Friday, April 22, 2016

The Silent Plague

Funny how worked up we get about things like Sika or Ebola or some other potential public health epidemic, but meanwhile, suicide, which is now killing north of 40,000 people every year in the U.S. goes largely unnoticed or discussed. The CDC (which stands for the Centers for DISEASE Control) itself released another troubling report showing massive increases in the suicide rates in virtually all age, racial and gender demographics (save those over 75, whose rates were already off the chain).

Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, a federal data analysis has found, with increases in every age group except older adults. The rise was particularly steep for women. It was also substantial among middle-aged Americans, sending a signal of deep anguish from a group whose suicide rates had been stable or falling since the 1950s.

The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, jumped by 63 percent over the period of the study, while it rose by 43 percent for men in that age range, the sharpest increase for males of any age. The overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which released the study on Friday.

The increases were so widespread that they lifted the nation’s suicide rate to 13 per 100,000 people, the highest since 1986. The rate rose by 2 percent a year starting in 2006, double the annual rise in the earlier period of the study. In all, 42,773 people died from suicide in 2014, compared with 29,199 in 1999.

American Indians had the sharpest rise of all racial and ethnic groups, with rates rising by 89 percent for women and 38 percent for men. White middle-aged women had an increase of 80 percent.

The rate declined for just one racial group: black men. And it declined for only one age group: men and women over 75.

The data analysis provided fresh evidence of suffering among white Americans. Recent research has highlighted the plight of less educated whites, showing surges in deaths from drug overdoses, suicides, liver disease and alcohol poisoning, particularly among those with a high school education or less. The new report did not break down suicide rates by education, but researchers who reviewed the analysis said the patterns in age and race were consistent with that recent research and painted a picture of desperation for many in American society.
Yeah duh. People don't kills themselves when they are not in pain. And once again, lost in all the demographic data, is that precise question: why so much pain?

Nonetheless, the report gives us fresh insight into things like methods and questions whether economic cycles truly have anything to do with suicide trends.
The new federal analysis noted that the methods of suicide were changing. About one in four suicides in 2014 involved suffocation, which includes hanging and strangulation, compared with fewer than one in five in 1999. Suffocation deaths are harder to prevent because nearly anyone has access to the means, Ms. Hempstead said. Death from guns fell for both men and women. Guns went from being involved in 37 percent of female suicides to 31 percent, and from 62 percent to 55 percent for men.

Dr. Alex Crosby, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he had studied the association between economic downturns and suicide going back to the 1920s and found that suicide was highest when the economy was weak. One of the highest rates in the country’s modern history, he said, was in 1932, during the Great Depression, when the rate was 22.1 per 100,000, about 70 percent higher than in 2014.

“There was a consistent pattern,” he said, which held for all ages between 25 and 64. “When the economy got worse, suicides went up, and when it got better, they went down.”

But other experts pointed out that the unemployment rate had been declining in the latter period of the study, and questioned how important the economy was to suicide.
That's not to say economic cycles have no bearing on suicide rates. We certainly noticed the rise coming out of the Great Recession, but it had already been increasing among many demographics prior to that (see also: the spike in military/veteran suicides going back to the post-Iraq War period, 2004+). 

It also makes us wonder whether the economy has truly healed the last several years for all aspects of society. Sure, unemployment is back down to where it was a decade ago, but the rates of suicide have continued to accelerate. Perhaps the economy is doing well for some, but clearly not for uneducated, working class/lower middle class white men and women over the age of 35. It's odd the report only mentions Baby Boomers, yet Generation X (ages 35-55) is clearly in the throes of the middle age portion of the epidemic as well.

Focusing just on economics, however, misses the larger multi-faceted nature of suicide in general. Social isolation is a big factor (caused increasingly by the ironically named "social media"), as is the breakdown of traditional controls against these kinds of suicidal ideations (such as marriage, family and extended family, religion, civic participation via volunteerism, etc.). Throw in loss of job and financial status, and suddenly you're looking at levels of anomie that would make Durkheim cringe.

We think we're so "connected" today with our gadgets and devices and social media outlets, yet this surge in suicide would suggest the opposite: we are becoming more socially atomized and isolated than at any point in modern history. You can sit there and talk to "the world" on your phone, while ignoring the family member/friend/person sitting right there next to you. And it's getting worse.

I'll conclude with the CDC's conclusion:
Suicide is increasing against the backdrop of generally declining mortality, and is currently one of the 10 leading causes of death overall and within each age group 10–64 (4). This report highlights increases in suicide mortality from 1999 through 2014 and shows that while the rate increased almost steadily over the period, the average annual percent increase was greater for the second half of this period (2006–2014) than for the first half (1999–2006). Increases in suicide rates occurred for both males and females in all but the oldest age group (75 and over). Percent increases in rates were greatest for females aged 10–14 and for males, those aged 45–64. The male-female disparity in suicide rates (as measured by rate ratios) narrowed slightly over the period. Poisoning was the most common suicide method for females in 2014, and firearms were the most frequent for males, but both sexes showed increases since 1999 in the percentage of suicides attributable to suffocation. Suicide numbers and rates for females and males by Hispanic origin and race for 1999 and 2014 are also available.
I've never thought of suicide as a democratizing force in society, but that's certainly the way it's shaping up as we move into the second decade of the 21st century. We are killing ourselves, literally, at virtually every demographic turn you can think of. As the report notes, suicide is now in the top 10 killers in the U.S., right up there with cancer, stroke and heart disease, greater even than car accidents.

And yet we still view it as an individual problem, a moral problem, a mental illness problem, a character weakness problem. And until that changes, nothing will ever change at the end of these posts I've been making for almost a decade (and have been writing about in other venues for two decades).

People will gasp for a moment, cluck their tongues, "isn't that terrible?" And then right back to checking in on social media, generating likes and follows and retweets, and trying not trip over the corpses as you pose for your next selfie.

UPDATE: Appropo to the mention of suicide among military veterans, this is a good NYT article on suicide prevention measures, ironically using social media, that occur on the 22nd of each month. While the data is still out regarding its effectiveness, hey, at least people are willing to talk about suicide preventative measures in a public forum.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Ghost of Incarcerations Past

Prison Rates, Crime Rates, and the 1990's:

“Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets,” President Bill Clinton said in 1994 as he signed a far-reaching anti-crime bill to bipartisan acclaim.

Defending the law at the time, a frightened era of crack cocaine wars and record murder rates, Hillary Clinton, as first lady, warned about an emerging generation of “super-predators” — a notion she later repudiated.

Confronted last week by protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement, Mr. Clinton defended his tough crime stance, even though he, like Mrs. Clinton, has joined in recent calls for sweeping reforms in criminal sentencing.
Here's the video that caused the uproar. While the former president looks weak and kind of haggard (he never had the strongest voice, even 20 years ago), the "confrontation" doesn't seem as "epic" as pundits are claiming it to be.

Yeah, he gets pissed and riled up, but he should be, because the protesters are exactly right to point out the devastating effects of the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (which I and others have been yammering about for years now) on particularly the black community.

His claim that "violent crime was peaking" in 1994 is wrong (crime peaked in 1991 and was coming down already). And while the article and some criminologists say the bill had only a modest increase on imprisonment rates, other data suggests this isn't true.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was a composite measure, with elements reflecting opposing impulses. It offered incentives to states to build more prisons if they toughened sentences, and it added some mandatory minimum sentences to those that already existed. But it also promoted the expansion of community policing and drug courts as alternatives to jail. It established a federal “three strikes” law and expanded the federal death penalty, but outlawed assault rifles.

Some critics portray the law as a critical turning point as the country rushed to put more low-level offenders in prison, ravaging low-income communities.

But in fact, the data shows, the startling rise in imprisonment was already well underway by 1994, with roots in a federal government war on drugs that was embraced by Democratic and Republican leaders alike.
Yes and no. Yes, imprisonment was on the rise, going back to the Rockefeller drugs laws of the 70's, but the era of mass incarceration began in earnest with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986*. These two monster bills doubled the prison population from 330,000 in 1980 to 750,000 in 1991. 

So Clinton's Violent Crime Control and LE Act was like throwing gasoline on the fire and wondering why the fire didn't go out. The prison population doubled AGAIN in the 1990's, from 750,000 in 1991 to 1.5 million in 2000 when he left office. Not only did the Act put the much-vaunted 100,000 new police officers on the street (many of whom were untrained and ill-equipped), but the act earmarked more than $10 billion to the states specifically for prison construction only. 

Now I know, in this day and age of hundred billion dollar bank bailouts, etc., $10 billion sounds like chump change. But even adjusted for inflation, it was a staggering amount of money to dangle in front of the states and say "for prisons only."

That's where the whole Field of Dreams ethos in incarceration began: "if you build it, they will come." If you build $10 billion worth of new prison beds, we'll fill 'em, don't worry, whether the crime rates (which were in free fall by that point) justify it or not.

Even though the article suggests it "may have" contributed to the explosion in incarceration rates, there is really no doubt that it did, in fact, double it. 

So what to make of this today? Did the politics of the time period necessitate his (and defacto Mrs. Clinton's) embrace of these draconian policies? One can certainly argue that, if by "necessitate" you mean "do whatever is necessary to get elected."

And that's what is it at the core of the debate on the Democratic side here: Secretary Clinton's embrace of political expediency over principle. The former president was the master of "triangulation" or third way politics, but all that was, or is, is code for "selling out" or compromising your principles. Embracing and pushing that bill, which doubled the prison population and wreaked havoc on a generation of young men, the majority of whom were disproportionately poor and black, is not "new" or "third way"'s good old fashioned strong arm, brutal, class/race warfare politics. 

And lest you think this is simply an attack on the Clinton's: Bernie Sanders voted for this monstrosity of evil, as did the current vice president Joe Biden, and virtually every Democrat still around today. In fact the only two Democrats to vote against it were Paul Simon and and Russ Feingold.

So even though I hate to wade into partisan politics, particularly in an election year like this, there is simply no way for me to ignore or dismiss this issue as a non-starter. The bill (and its election-year cousins two years later**, the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act and 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effect Death Penalty Act) wiped out a generation of African-American men and women, and on their backs, got a lot of wealthy, white Democrats and Republicans re-elected over and over again.

Let me use an Arkansas metaphor the former president might appreciate: you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still just a pig. And 20 years +, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 remains a monster pig at that.

* Note the years on these massive crime bills: 1984, 1986, 1994, 1996. Viz. one only passes massive, monstrous get tough bills like these in an election year; not because crime only goes up in even numbered years, but because, well, duh: it's an election year, and every politician, left and right, needs to run for re-election on something.

** Ibid.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Political Correctness, Capitalism & Chalk

College Kids Aren't the Only Ones Demanding Safe Spaces:

The chalking story began at Emory University in Georgia. A group of students there reportedly went berserk after some anonymous person scrawled "Trump '16" on a sidewalk in the wee hours of March 21st.

A student coalition quickly coalesced in protest, and soon confronted university President James Wagner. A joint letter was then composed by protesting groups, explaining that the chalk messages had created "an environment in which many students no longer feel safe and welcome."

Reporters hot on the scent of lively copy (any "safe space" story is a guaranteed hit-generator) immediately descended on the campus, where they extracted quotes from students like, "I legitimately feared for my life," "Some of us expected shootings," and "We are in pain."
I was going to write about the "Emorrhoids" and this dust-up down the road, until Matt Taibbi beat me to the punch and, as usual, points out the larger problem with safe spaces, political correctness and capitalism.

First, how these stories all seem to follow a similar narrative.
These stories have the same arc every time. First there's the core news report, an often sarcastically told horror story of kids terrorized by chalk (or chat-room messages, or mascot costumes, or whatever) while living lives of enviable, sexually fulfilling leisure on gorgeous campuses.

Next comes the avalanche of op-ed pieces ridiculing the students. The response is usually brutal on both ends of the spectrum. When the Emory story spread to Kansas, Town Hall ran with the following headline: "Trump Chalkings Appear at University of Kansas: Delicate Snowflakes Complain."

Bill Maher's take was a big laugh line in-studio in L.A. "I so badly want to drop-kick these kids into a place where there is actual pain and suffering," he quipped.

Larry Wilmore's The Nightly Show also did an extended routine about the Emory incident. Wilmore was careful to note that some campus controversies are more genuinely disturbing, like the like the time someone scrawled "No N----rs" in a Connecticut College bathroom (Wilmore joked this was the original title for Friends). But he chuckled about Emory students panicking over a campaign slogan, interviewing mock students on location.

"I had no idea I went to school with people who had different opinions than me," moaned one. "It is terrifying."

These campus safe space controversies have a lot of older people freaked out. They're often covered in the style of the classic Time/Newsweek "What's Up With Your Inscrutable Messed-Up Teenager?" stories that used to work as cover features for nervous parents sitting in doctors' waiting rooms. (Time's spooky "Secrets of the Teen Brain" cover remains a favorite of this genre.) The usual subtext is, "What's wrong with teenagers these days, and why are they such wusses?"
Ha ha...and then he notes, it's not just the liberals who freak out at the slightest transgressions to doctrinaire or lock-step thinking.
There's plenty of it on the liberal side. But conservatives who get hysterical about the "delicate snowflakes" on campus should take a look at their own media-consumption habits. It's hard to imagine anything funnier than a 70-year-old who watches 90 hours of Fox News a week and then rails against college kids who are afraid of new ideas.

But it's not just Fox viewers. Most of the cable TV news industry is just a series of safe spaces. There are conservative channels and liberal channels, all of them huge seas of more or less unanimous opinion. Viewers tune in, suckle their thumbs, and wait to have their own opinions vomited back at them.

The commercial formula at the all-liberals-suck channel is the same as the one at the all-Republicans-are-boneheads channel. People in this country tend to follow politics in the same way they follow sports teams. They don't think, they root. 
Which is because we like things boiled down to our atomized version of the world, where whatever we're watching/reading only confirms our existing opinions.
Democratic politics is the same minefield of litmus tests and taboos that Republican politics is, with the caveat that we're supposed to pretend it isn't. Even people who've dedicated their lives to liberal causes quickly learn that any blemish in their belief systems can be costly.
See also: the recent unapologetic and ageist Twitter attack on the writer Gay Talese for comments he made which were taken completely out of context. Nothing whips up follows, likes, shares, retweets and stupid like a good ol' fashioned outrageathon on social it left wing or right wing.
So those that have non-conforming beliefs, like free-speech icon Nat Hentoff (who somewhat reluctantly came out as pro-life in the Nineties), tend not to be very loud about their idiosyncrasies, hoping it doesn't hurt them professionally too much.

The few exceptions are people like Bill Maher, who have big enough and secure enough audiences that they can afford to openly challenge a few blue-team bugaboos and keep working.

Still, when Maher came out with off-color jokes and comments about Islam, blue-team America went nuts, organizing campaigns to keep him off campuses and devolving at times into humorously genuine despair over his continued existence. It was very nearly an existential crisis. He's liberal, but I don't agree with absolutely everything that he says! How will I cope? A plaintive Huffington Post piece asking how to "solve a problem like Bill Maher" is typical of the phenomenon.
And in America the more black and white, the better. Nuance is not something Americans get regularly, if at all, and it doesn't matter if it's the left or the right.
One would think the solution to a Bill Maher problem, if you think you have one, is to not watch him, but that doesn't work. The modern American media consumer has a genuine mania for orthodoxy. We've habituated readers and viewers not just to expect content that caters to all their opinions down the line, but also to expect and demand a completely binary representation of the political landscape: blue and red, Us and Them.
Consumers on both sides don't like pundits whose views are all over the place. They want white hats and black hats, allies and enemies, even though in real life most people are not wholly one thing or another. And when one of the performers steps off-script, it's a "problem."
And so but of course, at the end of the day, what drives Big Media (and social media) is Big Money.
To me this is consumerism, not political correctness. Capitalism in this country has become so awesomely efficient at target-scratching every conceivable consumer itch that it's raised a generation of people with no tolerance for discomfort, particularly the intellectual kind.

There are so many products available now that customers have learned to demand that every single purchase choice they make be perfectly satisfying. People want nacho chips that taste awesome every time, and they want pundits who agree with them every time. They don't want to fork over time or money to be told they're wrong or uninformed any more than they want to eat a salad.

The ultimate irony is in Donald Trump being cast as some kind of strong, heroic invader of safe spaces. Trump is exactly the thin-skinned bundle of nerves that most media consumers are (and Trump is nothing if not a media addict). If there's ever been a person who couldn't handle a challenge and demanded that reality be bent to his worldview, it's Trump. His whole campaign is a demand for a safe space. What a joke this story is, all around.
Truly. And the more I continue to write about and engage on this topic of Big/Social media, the more I want to unplug like permanently from the whole echo chamber.

I think I'm experiencing the true theory of inverse proportionality for the first time in my life. Viz. the more outraged and pissed you get on social media, the less I care about you or your opinions.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Corrosive Power of False Equivalence

President Slams Journalists Over Campaign Substance And Coverage:

President Obama delivered a forceful critique on Monday of politicians and the journalists who cover them, lamenting the circuslike atmosphere of the presidential campaign and declaring, “A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone.”

“I was going to call it a carnival atmosphere,” the president said, “but that implies fun.”

“The No. 1 question I’m getting as I travel around the world or talk to world leaders right now is, ‘What is happening in America about our politics?’ ” Mr. Obama continued. “They care about America, the most powerful nation on earth, functioning effectively and its government being able to make sound decisions.”

Mr. Obama’s references to Donald J. Trump, the New York real estate developer turned Republican front-runner, were unmistakable in his criticism of “divisive and often vulgar rhetoric,” frequently aimed at women and at ethnic and racial minorities. But he also turned his fire on the news media, saying it had given an uncritical platform to those pronouncements, in part because of relentless economic pressures that have changed the way news organizations operate.

The president suggested that the news media had not done enough to question the promises made by politicians — an apparent reference not only to Mr. Trump, but also to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent who is challenging Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s former secretary of state, for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Sanders has promised free public college education and national health care coverage, ambitious social programs that critics say could never be enacted.

“When people put their faith into someone who can’t possibly deliver his or her own promises,” Mr. Obama said, “that only breeds more cynicism.”

The president denounced what he called the practice of drawing “false equivalences” between competing claims made by politicians. “If I say the world is round and someone else says it’s flat, that’s worth reporting,” Mr. Obama said. “But you might also want to report on a bunch of scientific evidence that seems to support the notion that the world is round.”
This is a trend that has gotten worse in the past 15 years or so, following the attacks of 9/11 when critical coverage of the government and its role in the event was dismissed as unpatriotic or worse. Later, in the gin up to the Iraq War, critical coverage of WMD's (as in "there aren't any") was also slammed shut by big corporations afraid of taking on the Bush administration and the "conservative media" outlets and talk radio.

Worse, the practice of false equivalence was put into place whenever someone dared to question the government/party line.
A common way for this fallacy to be perpetuated is one shared trait between two subjects is assumed to show equivalence, especially in order of magnitude, when equivalence is not necessarily the logical result. False equivalence is a common result when an anecdotal similarity is pointed out as equal, but the claim of equivalence doesn't bear because the similarity is based on oversimplification or ignorance of additional factors. False equivalence is occasionally claimed in politics, where one political party will accuse their opponents of having performed equally wrong actions. Commentators may also accuse journalists of false equivalence in their reporting of political controversies if the stories are perceived to assign equal blame to multiple parties.
Example:  Fox News presents a debate between one scientist who thinks human caused climate change is supported by vast amount of evidence, and another non-scientist who thinks that the data is all manufactured and there is no evidence. Then Fox News states that the debate is unsettled, relying on false equivalence, when the evidence supporting climate change is both high quality and high quantity.
It reminds me of the old adage, there aren't two sides to the truth. There's the truth, and there's "I don't agree with the truth." Just because you don't "agree" with the truth, doesn't mean your opinion is equivalent in fact or stature with said truth, but the way the media has been cowed into presenting "both sides" over the past 15 years or so, one is left with the impression that science is a "belief" and facts are whatever you want them to be.

Another example would be Donald Trump's meteoric rise in the Republican party and polls, which is directly assignable to the false equivalence journalists and the media gave him, starting on day one of his campaign. When his statements and observations were given equal footing or time with serious candidates for the presidency, the media engaged in a false equivalence. And the lack of critical coverage of his views as expressed created (in the minds of some) an air of legitimacy to his candidacy.

Let's put this another way: currently there are 1,659 candidates who have qualified with the FEC to run for president of the United States. The media doesn't give these people, almost none of whom you've ever heard of, the same time and weight as it does Trump or other mainstream party candidates running because of (gasp) false equivalence. This isn't to say some of these 1,600 candidates shouldn't be listened to. But there are probably several kooks running on nutty agendas with insane ideas that shouldn't be given the platform JUST because they are running for president.

And someone like Trump should never have either, except for the fact that reality t.v. stars make for good ratings and good copy, and they sell a lot of soap. And the more uncritical coverage he got, the more he rose in the polls, and suddenly, voila, "Bozo is about to become the Republican party candidate" for president. Ooops.

Was it all the media's fault? Of course not. But had his candidacy not been covered in the same way as the other candidates, and bestowed a legitimacy the other 1,600+ candidates haven't been afforded, he would never have gotten the traction he has up to this point.

Be careful what you wish for, I suppose is the motto here. All of this obstructionism and "balanced" coverage and false equivalency is already creating a lot of unintended consequences for the future of the republic, whether politically, socially, economically or environmentally. 

And the more atomized we become in society, viz. all hunkered down in our little holes filled with media and social media and other outlets that ONLY confirm our existing points of view, the more likely we are to fray apart at the seams.

UPDATE: This article in today's Times seems to point the finger at social media, and give Big Media a pass since Big Media ain't so big anymore:
It’s popular to argue today that Mr. Trump’s success is, in part, a creation of the traditional news media — cable networks that couldn’t get enough of his celebrity and the ratings it brought, and newspapers that didn’t scrutinize him with enough care. There is some truth in that, but the contention misses a larger reality.

Mr. Trump’s rise is actually a symptom of the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say.

The Trump phenomenon is not simply a creation of newspaper columnists or cable news bookers who initially thought his candidacy was a joke to be exploited for ratings. His emergence shows the strength of his supporters, united on social media, who believe that the media is a joke. Mr. Trump and his fans have broken the Overton window, and there is no going back.
Well, again, yes and no. Yes, the atomization he mentions (and which I mentioned above, and in several posts the last few years), is contributing to the social media echo chamber of "see, I must be right because all these other people agree with me" stupidity. And yes, the more we reaffirm our views with like-minded others, and the more we unfollow/block/delete those who disagree with us, the more convinced we are we are right, no matter the actual truth of the facts or issues at hand.

But I still maintain it's up to the "gatekeepers" to report the truth, and that they have seriously abdicated that responsibility when they report "both sides" of issues for which there isn't another side. Just because posts a crank Tweet or Facebook update saying "global warming ain't real, it's a's snowing again outside!" that shouldn't be given equal weight to the science or facts or truth it seeks to contradict.

That's the media's fault, not just social media.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Press 1 To Be Ripped Off

Phone Companies Continue to Plunder Inmates and Families:

Despite the rate-capping order, the phone companies’ litigation against the F.C.C.’s efforts to rein in their excessive charges is likely to continue. But even as they fight in court, the companies are dodging oversight by exploiting a system that is largely unregulated: prison financial services.

Unless they’ve known someone who’s been incarcerated, most people don’t know that the corrections system has an entire commerce arm of its own. Everything an inmate can buy — phone calls, commissary, copays for substandard medical care, video visitation or the new email service — is purchased through a special account created by the prison or a private company.

Merely to add funds to an account, the family or friends of inmates must pay a service fee. I have an account myself with the prison phone giant Securus so that inmates I want to keep in touch with can call me. In February, I’d loaded my phone account without any fee. Then, a few weeks ago, I was charged $6.95 to add $5 of call time. So, the $11.95 that used to buy 49 minutes then purchased only 20.

These fees are an additional money grab by the phone companies and the prison commissions system. There’s a fee to create an account, a fee to fund an account, even a fee to get a refund. The companies are also taking advantage of a loophole in the F.C.C. order that allows them to add special fees for single calls by a user who doesn’t want to set up an account with them. For the “PayNow” option from Securus, for example, the call cost is $1.80, but the transaction fee is $13.19. Before the F.C.C.’s order was implemented, ancillary fees added nearly 40 percent to phone call costs for prison customers.
Kind of like Wall Street, credit card companies, and home mortgage banks, the "fine print" of the contracts these phone companies make the families click "agree to" are nothing more than legal looting and extortion.
The phone companies’ strategy was clear before the F.C.C.’s rate cap kicked in. Last year, Securus acquired JPay, one of the nation’s largest prison financial services providers. JPay handles financial transactions for 70 percent of prison inmates; its fees are as high as 35 to 45 percent of the money being sent. JPay could potentially charge a fee to create a JPay account to pay the service fee to load a Securus phone account.

It’s not just that this system is exploitative and cruel, taking from those who have little enough already. But this profiteering is also imposing costs on society. It’s been established that regular contact between inmates and their friends and family on the outside lowers the rate of reoffending upon release. So, if that contact is rationed because of phone company profiteering, the result is more recidivism.
Why? Because inmates cut off from contact with family (which is what happens when you can no longer afford to pay $20 to talk to your loved one for two minutes) inevitably become more institutionalized and prisonized, thus increasing the chance that they will recidivate upon release.

A quick scan of Securus and JPay websites shows smiling, multi-cultural faces, grandmothers talking to their (supposed) grandsons in prison, hip mobile phone apps, and nary a word regarding the vast profiteering the FCC allows them to continue to engage in, despite better efforts. 

Frankly, there is not a single, justifiable reason to charge an inmate to make a phone call to a family member. You get free phone calls, after all, when you're first taken to jail. Why should that change just because you've been convicted of something and are now looking at a long stretch in the hoosegow?

What this is another legacy of the get tough, imprisonment binge myopia of the 80's and 90's, viz. when beating up inmates was in vogue, and doing things like ripping them off for making phone calls fit the revaunchist middle class mentality and voter (e.g. "They got it too dang easy in them country club prisons, we ought charge 'em out the yin yang for phone calls!"). Or whatever.

Old habits die hard, and despite the better efforts of the FEC and criminal justice reform advocates in general, ripping off inmates and their families (i.e. screwing the poor) remains a perfect past time in the world of incarceration today.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Eating Disorders And Wall Street

Centers To Treat Eating Disorders Growing:

Their websites show peaceful scenes — young women relaxing by the ocean or caring for horses in emerald pastures — and boast of their chefs and other amenities.

One center sends out invitations to a reception with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Another offers doctors and therapists all-expense-paid trips to visit and experience their offerings, including yoga classes. Several employ staff who call mental health professionals, saying they would love to have lunch.

The marketing efforts by these for-profit residential care centers are aimed at patients with eating disorders and the clinicians who treat them. The programs have proliferated in recent years, with some companies expanding across the country.

The rapid growth of the industry — there are more than 75 centers, compared with 22 a decade ago, according to one count — has been propelled by the Affordable Care Act and other changes in health insurance laws that have increased coverage for mental disorders, as well as by investments from private equity firms.
Nice. It's like, whose misery can we invest in today? We already screwed minorities (sub prime lending), the elderly (reverse mortgage fraud) and the poor (foreclosure fraud). How about the Anorexics and Bulimics?
Eating disorders are among the most difficult mental illnesses to treat.

Anorexia, in particular, has stymied many of psychiatry’s best treatment efforts. The illness has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, with patients dying from the medical complications of starvation or from suicide. And patients often resist treatments that make them feel uncomfortable.

The most severely ill patients — the prognosis is grimmer the longer someone has anorexia, studies suggest — require hospital treatment just to stay alive. But even after being stabilized, many patients need continual supervision for a time to regain weight and learn new behavior. The length of stay in residential centers ranges from two weeks to a year. A 2006 study found that the average stay was 83 days.

In the past, health insurance companies placed strict limits on coverage for eating disorders, treating them differently from other medical illnesses. Few insurers were willing to pay for 24-hour care after a patient was out of immediate danger.

But the passage of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in 2008 and the Affordable Care Act two years later mandated equal treatment. Lawsuits brought by the families of patients who were denied coverage added to the pressure on insurers. In 2012, a federal appeals court ruled that health plans must cover residential treatment for anorexia under California’s parity law. The higher reimbursement rates offered some relief to families, who had often mortgaged their houses or drained their savings to pay for critically needed care.
Can you imagine being the bloodless stooge who wrote this for BDO?

How long before we find emails from consulting firms reading, "The number of young women who can't keep a meal down is growing exponentially, and with all the money their families are saving on groceries, think of the compelling investment opportunities!"

These people are grotesque. 

Meanwhile, the "medical practitioners" at these private clinics are practicing untested, voodoo treatments that fail to meet basic levels of scientific efficacy.
Melissa R., 28, who asked that her last name not be used for reasons of privacy, said after several hospitalizations for anorexia, beginning when she was 21, she found a residential center in the Southwest on the Internet and spent six weeks there. The center, which she described as “more like a resort,” was “somewhat helpful,” she said, but not worth the time and money.

“People were nice, and the food was really good,” she said. “I had fun, I enjoyed rock climbing and stuff, but that’s not why I was there. I’m paying a lot of money to get well, not to rock climb.”

It was also expensive. Mr. Bilkie, a financial adviser in Michigan, calculated that over three years, he paid at least $350,000 for unreimbursed inpatient care for his daughter. The Eating Recovery Center, he said, sent him bills for $30,000 each month. Mr. Bilkie paid willingly — he was desperate to see Ashley get well, he said — but no program seemed to produce lasting results.

“We spent an outrageous amount of money for what really amounted to ineffectual treatment,” Mr. Bilkie said.
Worse, as more investment firm and hedge fund douches go into the recovery business, competition increases for clients. Many of these firms and funds employ telemarketers to cold call for clients.
With a need to fill more beds, marketers for some centers make cold calls to psychiatrists, psychotherapists, medical doctors and others who treat eating disorders, offering to inform them about a program’s advantages and inviting them to visit.

The Denver-based Eating Recovery Center has a call center and employs 20 “professional relations liaisons” who contact clinicians across the country. The author and motivational speaker Jenni Schaefer, who recovered from an eating disorder, recently joined the program’s outreach team. On its website, the company, which began with a single center, bills itself as “the only national health care system devoted to serious eating disorders at all levels of care.”
Can you imagine, cold calling for patients with eating disorders? "Hey doc, got any anorexics you're seeing? Tell 'em if they sign up today, we'll throw in a 10% discount off their next meal...if they have one."

It's like the perfect orgy of cretinous bottom-feeders: Big Medicine, Big Insurance, the Psychiatric-Industrial Complex, and Wall Street...a Caligula all enriching themselves off the very real pain and suffering of anorexics, bulimics, and their desperate families.

Ain't capitalism grand? Because if a buck can be made off it, it will be made off matter how unethical or immoral it might be.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day Madness

Thank god February 29th only comes around once every four years:

Memo to Republican leaders: Be careful what you wish for.

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the messy fight for the Republican nomination in 2012, the party drew up a calendar and delegate-selection rules intended to allow a front-runner to wrap things up quickly.

Now, with Republicans voting in 11 states on Tuesday, the worst fears of the party’s establishment are coming true: Donald J. Trump could all but seal his path to the nomination in a case of unintended consequences for the party leadership, which vehemently opposes him.
I think they mean Donald J. Drumpf, actually.
As the calendar flips to March, a whirlwind of states vote on the same days and in quick succession. By the middle of the month, 58 percent of the total delegates will have been awarded, and Mr. Trump could be unstoppable in getting the 1,237 needed to clinch the nomination.
Awesome. Meanwhile, the predicted Senate meltdown over the president nominating a new justice to SCOTUS to replace Antonin Scalia has come to pass.
Senate Republicans on Tuesday united behind an official position on how to deal with President Obama’s expected nominee to replace the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia: no hearings, no votes and no new justice until Obama is out of office.

“Presidents have a right to nominate, just as the Senate has its constitutional right to provide or withhold consent,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a morning floor speech. “In this case, the Senate will withhold it.”

That declaration was underscored after McConnell held a closed-door meeting with Republicans sitting on the Senate Judiciary Committee. All 11 GOP panel members subsequently signed a letter pledging not to hold hearings on any replacement for Scalia until a new president is inaugurated.
Which shows what a laughing stock the entire process has become. Bad enough these goofs work 133 days a year, but vowing in February to do no more work until November is astonishingly irresponsible and reprehensible. It also begs the question: why so afraid? Why act like such (fill in favorite Trump vulgarities here)?

It has certainly been the case that this entire political season has provoked a lot of "can it get any weirder than this?" moments, followed by even stranger and sillier developments. The campaign has devolved into name calling, insults, comparing the size of the candidates codpieces, and tanning booths.

Oh, and Reagan...35 years down the road, who is the natural heir to Reagan (imagine Carter running in 1980, about who was the natural heir to Roosevelt, with a straight face, like it wasn't eons ago in the country's political and generational history). It's beyond surreal.

I'm not sure it's a question of "polarization" as it is incompetence and stupidity on behalf of the elected and those who elect them. Coming out of Citizens United, I think the greater fear was that our politics would be bought and paid for by the power elite, and the vulgar hoi polloi wouldn't have a say in the matter.

Instead, there seems to be a direct correlation between the amount of money being spent and the quality of stupid being produced: thus, the more money the 1% throws into the process to buy results, the more idiotic and farcical the electoral process seems to get.

Happy Leap Day...can't wait to see where we are on the next one, four years hence.

UPDATE: Prescient piece from one of my favorite writers over at Esquire, Charles Pierce, on the destruction of the Republican party occurring today, Super Tuesday 3/1:
Trump played by the rules established by the largely vestigial Republican establishment. He won in caucus states (Nevada), and he won in primary states (South Carolina, New Hampshire). He stands poised to win states on Tuesday night from Massachusetts to Alabama. There has been no hint of scandal in any of his victories. It is delusional to pretend that he is not the overwhelming choice of the people who are voting Republican in the year of Our Lord 2016. And it is intellectually dishonest to try to concoct strategies to deny the consensus choice of your party a nomination fairly won just because the consensus choice of your party is a vulgar talking yam. If your party happens to have concocted a constituency with a sweet tooth for authoritarian nonsense, then trying (again) to push that reckoning down the road is to guarantee something even worse comes along next time.
Ironic that the destruction of this once storied party, a party called home by the likes of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Nixon (yes, him) and Reagan, is being delivered final rites by a guy wearing a Whig.