If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that the interests of the wealthy almost always win out.
After her loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, few predicted that Hillary Clinton would leave the world of presidential politics. On the contrary, it was widely believed that she would make another run for the White House.
Anticipating such a run, the renowned political scientist and activist Frances Fox Piven, along with sociologist Fred Block, penned an open letter calling on Clinton, who had just left the State Department, to “step forward” and “launch a national debate about poverty and welfare.”
“Specifically,” Piven and Block wrote, “we are asking for you to open a conversation about the shortcomings of the 1996 welfare legislation that was passed when you and Bill Clinton were in the White House.”
The letter was not unprovoked: In the years immediately following welfare reform’s implementation, Hillary Clinton was an ardent defender of its underlying logic, arguing that it was a “critical first step” in the broader move toward a more effective system.
And Clinton’s defenses of the law didn’t cease even as evidence of its harmful effects became increasingly prominent. Indeed, in 2008, the New York Times reported that, in an interview, “Clinton expressed no misgivings about the 1996 legislation.”
In 2016, circumstances changed. Faced with a primary opponent running far to her left, Clinton shifted: “Now we have to take a hard look at” welfare reform, Clinton said in April, citing the entirely predictable failure of the now almost non-existent safety net to catch those harmed by the financial crisis.
Fast-forward several months, however, and the issue has all but vanished from the scene; no such “hard look” appears to be forthcoming.
Welfare reform’s absence was especially conspicuous in Clinton’s recent Times op-ed, in which she outlined her “plan for helping America’s poor.”
Clinton highlighted her tenure as a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund, where she was mentored by Marian Wright Edelman, the organization’s founder. But the issue that prompted a rather bitter split between the two was left unmentioned.
Prior to its passage, welfare reform garnered striking bipartisan support. But dissent was there, and it was forceful. Edelman’s voice was among the most powerful, the most insistent, and, to those reading her words today, the most prescient.
“It would be wrong to leave millions of voteless, voiceless children to the vagaries of 50 state bureaucracies and politics, as both the Senate and House bills will do,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “It would be wrong to strip children of or weaken current ensured help for their daily survival and during economic recessions and natural disasters, as both the Senate and House bills will do. It would be wrong to exacerbate rather than alleviate the current shameful and epidemic child poverty that no decent, rich nation should tolerate for even one child.”
Her pleas fell upon deaf ears; welfare reform passed and was implemented, and its successes in booting millions off of “the dole” and diverting money away from poor families and into the coffers of state governments—which were given tremendous latitude in how they could spend the money — were cheered by Democrats and Republicans alike.
But for the most vulnerable, there was little to celebrate.
Some found work, largely in low-wage jobs; those who didn’t, or couldn’t, slipped into deep poverty. The research of Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, noted the Washington Post‘s Max Ehrenfreund in February, “shows that the number of people living on $2 a day or less in cash has increased more than twofold, to 1.6 million households” since welfare reform’s passage.
The impact on children has been profound. “Under TANF,” a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, “the number of children living in deep poverty—with incomes below half the poverty line, using a comprehensive poverty measure—has risen significantly, placing large numbers of children at risk for long-term negative academic, employment, and health outcomes.”
It is significant that Hillary Clinton has consistently downplayed this reality. In her Times piece, she acknowledges in passing that “extreme poverty has increased,” but she does little to explain how such destitution arose in the world’s wealthiest nation.
And, as Ryan Cooper explains, while many of the proposals Clinton puts forward are welcome and necessary—from her emphasis on affordable housing to her support for paid family and medical leave — her plan taken as a whole is “woefully inadequate.”
“The problem, at root, is the same one Paul Ryan has with his various anti-poverty ideas—a wildly disproportionate focus on work, and a corresponding lack of attention to the welfare policies that could seriously cut poverty,” Cooper argues.
Citing the research of Matt Bruenig, Cooper writes that Clinton’s work-centric approach would do little to alleviate poverty because a “huge majority of poor people are not employable.”
Bruenig calls this large group “the CEDS bloc“: It consists of children, the elderly, those with disabilities, and students. And, Bruenig notes, “no matter which common poverty measure you use,” 60 to 65 percent of the poor fall in one of these four categories. Add to that the 20 percent represented by “carers and those who faced a spell of involuntarily unemployment during the year,” and you have a picture of poverty that is entirely different than that painted by the nation’s two major political parties.
“So, all together,” Bruenig concludes, “the CEDS bloc plus carers and those who faced a spell of involuntarily unemployment make up around 80-85% of the poor in any given year.”
Given this context, Clinton’s assertion that “The best way to help families lift themselves out of poverty is to make it easier to find good-paying jobs” is, at best, disconnected, both from the lived experience of impoverished families and from statistical realities. Cooper notes that, of course, “more and better-paying jobs are a great policy objective, but it will have little purchase on the problem of poverty.”
That work is nonetheless at the center of Clinton’s anti-poverty strategy—as opposed to, say, the most effective approach to reducing poverty—is indicative of the ideological limitations not just of Hillary Clinton’s agenda, but of the Democratic Party more broadly. It is not merely, to use Adolph Reed’s phrase, an “atrophy of political imagination” that imposes such strictures; it is also the party’s active commitments, both to its donor base and to dominant economic and political ideas.
Perhaps the most apt description of the party’s ethos comes from former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips, who once remarked that the Democratic Party is “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.”
“They do not interfere with capitalist momentum,” he added, “but wait for excesses and the inevitable popular reaction.”
Far from defying this tradition—one that consolidated power during the administration of Bill Clinton—Hillary Clinton is advancing it, embracing a political status quo in which big money dominates and celebrating the relationship between America’s dominant institutions and the nation’s economic direction.
“Hillary Clinton is a capitalist,” Emmett Rensin summarizes, “and even within a capitalist party, she is in both perception and in practice unusually comfortable with capitalism’s worst practices.”
Often characterized as clear-headed pragmatism, Clinton’s approach to poverty lays bare the deep conservatism of the party that claims for itself, despite contradictory evidence, the label “progressive.” But such conservatism is not surprising if one considers the significant changes that have taken place within the party over the last several decades.
Thomas Frank has documented the extent to which the Democratic Party has come to consist of professionals and technocrats, and this is reflected in voting patterns: As Lee Drutman has noted, as Democrats have moved rightward, theirs has increasingly become “the preferred party of the very wealthy.”
Hillary Clinton’s embrace of the anti-Trump members of the billionaire class provides only a superficial marker of this shift; the most consequential shifts have taken place just below this surface.
If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that the interests of the wealthy almost always win out.
As such, Edsall concludes, “Instead of serving as the political arm of working and middle class voters seeking to move up the ladder, the Democratic Party faces the prospect of becoming the party of the winners, in collaboration with many of those in the top 20 percent who are determined to protect and secure their economic and social status.”
A party committed to securing the privileges of elite sectors of society cannot also push the aggressive (but remarkably simple) measures necessary to eradicate poverty; the party of Goldman Sachs, the party of ultra-rich professionals, and the party of oil lobbyists cannot also be the party of the poor.
In 2009, Peter Edelman—the husband of Marian Wright Edelman—and Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a scathing critique of the new anti-poverty discourse, whose adherents “consider poverty a voluntary condition, one curable with a quick kick in the pants and the opportunity to work for minimum wage.”
This view persists in the present, on both sides of the political aisle; it is, in effect, a way of omitting the systemic causes of destitution, invoking in their place a critique not of capitalism, but of those victimized by it.
If we are to wage a successful war on poverty, we cannot, in the words of Mathew Snow, “accept capital’s terms for addressing its own problems or purported moral imperatives that presuppose them. We can [we must] overturn those terms completely.”
Street art in Vlissingen, The Netherlands,
by artist Super A.
Photo by Super A.
While Trump dominates the headlines, House Republicans slash Social Security and drive the system toward disaster
One side effect of the three-ring circus this presidential campaign has become is the distraction it provides so that other damaging agendas can be advanced with little or no attention. Take for example, the Republican Party’s long-standing efforts to dismantle America’s internationally modest, but still crucially important welfare state, which helps keep tens of millions of Americans out of poverty. Social Security and Medicare have both been top targets via various schemes over the years, and this budget cycle is no exception, regardless of what noises Donald Trump may make.
The need for Social Security staff services has increased as baby boomers begin to retire. Instead, these services have been cut back since 2011. And in late July, as the American Federation of Government Employees noted, “the House Appropriations Committee cut President Obama’s proposed budget for the Social Security Administration (SSA) by $1.2 billion. If they get their way, SSA will be forced to operate on $263 million less than it does now — even though it’s already struggling to meet public demand.”
These congressional cuts would even force workers to take a two-week furlough. Crippling Social Security’s ability to function just when it’s needed most is the epitome of what Republican public policy has become. It’s part of a familiar right-wing strategy to degrade the quality of government services, then use that degradation to argue for privatization.
Not only does Social Security lift tens of millions of retirees out of poverty, but in 2014 3.2 million American kids directly received Social Security benefits, mostly in the form of survivor benefits. Another 10 million disabled workers were covered as well. But it’s not just these many millions of people who benefit: Retirement security for grandparents means more money for parents to invest in their children’s future. Security for orphans and disabled workers have similar spillover benefits as well. So attacks on Social Security really are a threat to Americans of all ages, now as well as in the future.
Those attacks are already well under way, thanks to the austerity measures imposed since the Tea Party first arrived in Washington with the GOP congressional wave of 2010. (The money comes directly from workers — not from the overall Federal budget — but Congress controls the spending.) During the current budget cycle, the attacks are getting worse, even as baby boomer retirements continue to swell the rolls. This erodes confidence in the system, thereby weakening it for even further attacks, privatization and dismantlement — the true conservative dream.
In a June report for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Kathleen Romig wrote, “The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010 after adjusting for inflation, even as the demands on SSA have reached all-time highs …. Budget cutting — due mostly to the 2011 Budget Control Act’s (BCA) tight appropriations caps, as further reduced by sequestration — has lowered SSA’s operating budget from an already low 0.9 percent of overall Social Security spending [far less than any private system] to just 0.7 percent, forcing the agency to do more with significantly less,” a situation summarized in the following figure:
“The cuts have hampered SSA’s ability to perform its essential services,” Romig wrote,“such as determining eligibility in a timely manner for retirement, survivor and disability benefits, paying benefits accurately and on time, responding to questions from the public, and updating benefits promptly when circumstances change.”
Among the impacts already felt, Romig listed:
- A hiring freeze in 2011, leading to “a deterioration in SSA phone service that the agency has only partially reversed,” with average hold times of over 15 minutes on SSA’s 800 number, and nearly 10 percent of callers getting busy signals.
- Cuts to SSA field offices, “where people can apply for benefits, replace lost Social Security cards or report name changes.” Since 2010, 64 field offices and 533 mobile offices have been closed, with hours reduced at the remaining offices. “Before the budget cuts, more than 90 percent of applicants could schedule an appointment within three weeks; by 2015, fewer than half could.”
- Disability Insurance applications and rejections rose dramatically during the Great Recession, but SSA lacked the resources to cope with with appeals. Between 2011 and 2016, the average wait for a hearing rose from 360 to 540 days, with more than 1 million applicants waiting, “an all-time high.”
- Understaffing has delayed critical behind-the-scenes work needed to pay benefits accurately and on time (awarding widows’ benefits, adjusting benefits for early retirees and disabled workers with earnings, etc.). Wait times now average four months for these tasks.
Unless you’re one of the people affected — and there are millions of them — all these might seem like minor inconveniences, but the underlying aim is to destroy the system: death by a thousand cuts … or in this case, by millions upon millions of them.
As Social Security Works recently wrote:
The majority of Americans visit SSA’s field offices at critical and, often, stressful moments in their lives. Many are preparing for the important, life-altering decision of applying for retirement or disability benefits. Some are contending with the death of a working spouse. And others, faced with poverty, are applying for SSI. At these moments in their lives, Americans depend on in-person service from staff members who have a detailed understanding of Social Security, and who can offer knowledgeable, personalized and compassionate assistance.
It’s not as if delaying any of these vital services actually saves money in the long run. To the contrary, “Failing to invest in customer service is penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Romig says, going on to quote Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue (a Bush appointee) telling the Senate in 2012:
At some point, we will have to handle every claim that comes to us, every change of address, every direct deposit change, every workers’ compensation change, every request for new or replacement Social Security cards. The longer it takes us to get to this work, the more it costs to do.
Now Republicans in Congress just want to make matters worse, with cuts that will require 10 furlough days — which equates to a two-week shutdown of Social Security. “Government doesn’t work,” they’re saying, “Watch, we’ll show you how to make sure!” The amount of money involved is trivial — about 7 cents for every $100 of benefits paid. And it all comes out of money that recipients have paid into the system themselves.
Bear in mind, this is what the “responsible Republicans” in Washington are doing — more of what they’ve been doing since the 2010 midterms gave them control of the House. Trump, of course, has nothing to say about it. Yet this is the epitome of what he repeatedly rails against — the way elite politicians treat hardworking Americans with disdain. The fact that it’s happening in the middle of a campaign when Trump is supposedly repudiating GOP austerity and fighting for the working class only sharpens the irony.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Back in May, Joshua Green reported for Bloombergon Trump’s courting of the GOP establishment. The meeting with Speaker Paul Ryan was well worth recalling:
According to a source in the room, Trump criticized Ryan’s proposed entitlement cuts as unfair and politically foolish. “From a moral standpoint, I believe in it,” Trump told Ryan. “But you also have to get elected. And there’s no way a Republican is going to beat a Democrat when the Republican is saying, ‘We’re going to cut your Social Security’ and the Democrat is saying, ‘We’re going to keep it and give you more.’”
So there it is, as clear as day: Trump will be happy to sign off on Ryan’s agenda aftergetting elected. He just knows damn well it’s not what the American people want. The core of the agenda is first cuts, and then privatization. But slashing services in the meantime is key to souring the public on fighting against what’s coming next.
SATURDAY, SEP 24, 2016 05:00 AM PDT
The media loves to promote the lie that the white working class supports Trump and the GOP for economic reasons
Questions of race and class have cast a heavy shadow over a presidential campaign in which “economic insecurity” has been repeatedly identified (quite incorrectly) by the mainstream news media as the driving force behind the rise of Donald Trump. In response, there has been a flurry of recent articles and essays exploring how matters of race and class are influencing the decision by “white working class” voters to support Donald Trump’s fascist, racist and nativist campaign for the White House.
Writing at The Guardian, sociologist Arlie Hochschild offers a devastating critique of how race and class intersect for white working-class American voters. In “How the Great Paradox of American Politics Holds the Secret to Trump’s Success,” Hochschild explores how white voters in the South and elsewhere rationalize their support for a Republican Party and a “small government” ethos that has devastated their lives and communities. She tells this story by focusing on one person, Lee Sherman, and his journey from pipefitter at a petrochemical plant to environmental activist and whistleblower to eventual Tea Party activist. Hochschild writes:
Yet over the course of his lifetime, Sherman had moved from the left to the right. When he lived as a young man in Washington State, he said proudly, “I ran the campaign of the first woman to run for Congress in the state.” But when he moved from Seattle to Dallas for work in the 1950s, he shifted from conservative Democrat to Republican, and after 2009, to the Tea Party. So while his central life experience had been betrayal at the hands of industry, he now felt – as his politics reflected – most betrayed by the federal government. He believed that PPG and many other local petrochemical companies at the time had done wrong, and that cleaning the mess up was right. He thought industry would not “do the right thing” by itself. But still he rejected the federal government. Indeed, Sherman embraced candidates who wanted to remove nearly all the guardrails on industry and cut the EPA. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration had vastly improved life for workmen such as Sherman – and he appreciated those reforms – but he felt the job was largely done.
Lee Sherman’s story is all too common. Because of political socialization by the right-wing media, the Christian evangelical movement, and closed personal and social networks, many white conservative voters are unable to practice the systems level thinking necessary to connect their day-to-day struggles with the policies put in place by the Republican Party.
While this way of seeing and understanding the social and political world (what Walt Whitman influentially described as “the pictures inside of people’s heads”) may be at odds with the type of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning that liberals and progressives take for granted, it still exerts a powerful hold over many millions of conservatives. This alternate reality is, not surprisingly, anchored in place by the right-wing disinformation machine and Fox News.
Hochschild’s essay is further evidence of what I suggested in an earlier piece here at Salon: Republicans and the broader right-wing movement profit from a Machiavellian relationship where the more economic pain and suffering they inflict on red-state America, the more popular and powerful they become with those voters. This is political sadism as a campaign strategy.
Politico’s “What’s Going on With America’s White People?” features commentary by leading scholars and journalists such as Anne Case, Angus Denton, Nancy Isenberg, Carol Anderson and J.D. Vance, whose collective work examines the relationships between race, class and white America. The piece highlights how death anxieties greatly influence the political calculations and decision-making of white conservatives in red-state America. These people use their own broken communities — places that are awash in prescription drug addictions, have high rates of out-of-wedlock births and divorce, and see deaths of despair (suicide by guns and alcohol; chronic untreated illnesses) reign — to draw incorrect conclusions about America as a whole. These anxieties have combined with increasing levels of authoritarianism, racial resentment and old-fashioned racism among white conservatives and right-leaning independents to fuel extreme political polarization and make the emergence of a demagogue such as Donald Trump a near inevitability.
If the fever swamps that birthed Donald Trump are to be drained, there needs to be a renewed focus on the dynamics of race and class for white (conservative) voters during this 2016 presidential election. But these analyses should also be accompanied by several qualifiers.
First, liberals and progressives are often easily seduced by a narrative, popularized by Thomas Frank and others, in which white working-class and poor Americans are depicted as having been hoodwinked into voting for the Republican Party. In this argument, white poor and working-class red-state voters chose “culture war” issues over economic policies. However, as compellingly demonstrated by political scientist Larry Bartels (and complemented by fellow political scientist Andrew Gelman), poor and other lower-income voters tend to vote for the Democratic Party while middle- and upper-income voters tend to vote for the Republican Party. Poor and lower-income (white) voters participate in formal politics less frequently than middle- and upper-income voters. Moreover, “culture war” issues did not drive a mass defection of white working-class voters from the Democratic Party to the GOP. In total, it is white economic and political elites and not the white poor and working classes who are largely responsible for the political and social dysfunction that plagues American politics today.
Second, since its very founding America has been struggling with two powerful impulses. On one hand, there is a truly progressive and left-wing type of pluralism that seeks to work across lines of race and class in order to create an inclusive democracy where upward mobility and the fruits of full citizenship are equally attainable for all people. This type of pluralism is embodied by Bernie Sanders — and to a lesser degree Hillary Clinton and the broader Democratic Party. Juxtaposed against this is a right-wing and reactionary type of pluralism that is exclusive and not inclusive, stokes the fires of racial and ethnic division, and offers a vision of America where white people stand on the necks of non-whites in order to elevate themselves. This is embodied by Donald Trump and a Republican Party that functions as the United States’ largest de facto white identity organization.
Most importantly, the white “working-class” and poor voters featured in the recent pieces by Politico and The Guardian possess agency. It has long been fashionable for liberals and progressives to suggest that the white poor and working classes are confused by “false consciousness” as demonstrated by their allegiance to America’s racial hierarchy and an economic system that often disadvantages people like them. In reality, the white poor and working class are keenly aware of the psychological and material advantages that come with whiteness and white privilege.
Whiteness is a type of property in the United States. For centuries, white people, across lines of class and gender, have coveted and fiercely protected it. The white working class and poor are not victims in this system; they have benefited greatly from it at the expense of non-whites. Ultimately, as Americans try to puzzle through their current political morass, a renewed emphasis on race and class is invaluable because it serves as a reminder of how simple binaries (one must choose between discussing either “race” or “class”) and crude essentialism (“a focus on class inequality will do more good than confronting racism!”) often disguises and confuses more than it reveals.
Photo Credit: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock
In the current issue of the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, Australian dissident psychiatrist Niall McLaren titles his article, “Psychiatry as Bullshit” and makes a case for just that.
The great controversies in psychiatry are no longer about its chemical-imbalance theory of mental illness or its DSM diagnostic system, both of which have now been declared invalid even by the pillars of the psychiatry establishment.
In 2011, Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times, stated, “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” And in 2013, Thomas Insel, then director of the National Institute of Mental Health, offered a harsh rebuke of the DSM, announcing that because the DSM diagnostic system lacks validity, the “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.”
So, the great controversy today has now become just how psychiatry can be most fairly characterized given its record of being proven wrong about virtually all of its assertions, most notably its classifications of behaviors, theories of “mental illness” and treatment effectiveness/adverse effects.
Among critics, one of the gentlest characterizations of psychiatry is a “false narrative,” the phrase used by investigative reporter Robert Whitaker (who won the 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editors Book Award for Anatomy of an Epidemic) to describe the story told by the psychiatrists’ guild American Psychiatric Association.
In “Psychiatry as Bullshit,” McLaren begins by considering several different categories of “nonscience with scientific pretensions,” such as “pseudoscience” and “scientific fraud.”
“Pseudoscience” is commonly defined as a collection of beliefs and practices promulgated as scientific but in reality mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method. The NIMH director ultimately rejected the DSM because of its lack of validity, which is crucial to the scientific method. In the DSM, psychiatric illnesses are created by an APA committee, 69 percent of whom have financial ties to Big Pharma. The criteria for DSM illness are not objective biological ones but non-scientific subjective ones (which is why homosexuality was a DSM mental illness until the early 1970s). Besides lack of scientific validity, the DSMlacks scientific reliability, as clinicians routinely disagree on diagnoses because patients act differently in different circumstances and because of the subjective nature of the criteria.
“Fraud” is a misrepresentation, a deception intended for personal gain, and implies an intention to deceive others of the truth—or “lying.” Drug companies, including those that manufacture psychiatric drugs, have been convicted of fraud, as have high-profile psychiatrists (as well as other doctors). Human rights activist and attorney Jim Gottstein offers an argument as to why the APA is a “fraudulent enterprise”; however, the APA has not been legally convicted of fraud.
To best characterize psychiatry, McLaren considers the category of “bullshit,” invoking philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 journal article “On Bullshit” (which became a New York Times bestselling book in 2005).
What is the essence of bullshit? For Frankfurt, “This lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”
Frankfurt devotes a good deal of On Bullshit to differentiating between a liar and a bullshitter. Both the liar and the bullshitter misrepresent themselves, representing themselves as attempting to be honest and truthful. But there is a difference between the liar and the bullshitter.
The liar knows the truth, and the liar’s goal is to conceal it.
The goal of bullshitters is not necessarily to lie about the truth but to persuade their audience of a specific impression so as to advance their agenda. So, bullshitters are committed to neither truths nor untruths, uncommitted to neither facts nor fiction. It’s actually not in bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge can hinder their capacity to bullshit.
Frankfurt tells us that liar the hides that he or she is “attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality.” In contrast, the bullshitter hides that “the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him.”
Are Psychiatrists Bullshitters?
Recall establishment psychiatrist Pies’ assertion: “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” What Pies omits is the reality that the vast majority of psychiatrists have been promulgating this theory. Were they liars or simply not well-informed? And if not well-informed, were they purposely not well-informed?
If one wants to bullshit oneself and the general public that psychiatry is a genuinely scientific medical specialty, there’s a great incentive to be unconcerned with the truth or falseness of the chemical imbalance theory of depression. Bullshitters immediately recognize how powerful this chemical imbalance notion is in gaining prestige for their profession and themselves as well as making their job both more lucrative and easier, increasing patient volume by turning virtually all patient visits into quick prescribing ones.
Prior to the chemical imbalance bullshit campaign, most Americans were reluctant to take antidepressants—or to give them to their children. But the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance that can be corrected with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants sounded like taking insulin for diabetes. Correcting a chemical imbalance seemed like a reasonable thing to do, and so the use of SSRI antidepressants skyrocketed.
In 2012, National Public Radio correspondent Alix Spiegel began her piece about the disproven chemical imbalance theory with the following personal story about being prescribed Prozac when she was a depressed teenager:
My parents took me to a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She did an evaluation and then told me this story: “The problem with you,” she explained, “is that you have a chemical imbalance. It’s biological, just like diabetes, but it’s in your brain. This chemical in your brain called serotonin is too, too low. There’s not enough of it, and that’s what’s causing the chemical imbalance. We need to give you medication to correct that.” Then she handed my mother a prescription for Prozac.
When Spiegel discovered that the chemical imbalance theory was untrue, she sought to discover why this truth had been covered up, and so she interviewed researchers who knew the truth. Alan Frazer, professor of pharmacology and psychiatry and chairman of the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, told Spiegel that by framing depression as a deficiency—something that needed to be returned to normal—patients felt more comfortable taking antidepressants. Frazer stated, “If there was this biological reason for them being depressed, some deficiency that the drug was correcting, then taking a drug was OK.” For Frazer, the story that depressed people have a chemical imbalance enabled many people to come out of the closet about being depressed.
Frazer’s rationale reminds us of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent, the title deriving from presidential adviser and journalist Walter Lippmann’s phrase “the manufacture of consent”—a necessity for Lippmann, who believed that the general public is incompetent in discerning what’s truly best for them, and so their opinion must be molded by a benevolent elite who does know what’s best for them.
There are some psychiatrists who view the chemical imbalance theory as a well-meaning lie by a benevolent elite to ensure resistant patients do what is best for them, but my experience is that there are actually extremely few such “well-meaning liars.” Most simply don’t know the truth because they have put little effort in discerning it.
I believe McLaren is correct in concluding that the vast majority of psychiatrists are bullshitters, uncommitted to either facts or fiction. Most psychiatrists would certainly have been happy if the chemical-imbalance theory was true but obviously have not needed it to be true in order to promulgate it. For truth seekers, the falseness of the chemical imbalance theory has been easily available, but most psychiatrists have not been truth seekers. It is not in the bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge of what is a fact and what is fiction hinders the capacity to use any and all powerful persuasion. Simply put, a commitment to the truth hinders the capacity to bullshit.