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December 14, 2022

Burning the Ships After Landing

Mental health, policing, and energy are examples.

In 1519 Hernan Cortes burnt his ships in Vera Cruz to prevent any attempt by his soldiers to return to Cuba instead of conquering the Aztecs. “Reformers” like this strategy also. If you shut the mental hospitals, kinder more effective ways of dealing with mental illness will happen. If you fire the cops and release offenders, the root causes of crime will be dealt with. If you shut down the nukes and stop drilling, renewables and drastic conservation will immediately happen. Trouble is that the world doesn’t usually work that way despite Cortes example to the contrary.

Mental Health

The book and movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest helped turn America against large “mental hospitals”. The horror of some of these institutions had long been documented. We decided to shut these places down and end the misery and abuse of patients. The theory was that modern psychiatry and drugs would allow the inmates to lead lives in the community or in pleasant local institutions. Deinstitutionalization became the rule; large institutions like the hospital in Waterbury, Vermont were emptied out and not replaced as they fell into decay.

The problem is that theory was wrong. The community institutions were never built, to a large degree because of community resistance. People with acute mental problems are not very good at taking the drugs prescribed for them – and are easy marks for those selling drugs which make their problem worse. Psychotherapy is hardly a quick or certain cure. Housing is hard enough to obtain and maintain for those with moderate income; it is impossible for those with severe mental problems. Our cities are spotted with filthy homeless encampment. Emergency rooms are increasingly dangerous for both patients and staff because the mentally ill are bought there and then remain.  Although most people with untreated mental illness are more danger to themselves than others, too much violence is committed by mentally ill people who are a known and repeated offenders. New York City is now returning to involuntary incarceration of schizophrenics for public safety reasons although it is not clear what institutions they’ll be sent to.

Mental institutions should have been reformed. Involuntary commitment will always need safeguards. Perhaps community health centers should be built regardless of local opposition. But the large mental hospitals should have remained in operation while being reformed and until alternatives were actually available. Now we are faced with reconstructing them or locking the mentally ill in with the general prison population. We burnt the ships too soon.

Criminal Justice

Well-meaning people, appalled by some horrific instance of police misconduct, forced cuts to policing with the belief that the public would be protected by “addressing the root causes of crime” and sending social workers to deal with threatening situations. Nice theory. But we haven’t reduced the root causes of crime. Partly because of the mental health crisis, social workers are demanding police protection for calls they used to make on their own. Offenders are imprisoned less; they have more opportunity to reoffend; they do reoffend. We appear to need more police – and we have less. We have more crime. We burnt the criminal justice ships before we had any way to go forward.


Large nuclear power plants frightened people – although they have the best safety record of any energy source and are carbon-free. Germany shut down almost all of its nukes; so did Japan for a while; the US did not recondition older nukes or replace them with newer designs. Like Vermont Yankee, the old plants are shutting down without a clean replacement for the power they generated.

Fossil fuels make a contribution to climate change. Europe pretty much stopped drilling for oil and natural gas. The United States hasn’t built needed pipelines and has disinvested in fossil fuels. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was clear that sufficient renewables, energy storage, and transmission facilities were not available to replace the shuttered nukes and depleting fossil fuel sources. The energy shortage might be even worse had the pandemic not slowed growth. Putin saw the energy fix we’d left ourselves in and it emboldened him to defy Europe. We burned the energy ships when we still needed them.


Real problems like abusive and ineffectual mental hospitals, crime and police misconduct, and energy production’s effect on the environment must be dealt with. Burning the ships before alternatives are in place historically makes problems even worse.

BTW, Cortes returned to Cuba in a reinforcement ship.


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