their advertising the phrase “We know you are hurting from this bad economy.  Let us know how we can help you get the help you need.”

This type of advertising says “It’s real.  It is happening to all of us, not just you.” It labels these concerns as legitimate stressors that intensify the need for treatment, as well as being a legitimate topic for treatment.

Community Spirit Lives

Community Exchange Systems (CES), Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), Mutual Credit trading systems or Time Banks are trading systems that are truly workable in communities decimated by a crumbling economy. When psychotherapists join them, participate in them, it tells our communities that we are aware of what is happening, and we are active participants in healing the suffering.  We put our own labor on par with that of other community workers and we are willing to exchange that labor to those who are willing to work for others.  Our very participation in such CES organizations are bolstering the care we provide, by providing the opportunity to work.

We Live in Historically Significant Times

My colleagues, let us not be judged harshly by history yet again. Eighty years ago, we responded, as a group, to the war effort, while ignoring the unemployed:

“When the United States entered the First World War, psychologists,

We are used to these pictures. Women and children weren’t allowed in these lines. They were taken around back, when they showed up for food.

as an associated group, volunteered their professional services. Their contribution was considerable, both to the conduct of the War and to psychology.

When the United States entered the big world depression, psychologists did nothing and, as a group, have so far done nothing.

For nearly 10 years we have suffered through a national social and economic crisis; yet, from an examination of our professional journals and the programs of our professional meetings, one might conclude that psychologists were oblivious of the fact that our social institutions are rattling about our ears.

In fact, the world at large is as ignorant of the possible contributions of psychologists as psychologists appear to be about the world.”

From:  The psychologist’s understanding of social issues. Gundlach, R. H.; Vol 37(8), Oct, 1940. pp. 613-620

Will history repeat itself?

Unemployment Line in Missouri

We can take action, as a profession, developing psychologically savvy and effective ways to empower those now ravaged by the second Greater Depression.  We can add our voices to the growing choirs that say “growth is a dead end on a finite planet” and that a “debt-based economy harms people.”  We can tell our clients “It isn’t you.  You are living in a time of great social upheaval. Don’t blame yourself.”

We can refuse to participate in Psychological Terrorism.

We know and teach that relationships, not material possessions bring us happiness.  Now we must model that conviction in our work, by interweaving our efforts into our wounded communities, giving and receiving services, not only money.

By our actions, we demonstrate our motivation to change our world for the better and earn the label “healers.”

 ********

Dr. Kathy McMahon, “The Peak Shrink,” is a clinical psychologist who chides herself, as well as her colleagues, for not pushing harder to find better ways to reach the un- and under-employed in her community.  She’s learned something about unemployment when her husband lost his business and was un- or under employed for 18 months. She’s learned about “job merging” when her “promotion” was withdrawn and “combined into” another existing higher-up position.  You can critique her own professional profile by entering in “Psychologist” and “Cummington, MA,” or just Google Kathy McMahon.

She welcomes your comments.

 

 

 

 

When Mental Health Becomes an Economic Issue (and what to do about it…)

Crazy for Comfort  

During the last Great Depression, financially desperate people ended up entering convents, seminaries, prisons and mental hospitals, when homeless shelters had no room for them. If the goal was three “hots and a cot,” being admitted to an insane asylum allowed you to eat well, sleep off the streets, and get free medical care. And most of those admitted didn’t have to feign their afflictions…being homeless remains an extremely stressful life circumstance.

Pushed Off the Tightrope, but Ignoring the Net              

Social security “safety nets,” put in place by F.D.R., have changed some of the options available when facing difficult economic times, especially for those with psychological disorders. We now have Social Security Insurance, (SSI) for the truly impoverished and disabled among us, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), an economic survival option for the previously employed working- or middle-classes.

The challenge today is to learn how to identify the need for and to accept help with emotional problems quickly, and to recognize that not doing so could mean taking an economic as well as psychological hit.

You do not need a long history of hospitalizations to qualify for SSDI, and this fact surprises many.  “Extreme” impairment is not a requirement, either.

Mental distress impacts earning potential, and getting help in a timely way is economically as well as emotionally smart. A colleague of mine said she expected most of her clients to improve their earning capacity as a logical outcome of working with her.

Disability Payments You’ve Been Paying For All Your Working Life

But if despite your best efforts, your emotional well-being deteriorates, you need a licensed provider to help you document the type of help you’ve been getting, and the “functional impairment” that requires you to tap into the existing economic insurance policy you’ve been paying 8.4% of your income, (perhaps as much as $9000. a year for…) all of your working life.  That insurance policy is SSDI.

And time is of the essence, because you’ll need financial resources to wait it out.  SSDI payments often kick in 2-4 years after you’ve apply, but the payments back-date from the time of the initial application.  For many, this means getting a check for between $15,000-$20,000, even after all expenses are paid.  That can truly ease the pain of mental distress.  And your benefits will continue until your retirement, as long as your impairment continues to be documented, typically every 3-5 years.

Knowing Your Options

This post is about knowing your options. My readership is a group that by and large values financial independence, and has a deep distrust for all things governmental.  But they also plan for the worst, and are deeply pragmatic.  The “sin qua non” of mental health is often the capacity to sort out reality from illusion, figure out who to trust and who to be suspicious of, and determine ahead of time actions that will help you, from those that can prove more damaging.

So here is information to tuck away in case you ever need it.

Overview

I’ll begin by discussing the differences between SSI and SSDI, and the related increase in both unemployment and disability claims.  I’ll go on to describe the professional players (lawyers & psychologists) who usually assist people in filing these mental health insurance claims, and provide an overview the required steps to document a “functional mental impairment.”  Next, I’ll looks at different social and economic attitudes of those applying for SSDI vs. SSI, and the impact it has on their overall financial well-being.  My work in the inner city over the last three years helping clients get SSI will inform this discussion.

I will end by arguing that those in the working- and middle-classes are often the most reluctant to seek psychological care when they develop functional emotional problems that impact their working life.  This is unwise, not only from a social and emotional perspective, but also from a financial one. No one with a work history and financial assets should impoverish themselves before seeking government assistance, because you have directly paid into these funds through FICA contributions, and these funds are designed to buffer you from this very situation.

Unlike the urban poor, who use government monies as a baseline income, the middle classes errs in the opposite direction.  They refuse available resources, and instead spend down their savings and retirement.  Their invisible illness often negatively impacts their professional relationships. Only in desperation, when all other resources are exhausted, do they consider what has been available to them all along.

Had they been more pro-active, and known their options, they might have prevented the catastrophic hit.  I provide a story of one entrepreneurial  family who prevented financial ruin as an example of how this can be done.

What is SSI and SSDI?

Social Security is a federal insurance plan that pays for someone’s “total disability” including mental health impairment. “Disability” under Social Security, is based on your inability to engage in consistent productive work. The difference between SSI and SSDI, is in who pays for it, and whether the applicant has “resources” (e.g. cash, a home, cars, or investment accounts) or not.

Resources and Who Pays

Think of SSDI as ‘Worker’s Disability.’ Paid out of the Social Security trust fund, it is available to those who have worked and paid 4.2%  (or 8.4% for the self-employed) included in FICA taxes, for a required minimum number of years. The amount of SSDI payout, is linked to your employment history, is paid out of workers’ tax contributions. Eligibility does not take into account one’s assets. Owning assets does not affect your eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

SSI, on the other hand, is a need-based program for people with low income and few resources. Individuals can apply for SSI if they aren’t insured for SSDI, or are insured for SSDI but are only eligible to receive a fairly small SSDI monthly benefit. A person may potentially be eligible to receive both SSDI and SSI. This is known as a “concurrent disability claim.”  Currently, the cap on assets for SSI is set at $2,000 (or $3,000 for a couple). But some assets, like the house you live in and the car you drive for basic transportation, aren’t counted toward the cap on assets.

Substantial Gainful Activity
Being “disabled” means being financially, as well as physically or mentally disabled.  “Substantial Gainful Activity” is work that monthly brings in over a certain amount of income.  The amount changes year to year. Make more than that amount per month, and SSA says you “are able to engage in competitive employment in the national economy.”

Disability Rises with Unemployment

Here is a chart that shows REAL unemployment statistics, courtesy of Shadow Statistics:

Now let’s look at the rise in disability:

Rise Seen in Social Security SSID Benefit Lawsuits

Appeals Tell the Tale

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (27 Jul 2012):

“…the latest available data from the federal courts show that in June of this year there were 860 new SSID (not a typo) Title XVI lawsuits filed, most under US Code Title 45 Section 405 which allows for judicial review when Social Security supplemental security income (SSI) benefits are denied. The number of filings for each of the last four months (March through June 2012) is higher than for any other month in the past five years. Overall, the data show these filings are up 19.4 percent from a year ago and up 62.6 percent from levels reported in June 2007.” (emphasis added)

These are tough times.  And how does that compare to pre-2007 numbers?

Social Security claims that “the share of the U.S. population receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) benefits has risen rapidly over the past two decades, from 2.2 percent of adults age 25 to 64 in 1985 to 4.1 percent in 2005.”  

Three in 10 workers between the ages of 18-64 will be disabled, according to SSA.

Why Are Lawyers Involved?

Disability is a steady stream of income for lawyers, who are able to collect up to 25% of all back-payments owed to the filer, starting from the date of first filing, should they win the claim, with a cap of $6000.  That adds up to considerable money, as lawyers can handle quite a few claims at one time.  The lawyer charges nothing up front to the disabled person, so the cost of entry is low.  And attorneys who do nothing but disability cases know how to approach the claim, to maximize the odds that their clients win these claims.  They will usually aim for winning 80-95% of the cases they take, so if they take your case, you probably have a solid chance of getting disability.

Therefore, charting SSID, or law suits arguing for disability clients (SSI), is a quick and accurate feedback mechanism for charting the rise of SSI filings.

What Do Psychologists and Other Mental Health Professionals Do?

In the case of those who are filing for mental impairment, they typically fall into those qualifying for SSI, and those qualifying for SSDI.  In the agency I worked for, we only took SSI cases, because we only accepted publicly funded insurance.

Those aiming for SSDI will typically want to hire a private diagnostician, rather than go to a public mental health clinic (although many public health clinics take all types of insurance).  You want to ask them “How many workman’s comp and SSDI/SSI assessments do you do a year, and do you measure your success rate?”  In my agency, we seldom had a client who was ultimately found ineligible (but that may also be due to the multi-problem families we worked with.)  I believe there was one in the three years I was there, and that case was currently on appeal.

What to Expect from the Psychologist

Psychologists conduct an interview, and perform a diagnostic assessment. This provides the Social Security Administration (SSA) with psychological testing, such as IQ tests, Projective or neuropsychological  instruments, to document the nature and extent of the functional impairment. It is best if the psychologist conducting the evaluation is not the same professional who is treating you on an ongoing basis.  Many psychologists do nothing but these types of assessments to be used in disability cases. They know how to write an effective report that meets SSA requirements.  A comprehensive psychological report, which clarifies the current diagnosis, and documents functional impairment is required to make a clear case determination.

There are nine diagnostic categories that qualify a person for disability because of mental impairment: Organic mental disorders (12.02); schizophrenic, paranoid and other psychotic disorders (12.03); affective disorders (12.04); mental retardation (12.05); anxiety-related disorders (12.06); somatoform disorders (12.07); personality disorders (12.08); substance addiction disorders (12.09); and autistic disorder and other pervasive developmental disorders (12.10). Each of these, with the exception of mental retardation and substance addiction disorders, requires both a statement describing the disorder(s), including a set of medical findings such as those diagnostic tests given by the psychologist, and a set of impairment-related functional limitations.

SSI Recipients in ‘Deep Poverty’

The case I’m presenting below isn’t an actual person, but it is a composite description of hundreds of families very similar to Ms. James’, that I supervised over my three years working in the inner city with those in deep poverty.  We classify families as living in “deep poverty” if they have three elements: (a) severe poverty – an income less than half the median income for poor families; (b) long term poverty – being poor for 5 years or longer; and (c) concentrated poverty – living in a neighborhood in which 30% of families are poor (Wilson, 2005):

Ruby James, (26 years old), has been out of work for 6 years.  She is intelligent, but functionally illiterate and probably has an undiagnosed learning disability. Her children, ages 2, 5 and 7, are all on social security disability (SSI) for various reasons including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, and physical disability. Each child has a different father. The oldest child’s father, Mr. Clarke is drug addicted, and there is a restraining order against him by Ms. James for domestic violence. The whereabouts of her second child’s father is unknown.  The youngest child’s father is in prison.  

Ms. James is currently fighting with her mother over custody of her three children.  Her mother, Ms. Thompson, has charged that her daughter is an “unfit parent,” as she alleges that there is no food in the house, and that her daughter is once again living with her former partner and father of her oldest child, Mr. Clarke.  She further alleges that her daughter sometimes leave the children home at night alone, “to party with friends,” claiming that the 7 year old is left to “babysit.”

Ms. James denies living with Mr. Clarke. She admits that she is clinically depressed, (the basis of her own current disability claim).  She is, according to her own report “a caring and devoted mother.”  Ms. James counter-alleges that her mother is fighting for custody of her children “only to get their benefits.”

Ms. James’ children’s benefits, in addition to her aid to dependent children, food stamps, public health care, and subsidized housing costs, are her only sources of income.

All-Out War on Black and Hispanic Men

Her boyfriend, Mr. Clarke, is not working, and if he is living with her, he is another drain on an otherwise overtaxed family system.  I was left convinced after my three years working in the inner city, that there is an all-out war against Black and Hispanic men in this country.  The education they get in this city is abysmal, and the pressure to stay safe by joining gangs is enormous.  The availability of decent jobs is negligible. When they could be found, they were often secured by others through nepotism or outright prejudice.  Often, the inner-city applicant lacked even the most basic of job skills.  As a result, the intact family, where the father is present, caring, and not abusive, is exceptionally rare in this clinic population.  Fathers are essentially absent, abusive, or imprisoned.  That is the norm.  And it convinced me that families need two loving parents.

Domestic Violence a “Bad Reason” to Land in Prison

Ongoing domestic violence is also quite possible, as her mother alleges, and witnessing that violence puts her children, as well as Ms. James, at risk.  Women in these communities expect adult men to spend at least some time in prison. Children visit family members in prisons from a young age. Domestic violence, however, is considered a ‘bad reason’ to be there, although it is often tolerated in the relationship. Children also witness violent murders commonly, and attend funerals of loved ones they’ve lost.

It is the traumatic norm.

Ms. James may also be correct that her mother could indeed have complicated reasons, including financial motives, for wanting custody.  She’s raising several other grandchildren, is herself on SSI, and feels she “has the time”  and greater “skill” to raise her daughters’ children.

A Seriously Broken System Turns Children into Economic Assets 

Conservatives rail against this type of social benefit payout, and it has become “politically incorrect” to paint such a dreary portrait of the lives of those living in “deep poverty.”  There is no question in my mind that the system is seriously broken, and serves no one well, including the infrastructure of service providers and state workers that now do home-based services.  It is a multi-generational problem that needs multi-generational intervention. In a down-turning economy, this help is unlikely to be forthcoming. What we see in this “Culture of SSI” is that this insurance becomes seen as a sole avenue for financial stability, and given how meager this allotment is, families fight over children who have SSI, as valuable economic resources.

Be that as it may, in a time of increasing economic turmoil, and rising costs of living, the inner city is becoming a nastier place to live, and a tough place to work for those charged with helping families like the James’.  In my last year at this agency, I saw many more incidents of violence or threats of violence toward clinicians than in any other previous year.

Middle-Class Disability

Regularly, I was asked to review psychological testing reports and co-sign paperwork for those being evaluated for mental health disability.

I have come to realize that in contrast to the “Culture of SSI” as a foundation of economic security among the urban poor, many working-class and middle-class families in trouble have no idea how SSDI works, or that they might be eligible for it. There is larger stigma about seeking out mental health services among the working and middle classes than among those in ‘deep poverty.’  This could be a financial mistake.

Those who actively seek treatment when in distress, even if only periodically, create a ‘paper trail,’ which enables them to easily accumulate all of the necessary documentation, should a ‘marked’ impairment in cognitive or psychological functioning arise.  Those who are more economically successful, better educated, or have a prior history of unbroken prosperity often wait before they get help.

Take this hypothetical case example:

Ralph Albertson, and his wife, have run a small business from their home successfully for many years.  However, during the economic downturn, they were unable to sustain it at a viable level.  The couple began first to live off their savings, and finally their retirement income, hoping the economy would “turn around.”   The impact to his suffering business took a severe toll on Ralph.  He became clinically depressed, and at the urging of his wife, was treated by a psychologist, and referred to a psychiatrist for medication.  Despite these interventions, Ralph never fully recovered his capacity to work.

He filed for SSDI.

In order to qualify, he was referred by his treating psychologist to a colleague, who gave Ralph six common psychological tests. His psychologist helped Ralph get his paperwork in order, and contact a disability attorney.  Ralph  was referred to an attorney, because he was self-employed, and these cases can sometimes be difficult to win.  Ralph was granted SSDI, after a long waiting period, and two appeals.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) denies 65 percent of the initial claims filed, and appeals are the norm. It also can take a long time to go through the system, on average two to four years.

This application and income, although not a large amount to the Albertsons, cleared the way to other benefits, such as state offered health insurance, food stamps (SNAP) and fuel assistance, that the Albertsons might not otherwise have been aware they were eligible for.

What does “residual impairment” mean to Ralph, who works in his own business from home?

While Ralph is able to continue working in his business, even after receiving SSDI, and the couple continues to receive monthly income from it, Ralph is no longer as effective as he used to be.  Once a capable trouble-shooter of customer complaints, for example, Ralph no longer has the “patience” to cope with these calls.  He has had to hire part-time help.  

While he has “good periods” where he is feeling hopeful and effective, these are punctuated  by deeply depressed mood, where he “talks incessantly about economic, environmental, and energy declines that are”, in his words “sweeping the country,” according to his wife.  When he’s better, he’s a tireless worker in his community in the Transition Town movement.  When he’s not doing well, he barely functions. During these dark periods, he works actively to manage suicidal thoughts, with the help of his therapist.

How Long Does SSDI or SSI Last?

Ralph is 47.  At this age, if he continues to be eligible, he will receive SSDI benefits until his retirement.  The Albertsons would prefer to be off of SSDI payments, and have a successful business once again.  But Ralph and his wife have found out what many poor recipients have discovered:  the jump in their income must be quite substantial, if they are to maintain their current ‘subsidized’ lifestyle.  This is no easy task in this economy.

Simple, Sustainable Living

The Albertson’s lifestyle is by no means a lavish one.  Most would not even call it a “comfortable” income, but the Albertsons have paid off their modest  home many years ago, insulated it well in preparation for tough times, cook from scratch, and for environmental reasons, are not avid consumers or intentional tourists. They even have a wood stove,  and harvest their own firewood.

Vacillating Functioning

This modest, lower-stress existence has helped Ralph enormously.  When his mood, concentration, and attention improves, he is able to work effectively at his desk, and accomplish his work.  He will engage easily in meal preparation and housekeeping during these times.

Consistency of Functioning a Key Consideration

These periods of better functioning are not a problem for SSDI, however, because these improvements are not consistent.  Consistency in “residual functional capacity” (RFC) is important, to prevent his depression from impacting his ability to do “substantial gainful activity” (SGA).  Without his wife and part-time help as back-up, the business would not continue to function, and this has been made clear to SSA.

He demonstrates that need for continued assistance by faithfully attending his therapy appointments, despite these emotional ups and downs.  His psychologist is able to give accurate and competent documentation that attests to his need for continued disability payments, when his review comes up every 3-5 years.

“Marked” vs “Extreme” Impairment

Ralph is not a severely impaired individual who is regularly hospitalized for his condition.  Social Security Adminstration is clear that this is not a requirement:

“Where we use “marked” as a standard for measuring the degree of limitation, it means more than moderate but less than extreme. A marked limitation may arise when several activities or functions are impaired, or even when only one is impaired, as long as the degree of limitation is such as to interfere seriously with your ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis. See §§ 404.1520a and 416.920a.”

They continue:

“We do not define “marked” by a specific number of different behaviors in which social functioning is impaired, but by the nature and overall degree of interference with function. For example, if you are highly antagonistic, uncooperative, or hostile but are tolerated by local storekeepers, we may nevertheless find that you have a marked limitation in social functioning because that behavior is not acceptable in other social contexts.”

Stopping the Downward Economic and Psychological Slide

If Ralph’s situation doesn’t sound serious to you, if you feel he is “bilking the system” for benefits, it is likely that your own idea of living in hard economic times is accompanied by an elevated tolerance for depressive symptoms as an “acceptable reality of modern life.”  Clearly there is a correlation between depression and stress, as there is between unemployment and increased alcohol consumption. But clinical depression is not the same as feeling “bummed out” or “blue” about a loss of income.

Stop-Gap Answer for an Ongoing, Deteriorating Economic Climate

The question remains how many of us would be as pro-active as the Albertsons and take the steps necessary to contact a professional and seek help in a similar situation?  And how many psychotherapists would be familiar enough with the SSDI process, or integrate the necessity of economic help, as part of their treatment plan?  In Ralph’s case, that help was not totally successful in alleviating his symptoms, to enable him to return to his previous high-level functioning.  If it did, he might have found other ways to generate income for his family, even in these financially challenging times.

However, his lingering depressive symptoms, which impact his capacity to function in this present hostile economic environment, prompted his psychologist to encourage Ralph to consider SSDI, as a stop-gap measure to alleviate his family’s ongoing and deteriorating economic condition.  And SSDI was successful in helping Ralph to keep his home, as well as his sanity, intact.

The Shame of Reaching Out

Ralph had steadily paid into FICA, 8.4% of his income, once he became self-employed.  Still, it took supportive counseling before Ralph could see that it was the economy, not his entrepreneurial skills, that were failing, and to accept depression as a diagnosable mental disorder, not a personal weakness.

SSDI now serves as a financial support, partially restoring the steady income that both the economy and Ralph’s depression has taken away from him.

Unwillingness to Accept Crippling Emotional Distress

In fact, one might argue that the Albertsons have actually adjusted quite well to their circumstances, by being unwilling to accept Ralph’s depressive symptoms as a “normal” reaction to economic hard times.  And there are many indications of this intelligent adjustment to difficult circumstances:

  • Ralph is still happily married;
  • He’s resisted the lure of abusing drugs or alcohol to cope with his depression, and;
  • He has maintained his community contacts.

He should be applauded for being pro-active.

If we were to ask him what he thought of this experience, he might say something like this:

I wouldn’t recommend depression to anyone.  I felt so terrible, I wanted to die to stop it.  I can’t see anything positive in my life, past or present, including my wife, when I’m depressed, and I used to take it out on her, but I’ve learned how not to.  

She was the one that insisted that I get help. I was resistant because it was the worst possible time to shell out money for something I’d always considered a waste of time and money  I was also ashamed of what I considered a personal failure, and the last thing I wanted to do was talk to someone about it. But now I’m glad I did.  If I hadn’t, I would have continued like that for… I don’t know how long, and eventually our savings would be gone and we’d have to sell our house.  And I’d keep telling myself to “snap out of it,” but I never would.  I couldn’t on my own.

I know it sounds bad, but I have more freedom now to live my life in a more normal way.  I can respond to the pressures more realistically now, and take a break when I need it.  There are some days I sit in the sun or take a long walk, rather than sit in the office, because I that’s all I can do, and I don’t beat myself up over it anymore.  And the chunk of money, over $18,000 when it finally came through, after the lawyer was paid, really came in handy.”

Forward Into the Past

There is a time, and many say it is coming soon, when families like the Albertson’s will have no other recourse but to sell their house and remain as destitute as any family once found roaming the country during the 1930’s in search of work, with their possessions loaded onto their station wagon.

But that time is not now.

If you, or someone you know is suffering… is just not getting through the day without enormous effort, encourage them to get them help, and keep careful records, when they do.  If their functioning is impacted in a marked and prolonged way, consider disability as a financial, as well as a therapeutic option.

The financial life you save might be your own.

 

 

The Crisis Shell Game

In the past 18 months it has dawned on me that I have been caught in one of the oldest cons in history, the shell game. This shell game is of a different sort. Let’s call this one the Crisis shell game.

In this game each shell is marked with an “E” standing for Energy, Environment, or Economy (which also includes that other “E”, Europe).

The game has been called by a much older name perhaps more fitting; “thimblerig”. The game is rigged and never can be won. The play of the “game” is simple; a pea or small ball is placed under one of three walnut shells, and they are shifted around several times into various orders, so that the person playing has to guess which shell conceals the object. Guess right and you double your money; a wrong guess you lose your money. Usually there are several “bystanders” who the player has just witnessed “win”.

The only problem is that the pea or object is not beneath any shell at all; it has been palmed by sleight of hand early in the game by the game operator. At the end, after the player has guessed the wrong shell, the operator slips the pea, unseen, underneath one of the remaining shells to prove to the player that he simply had picked the wrong shell.

The Crisis shell game is different though; it is played daily with a whole nation of people. Every morning when I look at the news headlines and I see a Crisis “pea” placed under one of the three “E” shells. Then the bystander media, politicians and various gurus rounded up for the day start moving the shells around, while we try to guess which shell the crisis is underneath for that day. All the while, the paid “bystanders” are shouting that the crisis is under this shell or that shell, trying to influence us to make bad choices. If we reach for the shell representing Energy, voices cry out a resounding “NO, we have 100 years of the stuff left”. If we reach for the shell representing Economy, we get another “NO, we are recovering nicely”. Reaching for the third shell representing Environment, we get another “NO, global warming is a political idea, not fact.”

We then find ourselves frustrated, we pick a shell at random, and of course there is no Crisis pea beneath it. The skilled operators of public opinion have hidden the “Crisis pea” and manipulated us to expend our emotional capital. They cleverly place the “Crisis pea” under one of the other shells, with sleight of hand, and tell us that is where our crisis really is for today. After a while, with all the emotional capital expended, the player eventually wanders away to watch whatever reality show is on TV at the moment. The game operator has achieved the goal, separating you from your emotional capital, so you will not come back to question the shell game more closely. Our response is not to research further information about where the “Crisis pea” is really hiding, or if indeed there really is a “Crisis pea”.

The problem with this is that it leaves us deficient of the emotional capital needed if such a crisis is indeed hiding in our future. As skillful as the manipulators are at concealing the “Crisis pea” from us, there will come a point when the “Crisis pea” can no longer be hidden from our view. The greater issue is that we may find in the end that there were indeed crisis peas beneath each one of the shells. When we are confronted with that possibility, it can overwhelm our ability to cope.

What should we do? First realize that the operators of the Crisis shell game are counting on our gullibility and lack of understanding of issues, to sway us to place our emotional capital in the care of one group or another, without asking too many questions. Secondly, they want us trust everything that the “innocent bystanders” are shouting, without question. Thirdly, all shell games have one single purpose; to separate the player from his financial resources. The Crisis shell game will accomplish the very same thing. It allows the manipulators of the game to convince us to place more financial resources out on the table in the form of extra taxes, fees or service costs to accommodate removing the “Crisis pea” from beneath the shells.

At some point when the “Crisis peas” swell to the size of oranges, they can no longer be concealed underneath the shells. The amount of financial resources needed to remove or reduce the “Crisis pea or Crisis peas” will be greater than we can bear. The manipulators of the game will not be able to play the game when any “Crisis pea” becomes too large to palm. The people who played the Crisis shell game and lost will be extremely upset when they realize that the game was rigged.

I think that “Crisis peas” are swelling rapidly underneath all the shells today. The politicians and media are having a harder time moving the peas and shells fast enough to keep us guessing. Many will be confounded when they realize that the rigged game distracted and delayed them from making better choices.

The elections held here and elsewhere after the “Crisis peas” no longer can be hidden will be most interesting.

Chuck

Peak Education

In recent years I have witnessed the descriptions of several resource peaks, from oil to water, grain to gold, and peak economy. One additional resource peak that has drawn my attention over the last several months, occurring even as I write this piece, is “peak” education.

Education is the sacred political issue that no one tampers with, at least until now. As state revenues decline across the country, state institutions of higher learning are reeling from cuts in state support, and are raising tuitions at unprecedented rates. Public schools are finding their state allocations cut, and consequently have begun making painful cuts to programs, teacher salaries, benefits, and maintenance. Utah has even considered eliminating the 12th grade, making that year of study an optional choice for students.

Ever increasing energy has been the foundation for modern society during the past several hundred years. First it was coal, and then came oil. In between the wind was harnessed to pump water, mill grain, and sail ships to facilitate commerce. As energy allowed more and more work to be done by machine, access to additional energy sources made the mechanized process faster and cheaper than manual labor.

Energy began to work its way into our everyday lives. Additional energy required more education to expand its uses. Formal education began to be the norm. High school developed after the mid 1800’s when it became apparent that soldiers needed more education to be effective using the new weapons that energy made possible. Our society became more complex and dependent upon additional education to utilize all of the additional energy and the revenue it provided.

Now, our society has come to resemble a giant mechanical watch with a broken winding stem. Energy, now in the form of an unwinding main spring, provides the power to move all of the gears in unison. One of those gears is education. As the main spring winds down, all the gears begin to move more slowly. With the faulty winding stem, everyone is seeking alternate methods to rewind the main spring of energy resource. We are finding many alternatives insufficient, turning the winding stem only a quarter turn or so.

As the energy supply providing the revenue becomes less effective, so do all of those society pieces that depend on the main spring, energy, for their function to continue at the previous pace. Education will shrink, along with law enforcement, fire protection, infrastructure maintenance and other public services dependent upon the revenue supplied by the weakening mainspring of energy.

What follows when the education gear begins to slow down, along with the other gears? At first there will be small things, elimination of field trips, less frequent replacement of textbooks, infrequent updates to lab equipment or computers, larger class sizes, etc. Then the changes become more pronounced. We begin to see things like fewer teachers, elimination of extracurricular activities, drastically reduced bussing, deferred maintenance, and elimination of non-core educational offerings. Further slowing of the education gear will bring about serious discussion at the state levels regarding the amount of education that can be supplied on reduced energy revenue. At some point, the current K-12 structure could be seriously questioned and revamped. Are you seeing or hearing discussions of any of the above items in your school districts today? I am not aware of any school district that isn’t dealing with one or more of these issues.

This phenomenon will not be confined solely to public school systems. Private schools and universities/colleges will be facing a similar fate. Today’s economy is a dismal landscape for a recent graduate to venture into. With reduced revenues, private schools and colleges/universities will raise tuitions, while paring back degree offerings. Many who before would have chosen a college education will now be forced to reconsider the costs and rewards. The university I attended was huge, some 25,000 students on campus at that time. Today it has over 50,000 students. Sustaining an infrastructure of that size will be no more possible than sustaining a city infrastructure for a 400 square mile city, when the energy driven spring winds down.

This can’t happen you think; education is too important. Do you think we are the first society to pose that thought? Many skills and technologies have been gained, and then lost over the centuries, only to be re-discovered in recent times. Storage batteries were in use around 300 B.C. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it would be nearly 1400 years before they were “re-discovered”. Similar things have happened with brain surgery, which was in use several hundred years B.C. and then lost with the fall of the Roman Empire, and not “re-discovered” until the 1930s. Education all but vanished in the “Dark Ages”.

I believe that we reached peak education at some time in the last five or six years. We are presently on a plateau now, but as energy and revenue derived from all functions dependent on it decline, so will education. In the next 24 months or so, it will become obvious to many (even with the cooked book statistics we are fed), that future growth of our economy will be miniscule when compared to what it was in the past. Without that growth, there can be no increase in the public services that we take for granted, only reductions.

Just like peak oil, there are no bright spots on the horizon for the future of public services such as an educational system. How will we cope, and what will be the total impact on society as a whole? Only time will tell.

Chuck