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The Unapologetic Geek

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Can't Let Go, Must Collect More: What A&E's Hoarders can Teach us about the Government

A hoarder mess in Costa Mesa
Our government

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down and watched multiple episodes of Hoarders on A&E. The show is about people with compulsive hoarding, a mental disorder that, while not officially recognized by the DSM yet, can be incredibly debilitating. Far from being just messy, compulsive hoarders can fill their homes with knick-knacks, furniture, junk, garbage, and other random stuff. There are various types of hoarders--some more disgusting and disturbing than others--and it is surprising how many of them seem like perfectly normal people by all outward appearances. They seem reasonable and rational, even when they are trying to justify their out-of-control habit; most people can probably sympathize with the kinds of thoughts and emotions that define the disorder. Unfortunately, the habit of collecting things and being unable to discard them has a predictable snowball effect that does, ultimately, destroy houses, relationships, families, and even communities.

The show itself is styled after A&E's Intervention, a similar show about drug and alcohol abuse. Two cases are presented together in a single episode, and each deals with a hoarder's attempt to conquer the unbelievable mess of both their homes and their lives. Sadly, by the end of the episode, the hoarder rarely achieves the goal of a clean home and never succeeds in facing down the mental illness responsible for it all. Watching more than one episode at a time is a bad idea, I must warn you, and will leave you feeling both edgy and like your own home is a horrible mess.

One story I found particularly compelling involved a woman named Kerrylea, along with her incredibly patient and understanding husband, Geoffrey. Kerrylea's habit was slow to grow, like most compulsive hoarding, and was caused more by her inability to discard things than by a need to go out and collect them. She felt that every item had a story and a memory, and to discard that item would be like erasing part of her life.

Foreclosure exit sign
Our future

The condition of her home got so bad that she and her husband wound up purchasing a second home, with the intention of cleaning out the old one while moving in to the new one. Things did not go as planned. Unable to throw away any of the old home's mess, Kerrylea's hoarding behavior bled into the new home. Before long, both houses were filled to the brim with clutter, and the couple spiralled towards bankruptcy and foreclosure. When help arrives, Kerrylea and Geoffrey have a limited amount of time to clean and sell one of their homes or else wind up losing it all.

But even under such extreme pressure--and I rush to point out that some episodes have even greater stakes--Kerrylea finds herself unable to finish the job. Cleaning up her home and discarding her belongings is such a taxing and psychologically distressing thing that she has no choice but to give up in the end. The story does not get any happier after that.

I bring this all up because I see the same thing happening on Capitol Hill. Since its founding--but mostly just since FDR--the American government has had a creeping problem that is nearly identical to compulsive hoarding. If there is a problem in America with enough lobbyists and special interests vested in fighting it, the government will step in, create an expensive program full of red tape and technicality, and create a precedent whereby another program can easily be created. Though there is always a promise that these programs will end once the root problem is solved, this almost never happens.

Giant steel balls
Our balls

Today, some people in our government have the giant steel balls to act surprised when upwards of 10% of our spending is in interest payments on the ever-growing national debt. According to the government's own numbers, spending is going to eventually cause the debt to equal 100% of America's GDP in ten years. If we let it get to that point, we'll have reached total endgame, and it's not like the government can just declare bankruptcy and have its debts forgiven. In essence, we're in the same boat Kerrylea was in; either we clean house, or America gets foreclosed. Again, we have ten years. That's it.

In order to stop this, all of our recent administrations have proposed "cutting the deficit," as though that will solve the problem. This is like Kerrylea suggesting that, in order to stop her hoarding, she'll just cut down on the amount of things she is buying. Cutting the deficit is not putting an end to spending; it is simply slowing it down. The only way to keep our house is to actually take out more than we are putting in. In other words, we have to eliminate the deficit altogether and build a surplus.

When confronted with a house filled from floor to ceiling with junk, Kerrylea decides to spend all of her energy focusing on a small trashbag full of stuff. Each tiny knick-knack and piece of garbage is a struggle for her, and if you watch the government consider cutting programs, the same thing happens. They focus on the small stuff, put temporary freezes on non-essential discretionary spending, while the giant beasts of Medicare and Social Security fatten exponentially and threaten to crash down on top of all of us. The president proposes annual budgets measured in trillions of dollars while Congress congratulates itself for saving a few billions in the next fifteen years. Insert a cliché about the Titanic and deck chairs here.

A sandcastle with an unsafe foundation
Our financial prosperity

Since I mention the word "trillions," let's pause and consider what a trillion dollars looks like. In 1993, McDonalds reached the milestone of 100 billion burgers served. That's after fifty-three years worth of operation. Therefore, if you took every single burger served by McDonalds in those fifty-three years, you would have to multiply them by ten in order to achieve one trillion. Or, if you want to look at it another way, the population of the entire world is currently estimated at about 6.8 billion, which means that every man, woman, and child alive today throughout the entire world would have to donate just over $147 in order to make a pool of one trillion dollars (that's $1,000,000,000,000). Just for reference, America's national debt is currently estimated at $12.4 trillion (or $1,823 for every person on the planet, or well over $100,000 for every American taxpayer), but I digress.

I don't mean to pick specifically on the current administration, because this has been endemic for dozens of previous administrations. However, President Obama is a perfect example as to how this problem is getting exponentially worse rather than better. He calls press conferences to discuss fiscal responsibility, talks the good talk about tightening the government's belt and reigning in all the uncontrollable spending. But two of the administration's main goals are health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation, both of which would increase government spending by leaps and bounds, regardless of how much funny math they use to explain how spending a few trillion dollars will save money.

In order to understand how stubborn this problem really is, consider Social Security. Year after year, lobbyists find ways to pressure the government to lower the age at which people collect Social Security checks, all while the average life expentancy gets higher. Nowadays, people think of Social Security as something that is owed to them because they've been paying into it for years. In other words, they think there's some magic bank account that the government can't touch that holds every dollar they've ever put in. This simply is not true, and if that were the whole purpose of Social Security, it would make no sense, as you can easily open up your own bank account at a young age and you'd likely make far more money in interest if you were able to keep that money squirreled away for your retirement.

No Image Available
Our Social Security

In order to pay back every dollar that people have put in to Social Security, the government would have to spend a ludicrous and overwhelming amount of money that does not exist. However, the amount already being spent on Social Security--in order to pay those who have reached the mandated age--is unsustainably huge. The government's own estimates put it at just over 20% of all spending.

So the problem is this: how do you cut into that 20%, in order to help kill the deficit, without pissing off a huge percentage of the population and your most charitable campaign contributors? How can any administration fix this without committing political suicide? Now imagine that the other 80% of the government's spending is in a similar position. That's why we can't kill the deficit, because that's the way it is.

And then there's the power angle. Just like it is with spending money, the government--regardless of which political party holds the most sway--is drunk off of taking more and more power away from the private sector. Currently, our president is demanding that health insurance companies explain rate hikes. This is the same administration that oversaw the purchase of banks, investment companies, and General Motors. (Those entities were "too big to fail" according to the administration; insert another Titanic reference here.) Once companies are wholly answerable to the government, we no longer live under anything even resembling capitalism. Seriously, why should any company be accountable to the government for charging too much money? Shouldn't that be the purview of the people? Aren't we supposed to have choices and liberty to force companies to compete?

This power, much like Kerrylea's clutter, will never go away once it is collected. Unless the government and the American people are ready to swallow several very bitter pills, there is no way we are ever going to get out of this financial crisis with our freedoms and our world status unchanged. Our country is in much worse shape than most people are willing to acknowledge, and it's only going to get worse until we sit down and really tackle this mess. We can't just focus on a couple of little boxes and trashbags here and there; we have to start hauling out the furniture along with truckloads of garbage we actually believe we can't live without.

-e. magill 2/23/2010

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