Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Economic Side of Suicide

Published in the Tampa Bay Times, 06/22/2018, page A007

The Economic Side of Suicide

The US Government’s Center for Disease Control recently released data on suicide rates. For the three year period ending in 2001, to the three year period ending in 2016, the suicide rate in the US increased 25%.

The increase has been treated as a mental health epidemic. Individual are encouraged to learn the dangers signals and seek help for themselves or their family and friends.

Yet, in over half (54%) of all the instances the individuals did not have a known mental health condition.

One way to try to explain such trends is to ask what else was changing at the same time. While two similar trends do not prove the two are related, identifying those relationships often offers clues to how better understand what is causing the problem and how it might best be solved.

Of all of things that have happened since the turn of the century up to the present, what are the most remarkable? 

The financial crisis of 2008, economic globalization, the loss of well paying jobs to technology and the wealth and income disparities between the 1% and the 99% are prime candidates.

If we take 2001 as a reference point, when suicide started to increase, what do we know about changes in wealth during the same period:

·      The best-off of the poorest 20% of the population were  60% poorer in 2016 than in 2001
·      The middle class person with the median level of wealth was 17% poorer in 2016 than in 2001
·      The worst-off of the richest 10% of the population were 19% richer in 2016 than in 2001

The figure helps to explain why the richest nation in the world has:

·      40 million people live in poverty, 13.3 million of them children
·      The largest income and wealth disparities of any developed country in the world

The housing crisis of 2007 resulted in millions of foreclosures. Those owners then competed with existing low income people for affordable housing. As a result, the number of renters increased by nearly 10 million by 2016, driving up rental rates in the face of reduced financial resources. Families living in poverty have no place to go and cannot afford where they live. That is hard on the human spirit. 

As financial hardships continue to grow for the majority of the population, and in particular for the poorest among us, suicide rates have gone up. Is this relationship between the concentration of wealth at the top and suicide rate simply a coincidence? If not, what are the implications?

To define suicide as a mental health epidemic implies that we should help the poor and over-stressed to better accept their fate as an individual responsibility. The alternative is to define the rapid rise in economic inequality as a situational cause and as a social responsibility.

The alternative solution is not difficult. The economic hardships that cause despair, loss of personal identity and hope, can be reduced through free entitlements available to all, rich and poor alike; such as: universal health care, and quality public education through college based on personal motivation and academic ability, not family wealth and ability to pay. Such universal entitlements account for why all of the other western democracies have lower levels of income and wealth inequalities. 

Often it is more effective to have a level playing field by fixing the situation causing the problem, rather than constantly trying to repair those who have been damaged by the situation.

As a Professor of Psychology, I have been convinced for over 40 years that many of the problems we consider to be “mental health” or individually based, cannot be separated from the context in which the person lives.


Prof. Edward Renner is a retired university professor. He blogs on current social issues at He may be reached at

Friday, May 13, 2016

Information and National Security

Chapter 24.1 from Living in the Future Tense: Information, Knowledge and National Security. This material may be reproduced and the Exercise used with appropriated citation.

National Security vs. Privacy of Information
Edward Renner

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Amendment IV, U. S. Constitution, Dec. 15, 1791

Julliette Kayyem, a former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security wrote: “A nation free from threat wouldn’t be free.” Therein lies the dilemma.

Under what circumstances does the government’s need for access to private information trump a person's right to privacy? The issue is a dilemma because the problem is not simply a “never” or “always” issue, and because 21st century digital communication technology has created totally new situations that did not exist when the constitutional constraints were created in1791.

Two recent events have brought the extrapolation of the Fourth Amendment to 21st Century into contemporary focus. The first is the FBI’s legal challenge of Apple to gain access to the contents of a specific iPhone in order to obtain the contacts of a known terrorist. The second is the release of the Panama papers disclosing the extensive use of offshore shell corporations to hide large amounts of wealth by the rich and famous from taxation.

Both the fear of terrorism and the anger over America’s richest individuals having an estimated $1.2 trillion stashed in offshore tax havens are highly charged issues. Accessing private registers of stocks and bonds and transferring the information to a public record would allow tax collectors to find and tax this hidden wealth. However, the cases should not be the occasion for emotional either/or arguments between security and taxation versus privacy, all of which are statutory responsibilities of government. Rather, the debate should be about the general concepts that define the constraints between government’s need to know and an individual’s privacy, which can then be applied to any specific case.

Fortunately, social science research on human decision-making has provided knowledge about why making such decisions are often difficult, and how to resolve the resulting dilemmas. Under highly emotional conditions, such as fear or anger, people’s attention becomes narrowly focused and they often make choices that are objectively poor; likewise, strongly held ideological beliefs and values can bias judgements. One solution to this human weakness is to first establish a rational frame of reference before attempting to make the decision. This decision-making process requires participants who are not competing to win their point of view, but rather one’s who share the mutual goal of finding the best possible solution. The decision then becomes a matter for cooperative democratic civic participation.

An essential part of restoring respect to our democratic political process is to rise above our current practice of making such decisions based on fear, anger or ideological beliefs and values, rather than using social science knowledge and factual information to make rational decisions. In such cases, the rational context is a matrix which establishes the general principles as a legislative matter. The matrix itself does not provide the answer, but rather is a process for solving the problem.

The methodology

Step 1: There are a limited number of considerations for determining the issue of when government’s access to information should trump personal privacy. In this illustrative exercise I will limit the number to three obvious ones.
·         How essential is the access?
·         How intrusive is the access?
·         How adequate are the safeguards to prevent abuse?
In an actual application there can be as many considerations as can be rationally justified.

Step 2: Rate each of the issues on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 100 (always).  There are established psychometric procedures for creating such scales that can be used reliably.

Step 3: Weight the relative importance of each of the considerations by allocating a total of 100% between each of the three.

The Application

Of course, different people will assign different scores. But, that is exactly the point; it is to provide an objective basis for civic discussion about the reasons for any given score and its relative weight. For example: How reasonable is my assumption that access to the iPhone’s contact list is unlikely to identify anyone who has not already been identified or who could not be identified in other ways? Or, is there any good reason to treat accessing information from off-shore sources as more intrusive than requiring a W-2 form to be submitted by a recognized employer?

The matrix focuses attention on the assumptions on which the ratings are made, and on identifying the relevant facts and information. The methodology can be applied to any situation that requires establishing the appropriate balance between government intrusion and personal privacy. With the matrix, it is possible to compare qualitatively different situations, such as terrorism and tax evasion (i.e., apples and oranges).

The Results
The matrix yields a score between 1 (reflecting a situation where government access would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy) and 100, (where there would be absolutely no doubt that access was an absolutely reasonable intrusion into individual privacy).
 As a civics exercise, the process allows for widespread participation in four ways:

·         Individuals can engage in a face-to-face discussion about their own ratings in a structured way that promotes thoughtful reflection.
·         The exercise is actually a class from my university course. Newspapers, schools, social media and any other institution can use the method as a tool for promoting participatory civics.
·         The matrix is a research tool for scholarship on issues of public policy. Professional surveys can provide descriptive statistical distributions showing averages and the range and extent of deviations. This allows social comparisons for individuals to see where they stand with respect other groups of people (e.g., male vs. female, younger vs. older) and where there is consensus.
·         Substantial civic discussion can directly support a legislative process based on public participation and consensus rather than on legislation authored by lobbyists representing special interests.

The Conclusion

Such a process is a modern replication of the Commons Green where popular civic participation can take place. Once the general principles are identified, they can be given legislative status to enable the FBI or IRS to know the legal constrains for doing their job. Of course, such legislation is likely to find its way to the Supreme Court. But, such a process of functional democracy would rescue a court of elderly Justices from being the ones extrapolating “unreasonable” from 1791 to modern times in the narrow context of a terrorist’s iPhone or a cloud based data file. Rather, their task would be to decide if the process and resulting legislation had established what is or is not an unreasonable intrusion into privacy today.

Decision making as a rational process is an example of democracy at work in which popular participation can replace the fact-free ideological chatter that has been the defining characteristic of the current political process. We have the capacity to do this. The time is overdue for modern knowledge and technology to become the currency of politics as the means to meet the new challenges -- such as environmental collapse or an unstainable national debt -- of living in the 21st Century.

(Use the Exercise Box below to create your own matrix for defining the basis for the balance between security and privacy, and for discussing your perspective with that of others in the service of finding common consensus.)

 Edward Renner is a retired university professor who writes on the modern human challenge of how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. A prepublication draft copy of his most recent book is available at He may be reached at


The issues
(1)  Should the government be able to force Apple to help the FBI gain access to the content of a specific iPhone in order to learn the contact network of a known terrorist?
(2)  Should the government be able to access registers of stocks and bonds and transfer the information to a public record that would allow tax collectors to find and tax hidden wealth?

Assign a score of 1 to 100 for each of the three considerations for both the iPhone and Panama Papers. Give a relative percentage weight to each of the three considerations such that their sum is 100%. Multiple each score by the weight and record the calculated value of each consideration. Add the values to obtain the score for each issue. This final sum will be a score between 1 (government access is an unreasonable intrusion into protected privacy) and 100 (government access to private information is absolutely reasonable).

Score (1 to 100)
Weight (.01 to 1.0)
Value (Score x Weight)
Not Essential = 1,
Very Essential = 100

Very Intrusive = 1,
Not Intrusive = 100

Inadequate Safeguards = 1,
Adequate Safeguards = 100

Panama Papers
Score (1 to 100)
Weight (.01 to 1.0)
Value (Score x Weight)
Not Essential = 1,
Very Essential = 100

Very Intrusive = 1,
Not Intrusive = 100

Inadequate Safeguards = 1,
Adequate Safeguards = 100


After completing the exercise consider comparing your responses, and the reasons for them, with others by posting your scores and comments, and by reading and responding to the comments posted by others.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Three Myths of the 2016 GOP Presidential Debates

Published in the Tampa Bay Times, Saturday, April 2, 2016.
Debunking U. S. Debt Myths
Edward Renner

The federal debt is too big compared with the size of the U.S. economy, and it’s getting worse. But there is a mythology surrounding the “why,” and it’s important to debunk it point by point to understand the real reason — that we’re going deeper and deeper into debt because we won’t tax ourselves to pay for the government we want, instead running up the debt year after year until it is actually larger than the entire economy. (This chart shows the debt as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product — that is, as a percentage of the U.S. economy as well as federal revenue and spending.) Let’s dismiss three myths, one by one.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, U. S. Office of Management and Budget

Notes: The annual budget deficit is the amount each year that federal spending exceeds federal revenue. This annual difference has been added to the cumulative federal debt each year from 1981 to 2016, plus the interest due on the borrowed money. These annual deficits account for the rapid growth of the federal debt over the last 35 years. A high level of debt is very dangerous in the absence of economic growth. The debt, combined with its carrying charges, goes up really fast when not covered by growth in the GDP — such as was the case during the Great Recession — even if revenue and spending remain constant, requiring more of the spending to be directed to debt carrying charges, leaving less for government programs. And when the debt exceeds 100 percent of the GDP, an accelerating downward spiral can spin out of control, hurting the economy, killing jobs and cutting the GDP, thus intensifying the problem by increasing the amount by which the debt exceeds the capacity to pay. This is what happened to Greece.

Myth No. 1. The Federal Government has grown too big and too expensive.

The size of the Federal Government, measured relative to the US economy, has remained constant at about 20% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since the Reagan administration in 1981. The factors associated with an increase in the GDP over these years – a population growth of 90 million people, economic globalization, new technologies and digital communication – are also associated with an increase in Federal Spending – a modern army, roads, airports, higher levels of education, international agreements, and structures for world travel, trade, finance and mass communication. Failure to have kept pace with changing times would have been a failure in the roles and responsibilities of government itself.

Myth No. 2. Taxes cuts will be good for the economy and create jobs.

Prior to 1981, taxes were always increased to pay for government expenses. To cover the cost of World War II and to reduce the nation’s war debt, the marginal tax rate was over 90% on income above $400,000 from 1951 through 1963, a period of working class prosperity. At the start of the Reagan period, the national debt had been reduced to its previous highs of around 30% of GDP after the Civil War and WWI. The tax cuts of the Reagan period did not stimulate economic growth to replace the loss of tax revenue as promised. Instead, the tax cuts resulted in spending exceeding revenue each year, thus creating annual budget deficits that increased the cumulative national debt – year by year -- to over 60% of the GDP. The end of the cold war (1991) eventually provided a peace dividend in which revenue exceeded expenses, creating an annual surplus that allowed the total national debt to be reduced to less than 60% of GDP by the year 2000. However, rather than continue to use this annual budget surplus to reduce the national debt, additional tax cuts under President George W. Bush, combined with the added expense of the war on terror, increased the national debt to over 80% of the GDP. Then, the financial crises of 2008 further reduced government revenue and required an economic stimulus package that increased the national debit to over 100% of GDP under President Barack Obama.

Myth No. 3. Government regulations are hurting business, killing jobs and are bad for the economy.

It was lack of regulation that produced the financial crisis of 2008, created massive unemployment and undermined the economy. The US is already one of the least regulated economies in the world. Over the last decade, the World Bank has ranked the US no lower than seventh and as high as third on ease of doing business. The rankings are based on the amount of required government procedures, and on the types of regulations on employment standards and production practices. Singapore, Hong Kong and recently South Korea are the principle competitors for greater ease of doing business. In contrast, 31st (out of 34 market democracies) is the average rank of the countries with whom the US is most comparable in worker safety, economic security and environmental standards.