Thursday, April 30, 2009

Taking Out the Trash

Shortly after I left the full time practice of law to run a chemical dependency treatment center in 2001, a friend asked me if treatment works. I observed that it seemed like 20% of the patients who went through treatment succeeded in staying in recovery after a single rehab experience. 20% of the patients would never recover from their chemical dependencies no matter how many times they went through a treatment program (the so-called "Lost"). The remaining 60% were an unknown. Their likelihood of success depended on the treatment experience, the appropriateness of the program, the skill of their counselors, the support of their families and their ability to deal with their unique personal struggles and willingness to give sobriety a try. For the entire six years I worked in the field as an administrator, the 20/40/20 ratio continued to ring true.

I've been thinking a lot about the lost 20% lately because if we accept the premise as true,
i.e., the Lost are never going to benefit from chemical dependency treatment and learn to live normal, productive lives, then we have to acknowledge in this era of hope with increasingly limited resources that the costs of supporting the Lost are expensive, long term propositions. We also need to acknowledge that it may not be appropriate to allocate resources as we have historically to care, and coddle, the Lost, while so many members of society are, as a result, denied access to remedial resources.

I am mindful of, and have long admired, Hubert Humphrey's observation that the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. To be clear, I am not speaking of persons with mental or physical infirmities that make successful chemical dependency treatment or to otherwise function productively in society impossible.

Rather, I am talking about the segment of society that consciously chooses to play the "treatment game", bouncing from program to program as an alternative to accepting the responsibilities of employment, parenting, self-betterment and other
indicia of adulthood. Too often, these Lost fly below the radar of societal scrutiny, relying on commonly held perceptions of the challenges of chemical dependency to avoid being held accountable.

In the past, taxpayers just paid for the Lost to attend one treatment program after another, often with a short hiatus between episodes of shelter in well-intentioned licensed facilities. The financial impact was enormous, but it was a price society quietly paid to warehouse the Lost. Three years ago, my employer received about $2,500 a month for counseling services rendered to each client. Using my 20% rule, at any one time, the treatment center was home to 15 clients who I'd consider part of the Lost. On an annual basis, that amounts to providing treatment for 180 of the Lost. At $2,500 apiece, it cost taxpayers $450,000 a year, effectively wasted, to treat the Lost. $450,000. One treatment center in the "Land of 10,000 Treatment Centers". Wasted.

So, what do we do as a society? How do we justify wasting such vast sums of taxpayer money with minimal likelihood of success when so many programs are being cut or eliminated and so many of the vulnerable adults championed by Vice President Humphrey are going wanting?

I recently posed this question over lunch to a friend who is a former officer of the local N.A.A.C.P. I'll call him "Jeff". His answer was startling, probably because it was not the usual "society cannot give up on those who struggle". Jeff responded that it was like clearing garbage from one's home when its accumulation impairs the living environment: "We have to take out the trash".

The scope of the topic of our concern went beyond the chemically dependent who were incapable of sobriety. It included generations of what are typically thought of as underprivileged residents of the community who are perpetually un- or under educated, employed and/or engaged in self-betterment. Focusing on the Black community, my friend observed that the election of our new president offers a positive role model for today's youth and that the ongoing race card blame game used as an excuse by many of their elders lacks credibility. Jeff suggested that it is time to move on from the chronically chemically dependent Lost and from those
unwilling to make any effort to reside in society as lawful, productive members.

But, of course, moving on has its consequences. To use Jeff's analogy, you still have to deal with the trash left behind. From Jeff's point of view, this requires establishing residential campuses where persons otherwise intent on disrupting society are required by court order to live. Residents would be responsible for maintaining their living quarters, assuring a drug-free environment and not tolerating lawlessness. Residents unable to abide by these guidelines would face jail time as a consequence of whatever conduct landed them in the residential campus in the first place. Eventually, the scufflaws would age to the point that they are not a threat to society as a whole or to themselves, and society will have survived to a clean start.

I cannot conceive of any cooperative effort by law enforcement, the judiciary, civil libertarians, social services and willing taxpayers that would allow the creation of such a system. The liberal in me fights the idea that we've sunk so far that intelligent men like Jeff, long involved in the Black community, see no viable alternative to the current situation or to the residential campus concept besides building more jails.

I am back to my original dilemma. I believe that we have a responsibility as a society to help those who cannot help themselves. But, what do we do with those who choose not to seek to partake in economic recovery? What do we do with those who have given up on themselves and choose the comfort of an artificial high to making the effort to live drug-free? As with the classic philosophical debate about the lifeboat carrying 7 people that can only sustain 6, we have some choices to make.

Government and philanthropic financial resources are increasingly precious at the same time they are in increasing demand. It simply makes no sense to deny services and support to persons with legitimate needs because we continue to throw money at others who are making a conscious decision to be wards of the state. Maybe cutting the latter group from support is a form of "tough love". But what then?

I have no answers today. I merely pose the question and ask that we keep in mind the billions of dollars that are wasted as governments and charities are being played for chumps. There are so many worthwhile programs that have done so much good for so many people. I witnessed the successes repeatedly during my six year stint in the social service community. The dilemma is not with the program participants who strive to achieve success. The problem is with the faux participants who park themselves at the public and philanthropic trough with no real desire to use the opportunity to make a difference in their lives.

What do we do? I welcome your comments.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Answer the Damn Question!

I spend most Sunday mornings catching up on the week’s issues and events by watching several news shows that I’ve recorded on the satellite’s digital video recorder. I usually start with TPT 2’s Almanac and Washington Week and move on to ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopolous and NBC’s Meet the Press. I ignore Fox. If I skip the music and matters that don’t interest me on Almanac and skip the commercials on This Week, I can be up to date in a little over 90 minutes.

This past Sunday was no exception, except (sorry) it gave me an idea for this blog: Politicians do not like to answer direct questions. This Week started out with two interviews. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was first up. He was brilliant in his portrayal of the work of the Obama Administration and successfully defended its efforts from partisan attacks. He was necessarily vague about some aspects of the President’s policies. I accepted everything he said without pause or concern. ;-)

George Stephanopolous’ next guest was Republican Congressman John Boehner from Ohio. Congressman Boehner serves as the House Minority Leader in Congress and often serves as the spokesperson for the Republican Party. I was so startled by his exchange with Mr. Stephanopolous on the subject of carbon emissions and climate change that I had to watch the interview again to make sure I had heard it right over my hamburger/onion omelet (cooking is another part of my Sunday morning ritual).

Here’s the transcript of the exchange (with my comments in parentheses):

George Stephanopolous: Describing Congressman Boehner’s reaction to the decision to allow the E.P.A. to regulate carbon dioxide as means of controlling greenhouse gasses.

Congressman John Boehner: This decision is nothing more than a backdoor attempt to enact a national energy tax that will have a crushing impact on consumers, jobs and our economy. The Administration is abusing the regulatory process to establish this tax because it knows there are not enough votes in Congress to force Americans to pay it. (In 2006, more than 2 years before the election of Barack Obama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had given the E.P.A. authority to regulate carbon dioxide in the Clean Air Act. The economic consequences of regulating carbon dioxide emissions are not a “national energy tax”. They are the wages of our sinful ignoring of the problem for decades and now being forced to implement extraordinary measures to try to save the planet. Repeat for effect: to try to save the planet.).

GS: Let me ask you then about energy. You’ve come out against the president’s plan to cap and trade emissions. So what is the Republican answer to climate change? Is it a problem? Do you have a plan to address it? (N.B. THESE are the "pending questions" referred to throughout below.)

JB: George, we believe in our “all of the above” energy strategy from last year continues to be the right approach on energy. We’ve got to make sure we have resources of energy, green energy, but we need nuclear energy. We need other types of alternatives and, yes, we need American made oil and gas. (Technically, Congressman Boehner did not answer the question. It comes close only if we parse the answer to assume that Congressman Boehner believes that reduced reliance on fossil fuels will reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions.)

GS: But that doesn’t do anything when it comes to emissions, Sir – (Interrupted)

JB: When it comes to the issue of climate change, George, it's pretty clear that if we don’t work with other industrial nations around the world, what’s gonna happen is that we’re going to ship millions of jobs overseas. We have to deal with this in a responsible way. (Still not answering the pending question, Congressman Boehner deflects the inquiry and moves to the politically expedient soundbite of focusing on American jobs.)

GS: What is the responsible way? That’s my question. What is the Republican plan to deal with carbon emissions, which every major scientific organization has said is contributing to climate change?

JB: George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide. And so I think it’s clear . . .[Interrupted] (This was the response that triggered this pondering. “Carcinogen”? Breathing? Blame the cows? Again, Congressman Boehner does not answer the pending questions. The House Minority Leader, prominent spokesperson for the national Republican party, is more comfortable belittling the threat of climate change from excessive carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by human endeavors than he is admitting there is a problem and offering a specific alternative to the E.P.A.’s regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.)

GS: So you don’t believe greenhouse gasses are a problem in creating climate change?

JB:... we've had climate change over the last 100 years -- listen, The question is, how much does Man have to do with it and what is the proper way to deal with this? We can’t do it alone as one nation. If we got India, China and other industrial countries not working with us, all we’re going to do is ship millions of American jobs overseas. (Still no answer to the pending questions. Rather, Congressman Boehner again deflects by rewording and posing the same question back to Stephanopolous and, again, wrapping himself in the American flag.)

GS: But it sounds like what you’re saying is that you don’t believe the Republicans need to come up with a plan to control carbon emissions. You’re suggesting it’s not that big of a problem even though the scientific consensus is that it is contributing to climate change.

JB: I think it is, I think it is an issue. The question is, what is the proper answer and the responsible answer? (Ditto, absent the American flag.)

GS: And what is the answer? That’s what I’m trying to get at. (Thank you Mr. S.)

JB: George, I think everyone in America is looking for the proper answer. (At least since the beginning of this interview.) They don’t want to raise taxes one and a half to two trillion dollars like the Administration is proposing and they don’t want to ship millions of American jobs overseas. (Deflection. God Bless America.) And so, we’ve got to find ways to work towards the solution to this problem without risking the future of our kids and grandkids. (Think about this. Most folks lacking the intelligence to serve in Congress [I’m making a BIG leap of faith here] discovered sometime before Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth that man-made carbon dioxide emissions contribute to the problem of global warming. So why, on April 19, 2009, is the House Minority Leader still in the “we’ve got to find ways to work towards the solution” stage? Because, of course, the House Minority Leader would rather play politics with the issue and use it to attack the Obama administration by engaging in economic fear-mongering than get on board a meaningful plan to save the planet and the future of his kids and grandkids.)

GS: So you are committed to coming up with a plan?

JB: I think you’ll see a plan from us, just like you’ve seen a plan from us on the stimulus bill and a better plan on the budget. (If you say it enough times, people will believe anything. And, by the way, Congressman Boehner never answered the pending questions.).

The bad news is that many politicians, including Congressman Boehner, cannot get past party politics to do the right thing for our society. The good news is that Americans seem more willing to publicly disapprove of such recalcitrance. We learned something during the eight years of the Bush Administration. We learned that when the pronouncements of our elected officials defy common sense, it is okay to say so and to react as we would to any other idiotic verbal diarrhea.

If the Republican party is unwilling to distinguish its environmental viewpoint from that of the coal lobby in a meaningful way, so be it. The party’s adherents are entitled to their opinions. But they ought to have enough respect for our democratic way of life to openly proclaim their position, by answering the questions, and let the electorate decide whether they belong in positions of leadership. Absent such respect, the Republicans are just a bunch of clowns trying to fool all of the people all of the time.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A New Beginning (No Ewoks)

What a day! Spring has finally arrived on the prairie and I celebrated by getting out my bike, dusting it off, putting on my helmet (as promised) and riding on the adjacent bike trail for nearly an hour at about an 8 m.p.h. average clip.

I went further west on the Luce Line than ever before, making it a mile or so past Charlie Leck's farm, and plan on pushing the envelope a little further each time. The bike trail runs for 63 miles from start to finish. Meadow Breeze Farm is just off Mile 12, giving me 51 miles to explore under Horace Mann's directive.

I feel great, having accomplished something I've been merely yakking about for two long,
i.e., getting off my fat butt and enjoying the outdoors. Frankly, it's a nice change of pace. I've felt rather paralyzed emotionally lately and forcing myself to get out may prove to be the breakthrough I've needed. Haven't we all been there?

The forest of anxieties constricting my ability to function normally consisted of the final illness and death of my good friend Tom Silver, the need to forumlate a defense for another good friend and client and file my first pleadings on his behalf using a confusing electronic filing system in Federal Court, the need to respond to a pile of discovery requests in another matter, organizing 2008's financial information to meet the government's April 15th deadline, keeping abreast of details in Minnesota's U.S. Senate election contest, deal with client issues as they get called in, handle new files with gratefulness and enthusiasm, and, as always, internalize all emotions and stresses.

Haven't we all been there? It is not the first time the volume of demands has seemed overwhelming. We know, intellectually, that we will eventually push forward, perform the necessary tasks, and feel the pressure relieved. The hard part is believing that the relief will come to pass when in the middle of that forest of anxieties.

Some people rely on faith to get them through these emotional roadblocks. Whatever works. I rely on the lessons of James Clavell. In
Noble House, Clavell wrote of the trials and tribulations of Ian Dunross, the 20th Century taipan of the House of Struan. Having previously read Tai-Pan, Clavell's brilliant portrayals of the same Scottish trading family in the 19th Centuries, I closely identified with the Tai-Pan's struggles when I read Noble House in the early 1980's.

Ian Dunross probably did not worry about the electronic filing system instituted and mandated by the Federal Courts. Rather, according to the Wikipedia entry on
Noble House: "(I)n 1963, the tai-pan, Ian Dunross, struggles to rescue Struan's from the precarious financial position left over from his predecessor. To do this, he seeks partnership with an American millionaire, while trying to ward off his arch-rival Quillan Gornt, who seeks to destroy Struan's once and for all. Meanwhile, Chinese communists, Taiwanese nationalists, and Soviet spies illegally vie for influence in Hong Kong while the British government seeks to prevent this. And nobody, it seems, can get anything done without enlisting the aid of Hong Kong's criminal underworld. Other obstacles include water shortages, landslides, bank runs and stock market crashes."

Clavell's books are worth reading and I won't give away the ending of Noble House. Suffice it to say that Dunross addresses his challenges aggressively and individually, rather than allow the number and scope of the problems he faces overwhelm him. That is the lesson I regularly take from Noble House and that is the manner in which I can achieve my emotional freedom, break the shackles of anxiety-induced depression and, not incidentally, return to blogging.

By tackling each tree individually, you find yourself in a clearing. The forest that seemed impossible to deal with becomes separate piles of stacked firewood. My discovery responses are complete, I picked up two major new clients this week, the Federal court Answer and Counterclaim are filed, taxes were paid, Al Franken will be seated before Independence Day, Tommy lives on as a stellar example of what it means to be a mensch in the collective memories of all who knew and loved him and
I went further west on the Luce Line than ever before, making it a mile or so past Charlie Leck's farm, and plan on pushing the envelope a little further each time.