Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Losing It

 When pushed past the edge of our ability to cope, some of us do some pretty crazy things. The last few news cycles have confirmed this.

Recently, an Ohio man facing foreclosure bulldozed his own home. I think it's important to note that Terry Hoskins tried to work with his bank. He owed $160,000 on a home valued at $350,000. He found a third party who offered $170,000 to pay off the house, but the bank refused, claiming that they would make more money through foreclosure! So Hoskins arranged to pay off his mortgage - and then some - but the bank realized they could make more money by throwing him out.

In the current laissez-faire financial market, many banks are able to make more money through foreclosure than by letting people keep their homes. Yes, you heard right. Right now, banks have a vested interest in throwing people out of their homes, and the government is doing nothing to prevent it from happening.

Was Hoskins' move foolish? Most people would say yes. Did the bank push Hoskins to the point of "losing it"? I'd say that's a yes, too.

The other story in this week's news is far more extreme. Joe Stack flew a small plane into the Austin, Texas IRS building because he felt screwed by the tax man. In fact, if you read his suicide note, you'll see that Joe felt screwed by a lot of factors — the same factors that are causing undue suffering for most Americans these days.

The difference is, most of us wouldn't go kamikaze to solve our problems. Stack was an unstable individual, so his ability to cope was minimal at best. It didn't take much of a push for Stack to "lose it".

These two stories illustrate the propensity of extremely stressed-out folks to lash OUT when they feel wronged. For each of these stories, there are scores of  other stories that don't get the big headlines: the people who "lash IN" and take out their frustrations on themselves. Back in 2008, author Barbara Ehrenreich reported that many people facing foreclosure are taking their own lives.

Sadly, those seem like the two primary choices for those unfortunate souls who lose it because they can't cope with financial calamity: either point the gun at someone else or point the gun at themselves. We should fault these people for their actions, but it would be short-sighted to blame them completely.

Since the dawn of society, there have been people who are down on their luck, old or infirm, less capable of solving their problems, less able to adapt or cope. In the societal model of the village, people collectively created a social safety net to care for the less fortunate among them.

When our country fell into the Great Depression, it was obvious that our country lacked the kind of social safety need we needed to care for the least of our brethren during difficult times. And in the case of the Great Depression, "the least of our brethren" amounted to nearly 1/3rd of the population.

Thanks to the policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a robust social safety net was created. Among a myriad of programs that helped Americans help themselves, Social Security was established, which contrary to right-wing claims, is not simply a retirement account for seniors. It is a program that also helps the injured and infirm. In other words, it is a plan that cares for the least fortunate among us.

As these programs endured, our country experienced a growing middle class and increased prosperity. There were no beggars on highway offramps in the 1960s. We still had our share of problems, but the majority of those in need found assistance.

That shifted in 1980 when Reagan was elected president. My mom voted for Reagan. All she cared about was that my father's mason contractor business improved. Business did improve, because  Reagan gutted many social programs that cared for the physically and mentally ill in an effort to induce a false, short-term prosperity.

About 6-9 months into Reagan's first term, my mom approached me saying, "I don't feel safe going to the grocery store. Suddenly, there are all these 'weirdies' hanging out in front of the store. They ask me for change when I'm going in and out. What's going on?"

I knew exactly what was going on: Reaganomics robbed the very poor and gave to the rich - and to some extent, the middle class. For the middle class, quality of life seemed to be improving - so they didn't stop to notice that their prosperity came at the expense of the poorest among us.

"Mom", I said, "Those 'weirdies' you speak of once had social programs that took care of them. They had places to live, places to get the help they need. Reagan threw them out onto the street to fend for themselves. You voted for Reagan, so they're YOUR 'weirdies' now. Enjoy!"

Unfortunately, every president since Reagan has been building on the same policies, including Clinton, who I will never forgive for creating the global trade policies that eliminated a decent living for working-class Americans.

In the 1960s, many Americans - my parents included - could own and sustain a home with one income. Now, we are hard-pressed to maintain a household on two incomes - even when both parents work more than one job. The government deregulated the financial industry, making it all to tempting for Americans to go into debt in an attempt to hold on to their standard of living.

Then came the mortgage hornswoggle at the beginning of the millennium. Bush hopped in front of the TV cameras and touted new policies that would enable the poorest among us to own their own homes. It was a big lie - a ponzi scheme of the highest order, and now as it collapses, millions of Americans are losing their homes in record numbers.

Health care has also been dismantled. Industry deregulation has allowed health insurance companies to create state-wide monopolies, and jack up their premiums sky high whenever they feel like it. Recently, Anthem Blue Cross announced they would be raising rates 39% for their customers in California. Between 2007 and 2008, Blue Cross of North Carolina increased my premiums a total of 59%, forcing me to downgrade to a high-deductible health savings account.

Remember my Reagan-voting mother? She and my father live on social security in a subsidized apartment complex for seniors, but they still can't make ends meet. Their health care needs forced them into bankruptcy years ago. Luckily, there are a few doctors who will treat them even when Medicare won't cover their bills. The remaining health care bills eat into their food budget, so I send them a little extra every month to help out.

In 1980, my parents owned a spacious suburban home. Now, I'm surprised they aren't out in front of the supermarket begging for coins, just like the 'weirdies' that freaked out my mom 3 decades ago. That's what Reaganomics has done for them.

Let's face facts: we no longer have a social safety net in this country. When the Republicans run the government, they dismantle the social safety net a little further. When the Democrats run the government, they sit back and let the Republicans dismantle the social safety net a little further.

Americans are squeezed on all sides, and have nowhere to turn for relief. Like a human body attacked by disease, symptoms are emerging. Those symptoms are people like Bulldozer Hoskins and Kamikaze Joe Stack, who feel they have no other recourse than resort to destruction and violence perpetrated on themselves, others, or both.

We can't afford to waste our time demonizing the people who make the headlines when they "lose it". We need to eliminate the factors that pushed these people over the edge. Unless we want to see more people take some twisted sense of justice into their own hands, we need to change the system now.

It's time to ignore labels like Democrat and Republican. We need to throw out every politician who favors corporations over human beings. We need to elect new lawmakers whose policies provide the opportunity to live healthy, prosperous lives.

And though we need to fight for change in our own government, we need to create change in our own neighborhoods, too. When Bush spoke of "ownership society", what he really meant was "every man for himself". It was another tactic the rich and powerful used to divide and conquer.

When a neighbor falls, the right-wing responds by saying, "What a loser! He brought it on himself. Let him rot!" But when we buy into that way of thinking, the banksters win.

When a neighbor falls, we need to help him up. We need to create our own local organizations to help each other so we aren't so devastated when the government drops the ball. If we all band together, we will be strong enough to rebuild our social safety net - and can then demand that our government take part in the process.

When people like Terry Hoskins and Joe Stack "lose it", they are merely symptoms of a greater disease. Stop blaming the symptoms. It's time to start treating the disease.

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