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Fear, rage and bad decisions

US economy | Fear, Rage and Bad Decisions Bill Sharon

I spent the first ten years of my adult life working in psychiatric facilities – in those days called mental institutions or even “loony bins” by my insensitive friends. I got the job right out of college. I simply showed up at the administration building at Manhattan State Hospital and announced that I was reporting for work. There was a bit of a kerfuffle (that’s Scottish meaning “disorder”). I hadn’t really been hired at all. After about fifteen minutes of to-ing and fro-ing I was given a job as a teacher in the children’s unit that consisted of pre-adolescent boys aged 5 - 12. In retrospect it seemed like the only way an Episcopalian lad from Connecticut could have gotten himself into a psychiatric hospital in those days. It also taught me something about the fragility of bureaucracies in the face of determination.

I had no training. I did have a BA in English and I had read Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so I thought I had a vague idea of what I was getting into. I didn’t. Instead of classic disorders identified in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) what I found was a colossal amount of rage – and not just on the part of the patients. They were angry because they couldn’t communicate in a manner that could be understood by the adults in their lives but there was also rage on the part of the staff who wrapped themselves in the idea that professionalism required detachment.

And there were, of course, worse things going on. If you tried to run away the Director of the unit took one of your shoes away for a week. If you were unlucky enough to merit therapy the resident psychiatrist/ paedophile made you wear a dress. It was worse than Kesey’s imagination.

But those were the days of social protest and some of us got together and put up a fight. People were fired. A new children’s hospital was built. I got a job running the new adolescent unit (still with no formal training – which should have been a hint). Instead of beatings and unspeakable humiliations there was a shift to what at the time were very primitive psychotropic drugs. After a confrontation with a doctor who wanted to give a 12-year-old a liver-destroying injection of Thorazine I was taken aside and told that psychiatric facilities were agencies of social control and that if I didn’t like it I should get out. And so I did.

But my experiences in those days taught me that rage is born of fear and fear is a very dangerous emotion for human beings in complex societies. The fight or flight response to fear is tactical and immediate. The forces in our global society are subtle and interconnected. Human fear always results in what prosecutors call the SODDI defense (some other dude did it). Assigning blame is like comfort food and we’ve been eating a lot of it.

At this writing our monetary system appears to be teetering on the edge of collapse. We are being told that our lack of jobs here in the US has to do with the value of the Chinese currency. Governments throughout the Western world are telling their citizens that social programs must be cut to balance budgets sometime in the future. Ireland has joined Greece as a basket case.

We all seem to have forgotten Fannie and Freddie. They are still in business and still haemorrhaging money. Those credit agencies – Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s and Fitch? Yup, still in business and no sign of reforming the process of banks paying their fees. Too big to fail is bigger. The G20 meeting that just concluded had the singular achievement of communicating its inability to do something about anything.

The recent elections in the US indicate that people are angry. But they have precious few outlets for expressing that anger. Voting once every several years is hardly an effective release. Venting in the blogosphere, on talk radio and cable television has lost its cathartic value. Blaming someone else seems to be what’s left.

And that is very dangerous on many levels. The potential for war or rather, more wars, increases. Our ability to think clearly is diminished. Quick fixes, simple answers become more appealing. But if we go down that path we will simply be making a decision equivalent to exchanging the loss of a shoe for the loss of a liver.

This guest blog was first published on

Tags: credit agencies , currency wars , Too big to fail , US economy , US financial crisis
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