November 2

How Did We Get Here? Part 5: Can You Hear Me?

After the 1992 riots, the slogan “Love sees no color” became popular. And it’s a nice sentiment. “I love you disregarding what color you may be.” But there’s a dark underside to this approach. It says, “I love you but I don’t recognize your differences.” Put another way, it says, “I love you, and I expect you to be the same as I am.” A better slogan might be, “Love celebrates all colors.”

It’s All About Me

The root of this fallacy is an American philosophy that teaches us that the purpose of life is “me.” Our lives revolve around the acquisition of wealth and comfort. As I pointed out previously, our economic policy depends on us spending more than we have. We’re taught to be selfish; our national wellbeing depends on it.

Ayn Rand, the patron saint of conservative capitalism, went so far as to argue that morality is defined by what is good for the self. And while many of us may reject the directness with which she states her position, the self has become the center of the American reality, if not always its morality. So, for example, while conservatives may ague that no one has a right to more than they have earned (and thus the poor must earn their way out of poverty), liberals might argue that everyone has the right to a helping hand to become part of the middle class.

That middle class image likely includes a home in the suburbs with two cars in the driveway in front of a garage. Sure, in our minds we may easily be able change the color of the kids playing in the yard without too much difficulty. Maybe we can even allow for a quaint variation on holiday themes to include Hanukkah or Kwanza. But in our image, aside from skin color, the family looks a lot like us. They dress like us, act like us, and want what we want.

Cultural Blindness

If you visit the home or place of worship of someone from South or East Asia, you remove your shoes– and you don’t touch the food with your left hand. You don’t serve beef to a Hindu, or pork to a Muslim or a Jew. If you’ve had contact with these cultures and religions, you know this.

But do we stop and ask the person why they don’t eat beef? Do we listen to the stories of where they come from? And do we ask what their life goal is, and how that is the same or different from their parents’ life goal?

Most of us don’t. We accept surface differences. But we take it for granted that everyone wants what we want– because what we want has been programmed into us by years or even decades of brilliantly-evangelical marketing. By extension, we subconsciously assume that everyone’s story is similar to ours. But we never actually hear the other person’s story. We don’t have time. We live in a world in which we’re bombarded with 10-second sound bites and slogans. So whether it’s “Abortion stills a beating heart” or “My body, my choice,” whether it’s “My country right or wrong” or “Not in our name,” we assess the slogan by our own experience, never questioning what it might mean to the person promoting the slogan.

A Nationwide Problem

I’m not claiming that this is a liberal problem, nor is it a conservative problem. It affects us all. And we rarely see the impact personally because in general we tend to only really get to know those people with backgrounds somewhat similar to ours. This is partly because of geographic separation. You don’t meet many farmers when you live in the city, nor do you meet many stockbrokers in rural America.

But having lived in both kinds of places, I’ve developed an appreciation for the differences between us– and the different narratives– of people who live in urban and liberal locales. I knew a conservative farrier who grew up struggling to survive and became successful  through hard work and skill– and no doubt a little bit of luck. If you don’t know what a farrier is, it’s someone who shoes horses. Yes, people still make a living at that. Part of his business is training people to be farriers! Not surprisingly, this man is a Trump supporter. He doesn’t understand urban problems, and doesn’t care to go to the city to learn about them. He also wants America safe, and supports both the police and a border wall. He sees low wages and a shortage of jobs in his community– where even law enforcement officers get paid so little, some of them are on food stamps. The idea of immigrants coming in and taking more jobs doesn’t sit well with him, to say the least.

Then there’s an urban accountant who spends her weekends helping to adopt out rescued dogs. She came to this country as a refugee and is grateful for the help she received after she got here. And she wants others to receive the same help. She’s horrified by our nation’s immigration policy, and by the police brutality she sees in her city.

You can see how a different narrative leads to different political opinions. But if we don’t listen to the narrative, all we can see are caricatures of a gun-toting redneck who just might be a racist, and a bleeding-heart liberal who wants to give to immigrants everything America has. The slogans “Keep America safe” and “Give me your tired, your poor…” become not points of concern in a single national vision, but incompatible opposites.

Keeping It Human

The more we think our opponents can’t be reasoned with, the more likely our nation will split– literally. Already I have heard both liberals and conservatives say that we’d be better off dividing the country. But think about what that would mean! Aside from the inevitable messiness (and violence) of such a separation, there are economic impossibilities. Remember, 82% of Americans live in just 2% of the nation’s land area. Urban areas would lose their food, energy, and natural resource production. Rural areas, which typically get more federal aid per capita, would lose the benefit of having an urban economy to support them– not to mention the advanced medical care and other important services available in urban areas to which rural residents need access.

There is a better way. We need to start seeing the “other” as human beings with their own narrative that differs from ours. We need to start asking people we disagree with not just to explain their position, but to tell us who they are and where they come from! Only then can we begin to understand why they believe as they do. Only then can we begin to find ground on which to compromise. And only then can we start to realize that on some issues there may not be a one-size-fits-all national solution. Some issues may need to be decided at a local level.

Where We Begin

How does this happen? It won’t be in the political arena. Our politicians get elected by stirring us to passionate fear about those people we disagree with. Vote for us because if “they” get elected, you’re going to lose. Whether it’s your guns or your right to choose, most politicians promise not what they’ll do for you, but who they’ll protect you from. And if you need protection, those other folks must be dangerous enemies!

And it won’t be the mainstream media. Conflict sells. Would you pay to see a movie where everyone got along well and nothing happened? Of course not! Media is motivated to ensure that we are in conflict with someone, otherwise you won’t care what they have to say.

And it won’t be social media. A conversation of memes cannot reach the depth we need to understand where someone else is coming from. And social media encourages us to hide who we really are.

Somehow we have got to start sitting down with those who are different from us and listening to their stories. Somehow, we have got to start humanizing them.

We can point fingers at who isn’t doing this, but that’s hardly constructive. Both sides are guilty. But this divide began when this country became a majority-urban nation. Liberal politicians no longer needed rural America to get elected. Liberal media outlets could make more money catering to urban America. They stopped the conversation. A new crop of conservative pundits stepped into the void unchallenged, steering their side of the conversation in a new direction unintelligible to liberals. Joe Bageant, a liberal himself, does an excellent job of documenting how this happened.

It may be that only a liberal transformation can save this nation. But I don’t see one on the horizon. At this writing, it looks like Biden will win the election. But Biden promises nothing new. There is little in his platform to generate interest from, much less reconciliation with, rural America.

Let me close this series this way. We need action on climate change. But we’re not going to get it until we seriously address the economic impact this will have on rural America.

We need national health care. But we’re not going to get it so long as the issue is tied to the rest of the liberal agenda– and until we admit that ACA has been a disaster for many in rural America, especially the self-employed.

We need help for the poor. But we’re not going to get it until we acknowledge publicly that the largest group living in poverty is white, and that many of our economic policies (supported by both parties) have made the problem worse.

We need a lot of things. But our nation cannot be healthy so long as a significant minority, which just happens to occupy the vast majority of the land, is barred from the table.

When that happens, we get Donald Trump as President. And if you think that’s the worst that can happen, you lack imagination.

We need to stop spouting slogans and invite someone we disagree with over to dinner. It just might save the nation.

 

 

October 30

How Did We Get Here? Part 4: Cultural Differences

One of the aspects we rarely consider in American politics is culture. We ignore culture because of the myth that America is just one culture. But it isn’t. New England and New York, geographically close, are worlds apart culturally. And the South and the West are different again. California is it’s own unique collection of cultures, with the northern part of the state differing from the south.

While it’s difficult to generalize America’s regional cultures, there is one distinct pattern: urban and rural cultures are very different from one another.

Tied to the Land

As my last post explained, many historical rural occupations are tied to the land. Agriculture, mining, manufacturing– even modern additions like prisons and casinos– are stationary. This has been true been ever since agriculture was invented. Rural people tend to be stationary. They develop cohesive communities where everyone knows everyone, and has for generations.

Wealth is often measured in land. Historically, this was because more land meant more income from production. But land has its own intrinsic value, too, and not just in financial terms. When you live in the home your grandparents built, or when your ancestors are buried nearby, there’s a psychological connection that cannot be duplicated.

In such an environment, change is not always welcomed. But the interstate system that began in the 1950s brought change, which continues to this day. Commuters from the city move to rural areas, bringing their urban culture, their urban demands, and sometimes their urban problems. One of the most difficult conflicts is when city folks who have relocated to rural community begin to demand city services like streetlights and sidewalks.

Yet there’s an even deeper conflict that often remains unspoken: “We don’t know these people.” Yes, we may meet each other. But we haven’t grown up together, known each other’s parents and grandparents, and developed a bond of respect and mutual responsibility that comes with facing survival together. Don’t get me wrong: there are feuds and judgements galore in a rural town. But when our roof cracked under four feet of wet snow when I was a kid, even neighbors we didn’t like came out in the middle of the night to shovel off the snow.

But our neighbors didn’t live too close,. They lived their lives, and we lived ours. If one of them wanted to put up a ramshackle building in their backyard, who cared? We might snicker, but we wouldn’t protest. Space offered protection from whatever eyesores they (or we) might erect. Your life was, at least ostensibly, your business. People might gossip, but were unlikely to interfere. Of course, anything too outrageous would be remembered and retold for at least two generations!

Now imagine the relationship we had with our police– one part-time officer in those days. He was our neighbor. His job was to keep the peace– and generate revenue by writing speeding tickets for out of state tourists who were in a hurry. He knew everyone. He didn’t want trouble. I doubt he ever pulled his gun in the line of duty, except perhaps to deal with wayward wildlife.

This is not to say life was idyllic in a small town. Alcoholism and spousal and child abuse occurred, most often unseen. The school bus driver was having an affair with a local farmer– a badly kept secret. And poverty was rampant, even if most were too proud to admit it. These, too, are characteristics of rural culture: we keep up appearances, even when everyone knows the truth, simply because everyone knows you.

Urban Transience

Things were different in Los Angeles. I learned quickly that reaching for the glove box to have your registration ready when you got pulled over, the polite thing to do in a small town, was a bad idea in the city. That was the first time I had a gun pointed at my head. Because in the city, no one knows anyone. In 25 years and over a dozen moves, I rarely knew my neighbors. The cops didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. And because they didn’t know me, I was a potential threat.

Two urban friends were shocked when they visited me in a small town some years later as I talked to a couple of sheriff’s deputies at my home. “That was amazing!” one said. “You talked to them for almost 20 minutes– and they never once put their hands on their guns!”

That was the response of two white-collar professionals. Perhaps you can imagine how people of color experience the police in a city. One friend, who is black, had her 15-year-old, honor student son put face down on the pavement in his own driveway because the police thought he didn’t belong in that neighborhood. Another, also black, was beaten with a baseball bat by her neighbors– and she got arrested.

In my years in the city, I didn’t know my neighbors because I gravitated toward people with common interests. That’s how it works. Surfers hang out with surfers. People who fish find each other. So do people who drink. Liberals hang out with liberals. There are literally millions of people in a relatively small space. You don’t have to be friendly with your neighbors.

And people aren’t tied to the land. In fact since cities were invented, they have attracted the landless. This means people are more likely to move from place to pace for jobs or cheaper housing.

Because they don’t know each other– and because they are more mobile and can relocate if things get bad– they have less sense of responsibility to each other. I knew an accountant who was great at getting clients but terrible at doing the work. He remained successful because there was an endless pool of potential clients. And when I offered to help an old lady carry her groceries up the stairs, she gave me a quizzical look and observed, “You’re not from here, are you.”

Not surprisingly, crime rates tend to be higher in urban areas. There are other contributing factors, including dense areas of poverty, despair that leads to drug and alcohol use, and greater availability of opportunity.

And this leads to a strange paradox: people in the city want things to change for the better in a general sense, but are less likely to help their neighbor.

There are advantages to the city. The economics of scale make many things easier, including making a living. There are services that a small town can’t support, which is why, for example, autism rates are 10% lower and diagnosed at a later stage of development in rural areas as compared with urban, and autism services are more difficult to come by. And it’s why rural people often have to travel to a city for more specialized medical treatment.

And in the city there are people with your interests, no matter how obscure they might be. Stamp collectors have huge gatherings. Model railroaders build modules and join to link hundreds together at a time. No matter your hobby, in a city of millions there will be at least hundreds with the same interest.

The Chasm Between Worlds

I could write a book on rural-urban differences. But here’s one last example. In the city, if you don’t lock your door and someone breaks in, that’s your fault. Not locking your door is carelessness, and you’ll get very little sympathy. But in many rural communities, people still don’t lock their doors– and they don’t want to. They want their neighbor to be able to get an egg out of their fridge if needed. Some even leave their car running while the shop at the grocery store or pick up their mail. If someone breaks in and steals from them, they see it as an assault on their community and their culture. And neither group can comprehend how the other lives that way.

Hopefully this post has highlighted a few of the more important differences in culture. And these are important, because without understanding culture we can’t understand the political symbols being wielded. We have to know the underlying story behind the symbols.

Take abortion, for example. To urban liberals, it’s a symbol of women’s freedom and casting off the strangling yoke of religion. But to rural conservatives, it is a symbol of instability for family and community. To even begin to discuss the issue, we have to understand what the it means to the person holding the opinion!

Or guns: to an urban dweller, guns are scary because you don’t know the person who has one (because you don’t know anyone outside your own circle of friends). And you don’t trust them because you don’t trust anyone you don’t know. And gun crime tends to be higher to begin with. That’s reality in the city. But for a rural person, who lives in a place where gun crime may be almost unknown, banning guns says, “You don’t trust me!” And in a rural community, reputation and trust are everything.

I could make this list much longer but I believe I’ve made my point: There is no single American culture. Much of our political divisiveness stems from a simple cultural misunderstanding– from the chasm between two worlds that neither recognizes is different.

October 29

How Did We Get Here? Part 3: The Environment

The greatest threat to our nation just may be climate change. Yet many conservatives, especially rural conservatives, don’t believe it exists. Or they don’t believe it’s caused by human activity. With almost unanimous scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused, how can rural people deny it? The answer is simple: They can’t afford to.

Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. They are skeptical of science, and for good reasons. Environmentalism in general has often taken a combative approach to rural America, sometimes from woefully-uneducated viewpoints. Economic policy, supposedly based in science, has left them poorer. And there’s also been a shift in conservative values from preservation to short-term gain.

The Remaking of Conservatism

As a child, I grew up in one of the most conservatives states. Back then, conservatives believed in preservation– of tradition, resources, community, and wealth. You saved your money. You preserved the land for your children. And you helped your neighbors because they would help you when you needed it. These are values at least as old as the first European settlements.

But that changed. President Reagan ushered in an era of deficit spending, self-centeredness, and short-term profits. The reasons for this exceed the scope of this post. But they changed the landscape of American politics, in part by changing the economic landscape.

Since 1980 the economy has generally been more favorable to resource exploitation for profit of major corporations. This hasn’t always been a partisan issue, either. President Obama, a Democrat, lifted the ban on offshore oil drilling.

Likewise debt, rather than something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, has become a good thing. President Reagan was the first big spender, almost tripling the national debt. This was the largest non-war increase in American history. But Presidents Bush (43) and Obama also raised the deficit by historic amounts (54% and 74% respectively). President Trump, despite his promise to eliminate the national debt, has added 36% in just the three years before Covid hit.

American consumers are also encouraged to spend more than they make. The Federal Reserve panics when Americans save too much. That’s how the economy stays afloat: it only works if we all spend more than we have.

This leaves those at the bottom of the economic pyramid struggling to survive. Environmental preservation becomes a luxury they cannot afford.

Bad Environmentalism

Ill-conceived environmental policies haven’t helped matters. One of the best known is the campaign to save the wild mustang. It’s a campaign that sells well: wild, majestic horses being removed from their land and slaughtered for dog food at the behest of evil cattle ranchers. But of course it’s not that simple.

The wild mustang is an invasive species, introduced (like so many others) by European colonists. It consumes range land that would otherwise be available not only for cattle, but for native species. Managed grazing can actually improve rangelands. In balance, wild mustangs could coexist on the range with other species. But they are not in balance. The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for maintaining the herds, estimates that 72,000 mustangs live on land that can support only 26,000. The result: range land can’t support other species like antelope and deer, much less managed grazing by small ranchers whose living depends on access to these federal lands.

This is a good place to recall that the federal government owns most of the land in the American West, including 87% of Nevada, 65% of Utah, 62% of Idaho, and 53% of Oregon. Federal land use policies remain a huge issue in these states and others.

But wild horses aren’t the only issue. Other local issues feed contempt for environmental policies. For example, the Utah Prairie Dog is listed as an endangered species. By law, any prairie dog on your land cannot be killed, but must be relocated. Where they can be relocated remains a mystery, and there is no money to pay for relocation. Yet an infestation can ruin grazing land in a matter of months. Over the course of two years, I watched a breeding pair move to a 20 acre field and expand into a colony of dozens, devastating all the vegetation on what had been healthy range land.

Examples like this abound: decisions driven by passionate but uninformed people with little knowledge of or regard for local realities.

Clean Energy

John was a computer expert who lived in a small rural town. For years, he did computer repairs and other small jobs. His wife worked as a waitress. They barely scraped by supporting their four children. Then the oil boom started in North Dakota. He began commuting, three weeks on and two weeks off. And he made four times as much money as he had before.

A year later, a company began putting in solar panels on plots of land ranging from 10 to 40 acres. They hired hundreds of employees to put them in. The jobs lasted up to two years. Then they ended. It takes far fewer employees to maintain solar panels than it does to install them.

This is the dilemma of clean energy. It doesn’t require constant extraction. From an environmental standpoint, that’s great. But from an employment standpoint, it’s a problem– especially in rural areas already short on jobs.

Consider the campaign against coal, often considered one of the dirtiest fuels. Coal mining employs about 52,000 people nationwide– not a significant number. But 30,000 of these are in West Virginia alone, and coal contributes over $6.5 billion to the state’s economy. That’s roughly 10% of the state’s GDP!

Similarly, 20% of Wyoming’s employment is in the oil industry, along with 12% in Alaska and 10% in New Mexico.

When we talk about a shift to clean energy, the obvious question is, “What are these folks going to do?” There are vague promises of tech jobs and retraining, which may or may not be practical for the education level of those involved– if these jobs materialize at all. But, in an environment where non-energy jobs are scarce, people worry not so much about the future as about putting food on the table today. A call for clean energy is a call to devastate the economy of several states and eliminate good-paying jobs in the areas that most need them.

Shifty Science

We should not forget that many of the policies that have challenged rural America were touted as based in science. From globalization to endangered species, from clean energy to the deficit economy, science– at least as it has been wielded by those with political power– has not been kind to rural people.

Are many rural people skeptical? Yes, for obvious reasons. They’ve been burned already. But more importantly, they are desperate and afraid. And the answers they’ve been given by those who promote these policies fail to address their needs.

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.