Depression’s Deadly Ride

220px-Robin_Williams_pictureThe world struggles to solve an unfathomable riddle: How could Robin Williams, who brightened the world with laughter, die a dark death?

Those who are puzzled are those who have never suffered from depression. For the rest of us, the answer is easy.

Depression is like waking up on a dim, cold train. You don’t remember how you got there. Your train car is empty: no companions, no music, no laughter. Over the PA system, a sinister conductor makes announcements. You are not good enough. You aren’t trying hard enough. You’re tired. Just rest awhile longer. The world around you is a mess, so why bother getting up? 

In your heart, you know his words aren’t true, yet after endless repetition they become your own thoughts.

Out the windows, you see life passing. Happy people, sunny places, laughter. You pound on the windows, but the train will not stop to let you off.

Sometimes medicine, therapy, or other treatments will slow the train enough for you to jump off. But even those of us lucky to get off at the next station hear the distant whistle from time to time and shudder at the thought of waking up in the cold, dim coach again.

For others, the train won’t stop.

If someone suffers from an excruciating terminal disease, most people champion that person’s right to die. But victims writhing in the agony of depression are experiencing the same degree of emotional pain as patients suffering physical pain. Like the terminally ill, they just want the misery to stop.

So some, like Robin Williams and 38,000 other Americans each year, commit suicide, leaving family and friends haunted by questions: How could my loved one’s life be so horrible if I was in it? Wasn’t my love enough to keep him alive? How could he abandon me?

The truth is that the love of family and friends probably kept the person from killing himself sooner. But even love can’t overcome the agony of depression.

Robin Williams had an additional struggle. He was an addict. So the energy he needed to slow the train down was sucked into the endless void of addiction.

Unfortunately, many people suffer from depression and addiction, and suicide is the tenth most common cause of death in America, ahead of homicide. Maybe the death of Robin Williams will bring attention and acceptance to those who struggle. Maybe researchers will find new solutions. Maybe more sufferers will seek help.

And maybe a few of them will be able to jump off the train before it crashes.

If a friend or family member talks about suicide, urge him or her to seek help or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Resources and Related Links

Depression is a Murderer: RIP Robin Williams

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Suicide in America: Frequently Asked Questions


In Politics, Does Truth Matter?

In 1644, John Milton wrote a stirring argument for free speech, asserting that Truth and Falsehood should be allowed to grapple because “who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.”

Milton couldn’t have foreseen that Truth and Falsehood would be grappling in a society with the Internet, where anyone can post anything for millions to see. Or with 24-hour news cycles where being first is more important than being right.

Truth takes a backseat in the current political landscape. Take these examples:

  • Almost 20 percent of Americans still believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim despite a lack of supporting evidence and overwhelming opposing evidence.
  • Ads from a political action committee (PAC) supporting Republican candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly claimed that opponent Newt Gingrich supported China’s one-child policy even though Gingrich never expressed support for such measures either in speeches or in his legislative votes.
  • Gingrich claimed in a February 2012 interview that he was totally exonerated in a 1997 ethics probe when in fact he was reprimanded and fined $300,000 for breaching House ethics rules.
  • In a TV ad, former Republican candidate Rick Perry claimed that Obama called Americans lazy, a claim he stuck to even when footage of the actual speech surfaced showing that Perry took the words out of context.

Attack ads are nothing new. They stretch back to the beginning of our democracy. But they gained new attention when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched an effective campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 with an emotional ad featuring veterans whose facts were not supported by Navy records or key eyewitnesses. Before that came the “Willie Horton” ads that helped to derail Michael Dukakis’s 1998 presidential bid.

It seems the public doesn’t even want the truth. In a Republican debate in February 2012, candidate Rick Santorum – defending his votes for No Child Left Behind and other legislation – gave a frank account of how senators are frequently forced to vote for items they don’t like when such items are part of a larger bill with more important ramifications. The audience booed his honest response.

The increase in blatant lying has given rise to independent fact-checking sites like Politifact and FactCheck. These sites spare no one, not Democrats or Republicans, not sitting presidents or senators, not PACs, not even candidates for state office. All are routinely caught lying – and sometimes telling the truth.

Politifact rates statements on a scale ranging from TRUE (like Romney’s statement “If you take into account all the people who are struggling for work, or have just stopped looking, the real unemployment rate is over 15 percent”) to PANTS ON FIRE (like Romney’s claim that the American military is at risk because “our Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947.”)

These independent organizations are voters’ only defense. We get no help from the government. The Federal Communications Act says that media outlets are required to run a candidate’s ads even if the outlet knows the content of the ad to be false or misleading. A station’s only recourse is to ban all ads from all candidates for that particular office, a decision that pits ethics against profits.

We know who wins that battle.

Stations can refuse ads from PACs. But PAC ads generate millions in profits for media outlets.

Oddly enough, federal law protects consumers from other fraudulent ads. Companies can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for false or misleading ads about their products. But the people running for our nation’s highest office don’t have to meet the same standards.

So, voters, it’s up to you. Jump into the arena where Truth and Falsehood are grappling to make sure Truth wins the match.

References and related reading:

The editorial Truth in Political Advertising in the Los Angeles Times explains that although TV stations can’t reject false ads from candidates under federal law, they can reject ads from PACs.

The Wall Street Journal is keeping track of PAC spending.

Rick Perry Doubles Down on “Lazy” ad, Slams Obama as a ‘Socialist’

“The Post-Truth Campaign” by Paul Krugman, New York Times.

Federal Communications Act listed by Cornell Law School

The Lanham Act banning misleading representations to consumers

FTC press release regarding one stiff fine issued because of misleading advertising

John Milton’s quote is from Areopagitica, available online through Project Gutenberg

Growing Number of Americans think Obama is a Muslim (Pew Research)

Do You Know What ‘Right to Work’ Means?

I saw an odd conundrum while watching the recent Republican debate on Fox News: The crowd cheered when Newt Gingrich said he didn’t support extension of unemployment benefits because “I don’t believe people should get paid for doing nothing,” and they also applauded when candidates expressed support for Right to Work laws. In both cases, the crowd’s support seemed to be based on a sense of fairness. Then I realized that the crowd did not fully understand Right to Work laws. Despite the patriotic name, Right to Work is as fundamentally unfair as someone getting money for nothing.

The common perception about Right to Work laws is that they simply say a person cannot be forced to join a union.


Federal law has prohibited workers from being required to join a union since 1947. (See Taft-Hartley Act below.) No worker in any state can be forced to join a union.

But 22 states have additional Right to Work laws specifying that an individual can’t be forced to pay union dues or even “fair share,” a form of union dues for nonmembers. That sounds fair, right? If you don’t believe in unions, you certainly don’t want to pay them a dollar of your income.

However, the non-union workers receive the same pay, working conditions, and benefits. The union members worked to form the union, paid dues for years, used their power to negotiate better salaries, developed safe working conditions, and lobbied for favorable legislation. Yet new workers can step in and reap the ongoing benefits without paying dues.

Something for nothing.

For Right to Work to be fair, a non-union worker should have to go to his employer and negotiate his own salary and benefits. Of course, studies show that those wages would be lower.

But if people oppose unions and don’t want to pay dues, they should be true to their values and negotiate their contracts as individuals. That would be a stance worth cheering about.

Additional reading

This editorial takes a legal view on why opposing Right to Work is the true conservative stance:

Text of the Taft-Hartley Act:

Union Power: An Epic Story

As America observes Labor Day, organized labor has little to celebrate: Membership is down, and unions are under attack in several states. However, there’s a new voice to sing labor’s praises.

In There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, author Philip Dray details the key people and events in the history of the labor movement. But this is no drab recitation of names and dates. Dray delves into motives and little-known details.

For example, he tells the story of Terence Powderly, a machinist apathetic to the cause of organized labor. What changed his mind and turned him into a union activist? Seeing the bodies of more than a hundred dead miners, including children, after a mine fire in Avondale, Pa.

When I saw a mother kneel in silent grief to hold the cold, still face of her boy to hers, and when I saw her fall lifeless on his dead body, I experienced a sensation I will never forget.

Dray describes inequities in early labor forces, like female mill workers being paid $3 per week to do the same job for which men were paid $8. And he tells the tale of activist Mother Jones, whose boisterous union support made the governor of Colorado try to ban her from parts of his state. (“The soldiers have bayonets,” she lamented, “and I have nothing but the Constitution.”)

But it’s not all about coal miners or the distant past. Dray describes the formation of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood and the group’s eventual president, Ronald Reagan:

As he never tired of reminding people, Reagan … was the first member of the AFL to occupy the White House. Even the unionized air traffic controllers had been impressed enough with Reagan’s labor bona fides – and by a statement of support he gave the union while a candidate – to buck the trend of the wider labor movement and endorse him over incumbent Jimmy Carter in the election of 1980. But despite Reagan’s union affiliation in Hollywood and his oft-cited admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had in fact never been entirely comfortable with either the collective nature of labor organizations or the means by which they sought their objectives.

Dray doesn’t gloss over the violence. He gives all the ugly details of the incident in 1892 when Pinkerton guards were escorting a barge of strikebreakers to Carnegie Steel’s Homestead works outside of Pittsburgh and encountered the striking steelworkers. Several guards were wounded. The Pinkertons made a second attempt, this time prepared to meet the violence, and killed several strikers. Despite the arrival of union leaders who urged the strikers to put aside their plans for violence, mob mentality took over. When the Pinkerton men reached shore again, they were beaten and stabbed.

Even after authorities took control of the Pinkertons and attempted to lead them through the town, men, women and children emerged from their homes to heap further beatings and indignities on the already hobbled captives, hitting them with kitchen utensils, garden tools, and whatever came to hand.

Dray explains how these and other incidents set back the cause of labor and how nonviolent strikers in other cases were met with violence.

He concludes by summarizing the current struggles that unions face. He says the true monument to the people involved in the early labor movement is “the freedoms and protections we take for granted – reasonable hours, on-the-job-safety, benefits, and the bedrock notion that employees have the right to bargain for the value of their labor.”

The Sad Truth About School Vouchers

Will school choice fix our educational system? Many aspects of education can be studied empirically, so I should be able to sit at my computer and find data to answer the question. Right?

If you agreed, either you’ve been smoking pot or you come from another country. The sad truth is this: American party politics are making a mess of what should be a nonpolitical issue.

Here’s the GOP’s official stance on education:

We believe that maintaining a world-class system of primary and secondary education, with high standards, in which all students can reach their potential, is critically important to America’s future. We believe in the power of school choice, that giving parents the ability to send their children to better schools — not keeping them trapped in failing schools — is an important way to enable children to get the quality education they deserve.

Let’s put aside the obvious contradiction — a world-class education system would have no failing schools and therefore no need for school choice — and acknowledge that the Republican platform is advocating abandoning public education in favor of a business model.

Here’s what the Democrats have to say:

Democrats share with all parents the commitment to prepare our children to lead lives of happiness and success. That’s why we’re dedicated to ensuring the next generation has access to a first-rate education and the tools to drive our economy forward. Our country is strongest when our workers are trained with the knowledge and ingenuity to perform at the highest levels. Every child should have the opportunity to reach that horizon and to fulfill the American Dream.

At least the Republican statement was more specific than this wishy-washy collection of emotional words. After citing the history of Democrats’ involvement in education, the Dems offer this detail:

The Obama Administration is working to overhaul the “No Child Left Behind” program and provide teachers with more professional support and resources—while also holding them accountable. President Obama instituted “Race to the Top,” a revolutionary program designed to promote innovation and provide incentives for improvement in education.

Basically, the Democrats prefer reform of the existing system.

So that’s why research related to school choice has become a political issue. Here are some studies on the topic:


  • A 2011 review of other studies found that vouchers improved schools, creating a “win-win” situation. It was published by the Foundation for Educational Choice, a group formed by Milton Friedman, the famous economist. Friedman was the founder of the idea of school choice.
  • A glowing 2010 report cites vast improvements in Sweden’s educational system since school choice was initiated. The report was funded by the Heritage Foundation, a strongly conservative group.
  • A paper called “Education by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006,” gives encouraging statistics about all the money to be saved by school choice without sacrificing quality. It was published by the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation.


  • A 2011 study points out the “Flaws and Failings” in DC’s school choice system. It was published by the left-leaning People for the American Way, which has a stated mission to support public schools.
  • An earlier paper, “False Choices: Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children’s Future,” was published by Rethinking Education, founded by a group of Wisconsin teachers to support public schools.

Of course, just because a group supports a concept doesn’t mean its research is flawed. But the groups focus on information that supports their opinions.

So let’s look at test scores. Numbers don’t lie, right?

Wrong again. A report by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction showed that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program — the oldest urban school choice program in the country — performed at the same level or lower on standardized tests than students in the public schools. The state Legislative Audit Bureau confirmed the results.

Test scores from Milwaukee Public Schools

But test scores don’t tell the entire story.

Researchers suggest that test score data — by any group — could be skewed by sociological factors. For example, parents who take the initiative to enroll in a voucher program are more active in their children’s education and probably providing other supportive behaviors — reading to their children, home tutoring — that could increase their children’s test scores.

Conversely, since the Milwaukee voucher program targets disadvantaged students, factors other than school quality could be at play in the lower test scores.

The basic differences between public schools and choice schools can also skew test scores. Even without vouchers, students switch from public to private schools, sometimes because they are experiencing academic or disciplinary problems. The private schools have the right to kick a disruptive student back to the public schools. Private schools can also reject students who don’t meet their academic standards. Both situations give private schools the opportunity to pick and choose students, a situation that can affect test scores.

The most comprehensive, unbiased research comes from the University of Arkansas, which created a research center, the School Choice Demonstration Project, “committed to raising and advancing the public’s understanding of the strengths and limitations of school choice policies and programs.” Here is a summary of the findings from the group’s extensive studies of Milwaukee Public Schools:


  • Voucher schools have a lower student/teacher ratio.
  • Schools in both the voucher program and the public system whose students performed poorly on standardized tests were also the ones that closed or no longer received state funds, showing a possible positive effect of school choice on overall educational quality. (However, the researchers cautioned that other socioeconomic factors could also play a role and will continue to monitor the data.)


  • Voucher schools have 6.5 percent fewer minorities than the MPS system.
  • Teachers in voucher schools are less qualified than their public school counterparts with regard to education, certification, and years of experience.
  • On many of the tests and in certain grade levels, students in voucher schools often have lower standardized test scores.

After reviewing numerous other studies, I’ve come to this conclusion: Despite their growing popularity, voucher programs aren’t old enough or large enough to provide us with the cold, hard data we need. In 2006, only 60,000 of 6 million students were in a choice program. That number more than doubled to 150,000 by 2008, but the numbers are still small. Also, states are experimenting with different formats and rules, so consistent studies are difficult.

Conclusions from a detailed study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, first published in the Annual Review of Economics, show that the answers aren’t currently available:

The best research to date finds relatively small achievement gains for students offered education vouchers, most of which are not statistically different from zero. Further, what little evidence exists regarding the potential for public schools to respond to increased competitive pressure generated by vouchers suggests that one should remain wary that large improvements would result from a more comprehensive voucher system. … Many questions remain unanswered, however, including whether vouchers have longer-run impacts on outcomes such as graduation rates, college enrollment, or even future wages, and whether vouchers might nevertheless provide a cost-neutral alternative to our current system of public education provision at the elementary and secondary school level.

So Republicans who say that school choice will save our schools don’t know for sure. Nor do Democrats who say that choice will destroy public schools.

This issue is too important to become political. Our schools are lagging behind. The future looks bleak, with many talented teachers leaving the profession and fewer  young people taking up teaching careers. Both sides need to address the issue of school reform with open minds, not party lines.


Aud, Susan L., and Foundation Milton & Rose D. Friedman. “Education by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. School Choice Issues in Depth.” Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation (2007): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

“Book finds voucher programs on rise.” Education Daily 41.57 (2008): 5. Education Research Complete. EBSCO. Web. 30 Aug. 2011.

“Flaws and Failings: A Preliminary Look at the Problems Already Encountered in the Implementation of the District of Columbia’s New Federally Mandated School Voucher Program. Special Report.” People For the American Way (2005): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

Forster, Greg, and Choice Foundation for Educational. “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers. Second Edition.” Foundation for Educational Choice (2011): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

“Issues: Education.” Republican National Committee. n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2011.

Lips, Dan, and Foundation Heritage. “School Choice in Sweden: An Interview with Thomas Idergard of Timbro.” WebMemo. No. 2828. Heritage Foundation, 2010. ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

Lowe, Robert, Barbara Miner, and Ltd. Milwaukee, WI. “Rethinking Schools. False Choices: Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children’s Future.” Rethinking Schools, 1992. ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 25 Aug. 2011.

McShane, Michael Q. and Patrick J. Wolf. “Milwaukee Longitudinal School Choice Evaluation: Annual School Testing Summary Report 2009-10. SCDP Miwaukee Evaluation. Report #26.” University of Arkansas School Choice Demonstration Project (2011). Web. 24 Aug. 2011. Link:

Ramde, Dinesh. “School voucher program: State auditors find little difference in scores from Milwaukee public schools.” Green Bay Press Gazette, 18 Aug. 2011. Web. 23 Aug 23 2011. Link:

Richards, Erin and Amy Hetzner. “Choice schools not outperforming MPS.” JSOnline. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 29 Mar. 2011. Web. 24 Aug. 2011. Link:

Rouse, Cecilia Elena, Lisa Barrow, and IL. Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Recent Evidence, Remaining Questions. WP 2008-08.” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (2008): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) University of Arkansas, et al. “The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Descriptive Report on Participating Schools, 2009-2010. SCDP Miwaukee Evaluation. Report #27.” School Choice Demonstration Project (2011): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 24 Aug. 2011.

“What We Stand For: Education.” Democratic National Committee. n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2011.

Unions, Politics, and the Wisconsin Recall

In historic recall elections in Wisconsin this week, Republicans held on to their majority by a narrow margin, sending the message that unions everywhere are in danger.

Unions serve a vital purpose in our society, a purpose most people won’t appreciate until unions are gone. The blame for Wisconsin voters’ feelings of apathy and even antipathy toward unions falls on two camps:

1. The unions themselves

After more than a hundred years of sacrifice to make sure workers were treated fairly, unions became arrogant. In general, unions pushed the envelope, asking a little too much in their contracts. And that little bit of excess led to a lot of bad public relations.

Which leads to another union problem: lack of good PR. Unions created the eight-hour day and weekend, forced employers to pay a fair wage, equalized pay between the genders, and provided safer workplaces. Those deeds done, unions have kept a vigilant watch on workplace issues, becoming politically involved any time worker rights are threatened.

But can you think of one warm and fuzzy story about any of the unions in your town? Can you think of one way they help your community? Can you name a charismatic leader who proclaims a positive union message far and wide?

Probably not.

And now unions — and society — will pay the price.

2. The Republican Party

The role of politics is unmistakable. Gov. Scott Walker demanded that Wisconsin’s public unions contribute more toward pensions and health insurance to help balance the state budget. Let’s assume that he is correct, that Wisconsin will be in financial ruin without these concessions.

Why, then, did he include provisions that will essentially destroy public unions in Wisconsin? Why did he make it harder to pay union dues and take away the power of the unions so no one would see a reason to pay those dues? Why did he take away the unions’ right to negotiate issues like workplace safety? Will eliminating discussions about working conditions help to balance the state budget?

No. But it will chip away at the unions’ financial and political power, power that traditionally goes to Democrats.

Of the top 20 largest political donors nationwide, 12 are labor unions, 2 are big corporations, 5 are industry groups, and 1 is a Democratic PAC. These donors represent $654 million in campaign cash. And unions heavily support Democratic candidates:

Data source: Represents contributions from 1989 to 2010.

The union money is a hefty chunk of the total contributions:


So in the end, Scott Walker’s union provisions are, indeed, about money. But not the kind of money that balances budgets. The kind of money that wins elections.

You’re Not Alone: Links for Moderates

Do you believe that both political parties are spending more time vying for power than working to improve our country? Are you bothered by heightened rhetoric where opposing viewpoints and candidates are “evil” or “anti-American”? Do you share views held by both parties? If so, you’re not alone. Below are some blog posts and news stories that might appeal to you.

Here’s a Washington Post article explaining how both parties use the debt ceiling issue for political gain:

Five Myths About the Debt Ceiling

Thomas Friedman looks at the latest — and possibly strongest — attempt at establishing a competitive third party:

Make Way for the Radical Center

Well-known linguist Deborah Tannen takes on the semantics of partisanship and discovers that seeing political opponents as enemies is “dangerous to our democracy”:

Why is ‘compromise’ now a dirty word?

Advice to parents about indoctrinating kids by an author who inadvertently started to do so:

Conservatives vs. liberals: Before you indoctrinate your kids, read this

A new group called “No Labels” calls for people to shun political labels and deal with issues in a civil manner. Its slogan? “Not left. Not right. Forward.”

No Labels website

A CNN essay about how both parties lack courage:

Bygone patriots and the end of political courage

Fareed Zakaria explores how the political rift is caused in part by a new brand of conservatism:

How Today’s Conservatism Lost Touch with Reality

Forbes magazine sounds a death knell for the entitlement-based Democratic party:

Why The Democratic Party Is Doomed

This blogger explains why Democrats are failing to compete with the Republicans’ succinct talking points:

Democrats and the Social Security Messaging Fail

Sen. John McCain demonstrates a higher level of discourse in this Washington Post article praising his political rival, President Obama, for a speech related to the Arizona shootings in January 2011:

After the shootings, Obama reminds the nation of the Golden Rule

A good quote from a press release that shows some politicians have views that cross party lines with regard to issues like gay marriage:

NY State GOP Senator Roy McDonald Is In Favor Of Gay Marriage

In this video clip, Juan Williams explains the context of the controversial remarks that got him fired and explains the need for debate without vilifying opponents.

Juan Williams interview on The Daily Show

Commentary from Time magazine on the effect of polarizing politics on news networks:

Can a mainstream outlet survive?

A collection of older New York Times articles about bipartisanship: