October 28

How Did We Get Here? Part 2: The Economy

A 108-foot yacht docked at Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles.

As our population shifted from rural to urban, so did our economic profile. Two main shifts were at play. First, the national economy overall shifted from production to services. Second, as tax rates dropped, the wealthy became wealthier much faster than the rest of us. Whether we like it or not, both of these trends contributed to where we are now.

The Service Economy

Consider the change from production to services. A production economy requires a large investment in fixed assets: land, buildings, and equipment. It’s stationary, which means it is tied to the land. This is obviously the case for farming and mining. But even manufacturing plants are difficult to relocate. A production economy tends to favor a geographically fixed population and availability of land, which fits the profile of rural America.

A service economy, on the other hand, tends to require fewer assets. Yes, there are cars, vans, and trucks– all mobile by definition. There may be certain pieces of large equipment. But in general a service business can be relocated much more easily than a factory, farm, or mine. And service businesses require less money to start. What they need most is a ready market of customers, making them ideally suited to an urban environment. Service jobs have tended to grow faster and be more lucrative in urban areas than in rural places where there are fewer customers to service.

Globalization has also affected job distribution. Yes, it has flooded our markets with cheaper goods, which is good. Unless you’re competing with them for a living. The same asset-heavy businesses most often found in rural areas– manufacturing, farming, and mining– now have to compete with goods produced with far cheaper labor overseas. A typical worker in a Mexican maquiladora plant makes 80 cents an hour. A typical worker in a clothing factory in Sri Lanka makes $2 per day. Workers in some other countries make even less.

This trend has helped drive the shift toward a service economy, which provides for needs that cannot be filled from a distance. But for rural workers, globalization has meant falling incomes. Manufacturing has moved overseas, and locally-owned stores are replaced by Wal-Mart, Staples, and Home Depot. Those who once worked for themselves and employed others now work for minimum wage at the local chain store.

Wealth Concentration

At the same time, wealth has migrated upward to the wealthiest Americans. As the graph below shows, the share of income among the poorest Americans has dropped by about 10%. But the most dramatic change is that the share of income taken home by the wealthiest families has almost doubled, while the share belonging to the middle class has fallen by a third.

 

Incomes overall are gradually rising, so this hasn’t made as much difference in service industries. But in rural areas, where wealth is measured in assets, this has created a concentration not just of money but of land as well. The resulting power imbalance has had far-reaching effects. Farm subsidies, supposedly intended to help the average American farmer, flow overwhelmingly into the pockets of a handful of giant agricultural corporations. This gives them an unfair advantage over the family farm.

Not surprisingly, the number of small farms has shrunk, often absorbed by these corporate farmers. This shift away from farming represents a massive change in rural economics. In 1953, nearly half of all rural Americans lived on farms. By 2003, that had fallen to 5%.

This shift away from small farms has left an employment vacuum, and led to a search for new sources of jobs. Three major sources have been casinos, prisons, and the military. According to a report by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), “There are now casinos in 140 nonmetro counties in 23 states… ”  The report also documents the rise in prison construction in rural areas. And, they report, rural people are 30% more likely to serve in the military than urban dwellers.

What it means

These economic shifts have had significant impacts on rural Americans. Poverty rates are higher in rural areas, although nearly half of those who are poor work. Disability rates are also higher. PRB reports,

Poverty hangs on in 444 nonmetro counties at levels higher than 20 percent. That means… that a fifth or more of the population lives in economic distress.

There is significant poverty across all ethnic groups. But the largest ethnic group among America’s poor is one we hear little about: non-Hispanic whites, who comprise 44% of America’s poor. It’s easy to overlook the magnitude of white poverty. As a percentage of ethnic group, only 10% of whites are poor compared with 25% of blacks, 24% of Native Americans, and 23% of Hispanics. But whites as a whole are a much larger group. That 10% translates to 19 million people!

It is easy to see how these economic shift begins to impact political views. Less corporate regulation (especially “morality” regulation), a justice system focused on incarceration rather than rehabilitation, and a well-funded military are not just planks in a platform for those living in rural America. They are the difference between employment and unemployment, between surviving and not surviving.

October 25

How did we get here? Part 1: Where It Began

As the 2020 election approaches, tensions are rising. Each side is convinced that their party’s victory is the key to saving the nation. Unfortunately, both sides are wrong. Neither has an answer that will save us, because neither understands the needs of their opponent. Whoever wins, we face an increasingly divided nation that is, quite literally, unable to hear one another.

How do we move forward? We can’t, until we understand how we got here. This is the first in a series of posts to address exactly that.

So let’s start with some background. First, there has always been diversity in the vision for this nation. Ever since the Puritans settled in New England, bringing a vision of utopia based on social organization along religious lines, contrasting with the business-oriented approach of the early Virginia settlements, there has been no single vision for the future of this nation. (One might add that the Native Americans’ vision had little in common with that of either group of settlers.) Anyone who looks backward and sees a unified vision is mistaken. It’s a myth.

This divergence has become apparent several times over the course of our history. From the War for Independence, in which as many colonists opposed independence as supported it, to the Civil War, conflicting visions have occasionally flared to violence. And yes, the visions have evolved over the years. Few now seek a religious utopia in which only church members can vote, and fewer still favor a return to an economy based on enslaved labor.

But let’s move forward to the modern era when our own reality began to change. The most significant shift is that of rural to urban. According to the Census Bureau, in 1900, only 40% of Americans lived in urban areas. By 2010, that had increased to 80%. Yet the amount of urbanized land remains a tiny fraction: 82% of Americans live in just 2% of the nation’s land area.

Yet there’s a potential misunderstanding here: rural population is not shrinking. In fact, it’s growing— from 53 million in 1953 to 59 million in 2003. It’s just not growing as fast as urban population.

So What?

What does this demographic shift have to do with where we’re at today? Everything. We may argue about health care, abortion, guns, and immigrants, but those aren’t really the issues. The most important thing I learned about conflict analysis during my time in Sri Lanka was this:

It’s never about what they say it’s about.

So what is it about? Jobs, money, culture, and above all, political power.

In a series of posts this week, I’ll explore the real issues that divide our nation. Because unless we understand what it’s really about, we can’t even begin to solve the mess we’re in.

September 26

Why We’re Losing the War on Drugs

Singapore’s arrival card. The big red letters leave no doubt as to their policy.

In the past 40 years, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on the War on Drugs in an effort to eliminate supply. Yet drug overdoses are up over 1,200%. We’re losing the war. And not for lack of trying.

We’re losing the war because the very premise of it is flawed.

Trying to solve the drug problem by eliminating the supply presumes, as many conservatives believe, that drug addiction is a choice. Eliminate the supply and people will make better choices.

It’s like those candy displays at the cash register of your local store: you want it because it’s there. It’s tempting. That’s called an impulse buy. And if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t keep doing it.

But drugs are not an impulse buy. Yes, the first time a person uses is clearly a choice, unless it’s given by a medical professional. And that does happen.

But once a person becomes addicted, the drug fills a need that nothing else does. It’s no longer an impulse buy. It’s a requirement.

As I argue in my book, The Soul of an Addict, for an addict the drug provides more than just relief from withdrawals and from past traumas and pains. It provides certain basic human needs which the user has not found anywhere else. These include identity, purpose, meaning for life, structure, and a moral code consistent with these.

Without the drug, in the absence of a suitable alternative, the person is miserable. They’re not waiting for an impulse buy. They are actively looking for relief, and they will do anything and pay anything to get it.

This is a ready-made market, a demand for the substance. And, as anyone who has taken an economics class knows, where there is a demand there will be a supply. Scarcity and risk cause the price to go up. But the person who needs drugs will find a way to pay that price, because they quite literally believe they can’t live without the drug. And that means the methods they use to obtain money may cross the line of legality, from theft to prostitution– and worse.

Is it even possible to stamp out the availability of drugs?

I say no, and here’s why.

Singapore is a small, island nation off the southern tip of Malaysia. It is ideally suited to control what crosses its borders because there are very few ways in or out. And Singapore has one of the toughest drug smuggling laws ion the world. Their arrival card makes it clear: the penalty for smuggling drugs is death. And they’re not kidding: smugglers are executed.

If anyone could eliminate the supply if drugs, it would be Singapore. Yet they had 14 drug overdoses in 2017. Their rate of overdose has more than doubled over the past 30 years. Yes, that’s far better than the U.S. rate of overdoses. Singapore’s is 0.25 per 100,000 people; ours is 18.75. They also have better health care and social services and less wealth inequality than we do, which would tend to drive down the rate of drug abuse and overdose.

But, even with supposedly absolute control and strict penalties, drugs are still available in Singapore. And if they can’t stamp them out with limited access points and draconian penalties, how do we expect to?

The War on Drugs is doomed to fail because it’s impossible to address the problem on the supply side. So long as there is a demand, someone will take the risk to make money by providing a supply. (Singapore’s penalty is death, yet people still risk it!)

And we can’t address it by locking up those who use drugs. We’ve spent trillions of dollars trying. Our prisons are full. Yet the problem keeps getting worse.

There’s got to be a better way.

And there is, but we’re not going to like it.

We’re not going to like it because it calls into question our post-modern ethos of consumerism, the whole premise that life can be fulfilling because of what we buy. That ethos is false, yet that’s what it takes to keep our economy afloat. People have to keep buying. When people start saving money instead, the Federal Reserve gets nervous. They need us to be happy consumers, floating in a sea of debt buying stuff we don’t need (but think we do).

Some of us may be satisfied with this purpose for life some of the time. But the fallacy is revealed in the rise of drug overdoses, alcohol deaths, and suicides. Consumerism doesn’t answer the big questions in life. Like, “What is it all for?”

That’s the realm of religion, not social policy. And religion is something society doesn’t prescribe for us. In fact, it has increasingly fallen out of favor. Over the past 40 years, the number of Americans who identify their religious affiliation as “None” has risen from 7% to 21%.

But even that number may be optimistic. I’ve been to many churches where the point of going to church is to go to church. It’s what we do. Yes, there’s a vague message that we should live good lives, but no specific guidance for doing so.

I’ve been to other churches which focus on what happens after we die. For someone like me, a recovering addict, this fails to answer the burning question of my life: how do I live now? (And if the afterlife is so much better, isn’t that an argument for a sooner death?)

Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggests that a religion provides identity, meaning, structure for life, and a moral code. If that is so, then much of what we experience in church fails to meet the requirements of a religion. It doesn’t provide these basic human needs. No wonder the fastest growing religion in America is “None”! And no wonder deaths of despair are rising.

Doing Something Different

There is an answer to the drug problem. The Twelve Step programs recognize it. Every aspect of those programs is designed to give people identity, purpose, structure, and a sense of belonging. Although most of these programs aren’t religious, they do a better job of practicing a religion, in the sociological sense, than some churches.

Why can’t churches do what the Twelve Step programs do? They could. So could non-religious groups. But that would mean bucking the national religion of consumerism– and potentially being branded un-American, or worse. It would mean pushing back against the long-embraced idea that religion belongs in the private sphere. If your purpose and structure for life comes from your religion, it’s going to show.

Do we really believe that it’s better to spend trillions of dollars on trying to stamp out supply and incarcerate users, no matter the price tag? Is that a necessary “overhead expense” to maintain our consumer economy? Or is that just what we’ve always done?

In either case, it isn’t working. The problem is getting worse.

It’s time to do something  different.

September 9

Praise for Soul of an Addict

“The book elucidates the agony of addiction in a fresh, new way. It emphasizes the role of trauma in setting the stage for debilitating behaviors, and explains the importance of community support in the healing process. With anecdotes of many people who grapple with addiction and have survived, as well as sad stories of addicts who died, this book provides healthy doses of grit and inspiration.” –Christopher Key Chapple, Loyola Marymount University

September 7

The Medical View of Addiction

Medicine has struggled to understand addiction. This may be because it’s not entirely a medical problem. But science doesn’t consider spiritual aspects, and for the purposes of this discussion I’m willing to leave those aside.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the “bible” for diagnosis by professionals. The current version is DSM-V. Not surprisingly, the previous version was DSM-IV. The newer version introduced some major changes to the way substance abuse disorders are diagnosed.

DSM-IV, issued in 1994, generally offered two categories of substance abuse disorders: substance use disorder, and dependence. These corresponded to chronic abuse of a substance, and physical dependency on the substance. There were codes for various substances, distinguishing for example between opioid dependency and alcohol dependency. The DSM-V (2013) combines there and streamlines the diagnosis. As this summary explains, DSM-V

does away with separate “dependence” and “abuse” diagnoses and combines them into “substance use disorder.”

The current version sees substance abuse as a spectrum rather than two separate conditions.

While this does make diagnosis easier, it appears to me to move substance abuse treatment backward by failing to recognize the complexity of factors at play.

For example, let’s consider physical dependence. Anyone who takes opioids (or other physically-addictive medication) over a long period will become physically dependent. It doesn’t matter whether they began using for pleasure, or if they were prescribed the drug by a doctor because of a medical need. They will need the drug to avoid going into withdrawals, which are typically both painful and disorienting. And in the case of alcohol (and certain other drugs), withdrawal can be life-threatening. Someone dependent on alcohol, for example, will crave it. And the cause of this craving is biological: they’ll go into withdrawals if they don’t get it. This is what DSM-IV described as “dependence.”

Yet dependency alone does not indicate whether that person will return to the drug once separated from it. When the physical dependency is relieved through a withdrawal process, medically supervised or not, there is no further need for the drug. Many people, once relieved of their dependence, take what might be described as the sane response: they never touch it again.

On the other hand, let’s consider what is sometimes described as “risky use.” A person who is not dependent on a substance nevertheless seeks it out and abuses it. The cause of this is not physical but psychological. Whether they seek pleasure or to kill the pain of some past trauma, the drug serves a purpose in their lives. They choose to pursue it of their own free will. This is what DSM-IV described as “substance use disorder.”

Interestingly, substance use disorder does seem to be a spectrum. Some people are able to choose to quit of their own volition. Others need help to quit. And some pursue their obsession with the substance, as Alcoholics Anonymous observes, “into the gates of insanity or death.”

These two, very different, facets of substance abuse are combined in DSM-V into a single spectrum. Yet the opioid crisis should show us the fallacy of this “improvement.”

One of the popular news items in the opioid epidemic is the number of people who began using because an opioid was prescribed by their doctor for a medical condition. (Here’s an example.) This theory presumes that chronic physical pain is the cause of opioid use that results in dependence. And this may well be for some people.

Yet many, perhaps most, opioid addicts struggle with a condition I can only describe as “addiction.” Yes, they are physically dependent. Yet once separated from the drug, whether through rehab or incarceration, they return to it despite its adverse effects on their lives. Not because of physical pain, but because of a psychological obsession with what the drug does for them.

At the very least, in these people we can see an overlapping of two distinct conditions: dependency and an obsession to use. These are not the same. One is physical, the other is psychological. Both need to be treated for successful recovery. Yet without recognizing the difference between the two conditions, how can they be treated?

This is true for any drug user. For a successful result, a person who is dependent because of chronic pain must be treated differently from one who is not dependent but seeks the drug by choice. Yet in the case of the addict, who has both conditions, treating one or the other is simply pointless. Not only is it ineffective, but the failure of this approach erodes confidence that recovery is possible.

And recovery is possible! While success with opioid addiction recovery from a medical perspective remains dismally low, tens of thousands have recovered through other, non-medical methods. These include Twelve Step groups like Narcotics Anonymous, religious based programs like The Bridge Ministry, and many others.

Because when withdrawals end, that’s when the real healing begins. Now that we don’t have a physical need, how do we live without the psychological need? Medicine doesn’t do that. Even psychology tends to fall short in offering resources.

Perhaps this is because they don’t really understand what an addict needs, because the vast majority of medical professionals have never experienced it.

But those who have been there and recovered do know. It is to them we should look for answers. Oddly, that seems to be the one place science hasn’t looked. Which may be why their understanding of addiction and recovery sometimes seems to be moving backward.

 

For more on addiction, read my book, The Soul of an Addict, available in Paperback and Kindle editions.

September 3

Getting Out

Whether it’s jail or rehab, how does an addict stay clean when they get out?

I met William in his last week at a program that helped former inmates deal with addiction and prepare for the real world. We talked for almost an hour. I told him my history, and about how I stayed clean. He seemed excited to know someone in recovery. He took my number, and promised to call as soon as he got settled in his new apartment.

I never heard from him.

The are literally hundreds of thousands of men and women incarcerated for drug related offenses, many of them nonviolent. What happens when they get released? Some of these go to halfway houses or rehabilitation programs. Do these improve their chances? Thousands are voluntarily in rehabs. Are their chances any better?

There’s one aspect of addiction that few programs, and few theories of addiction, take into account: Addiction is a way of life. It defines what we do with our time. Conversely, it tells us what to do when we don’t know what to do.

This means the first day or two after getting out, whether from incarceration or from a program, are critical. Structure has been removed. Even if there’s a job to go to, which there often isn’t at that stage, there are still 16 hours in the day to navigate. In an unfamiliar world. With complete freedom of choice. After months or years of complete structure, the person is suddenly expected to know what to do with their time.

That’s not a reasonable expectation. Anyone who has become unemployed, or who has faced a quarantine that disrupts their normal routine (and that’s most of us now), knows that it isn’t easy to find a new routine. And we generally start with what we know, whether that’s exercise or prayer.

What an addict knows is not exercise or prayer. I say this as one who struggled with addiction for many years. The drug becomes the center of our lives, defining our identity and our purpose. And it tells us what to do with our time.

How long will a person wait for something new to happen before returning to their old ways? My experience indicates that it may be as little as 24 hours, and certainly not more than a few weeks.

This is the window of opportunity for the person to develop not only a new routine, but a new circle of friends and support. In the absence of those, he or she is alone and without tools for navigating their new reality.

If you think about how long it takes to find and adopt a new routine, find support, and make friends, this is a nearly impossible task.

So what is the answer?

Those who have relationships with supporters and friends before their release are more likely to succeed. They already have some of the most important pieces in place. If we want to support addicts in staying clean, this should begin while they’re still inside, whether it’s a rehab or a jail.

But secondly, when they get out we shouldn’t expect them to reach out to us. They have been conditioned not to trust, and to believe that those who need help are weak. It takes time for those beliefs to change– time they may not have. There’s also the shame factor. They may be ashamed of their social status, and of their need for help. They also may be afraid of rejection, betrayal, or abandonment– all common occurrences in the world of addiction.

We need to reach out to them! And we need to do so with persistence, but not harassment. They may or may not respond. They may or may not stay clean. Working with addicts always risks heartbreak, including the ultimate heartbreak of funerals. But we do it because there would otherwise be even more funerals.

William, my new friend who disappeared, taught me one thing: not to just give out my number, but to take his. I didn’t do that for him, and he is likely back in the trap of old behaviors. But I have done it for others since then.

For more on addiction, read The Soul of an Addict: Unlocking the Complex Nature of Addiction.
September 2

Zachariah Doubts: Luke 1:18-25

And Zachariah said to the angel, “How can I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in her days.”

In reply, the angel said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and bring this good news. Now see! Because you did not believe in my words, you will become mute and will be unable to speak until that day when these things happen, which will be fulfilled in their due time!”

Now the people were expecting Zachariah, and they were wondering about his delay in the sanctuary. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. And he was beckoning to them, and he remained mute.

As soon as his time of service was complete, he returned to his home. And after this his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and hid herself for five months, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me when he looked upon me: He took away my shame among the people.”

There are two particularly notable things in this passage. The first is Luke’s first jab at the religious establishment. Zachariah, Luke has already told us, is a priest who is “righteous” and “above reproach” (1:6). Yet Zechariah still doubts that God can and will act in this world. We’ll see a contrast with Mary, who accepts what the angel tells her with little argument. And which is the greater miracle: that an old woman should become pregnant (Sarah did!), or that a woman should become pregnant without the participation of a man? Yet Zachariah, the best representative of the temple structure, doubts the smaller miracle, while Mary, an unwed and uneducated young woman, trusts God to do even that which seems biologically impossible.

This is one of the first portrayals of the Kingdom: it is not for the educated elite. It asks, rather, for the childlike trust of a peasant.

Secondly, Elizabeth’s proclamation in 1:25 doesn’t mention the pregnancy of an old woman at all. For her, the miracle is instead that God removed her shame. Again, this heralds the Kingdom, where no one has fallen to far to be redeemed. What’s important is not that Zachariah and Elizabeth got what they wanted, namely a child. What’s important is the removal of their shame, for the Kingdom is a place where all is healed (not merely where everyone gets what they want).

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August 30

Now Available: The Soul of an Addict (and a free download)

It’s available! In both paperback and Kindle formats. The Soul of an Addict: Unlocking the Complex Nature of Addiction, by D.J. Mitchell.

Addiction is more complex than it may seem. Written for the non-addict who seeks to understand substance addiction, The Soul of an Addict shows that addiction not just a disease or a choice. Using statistics, anecdotes from the lives of addicts, and the author’s personal experience with addiction and recovery, the book argues that addiction affects all aspects of human existence, including identity, purpose, life structure, and morality. It serves as a religion in the addict’s life, and any approach to recovery must also provide these essential needs. With one in seven Americans struggling with substance abuse, this book brings a timely analysis for anyone concerned about addiction.

“A must-read… As a therapist I will be recommending this book to my clients.” –Milt McLelland, CMHC, Roots Counseling Center

For more information, click here.

Want a free look? Download the Introduction and first chapter here!