Wealth, Power, and Addiction

I live and work in downtown Iowa City. I regularly walk through and spend time in the downtown area. Having lived here (with a few years spent elsewhere) since the 1980s, I’m always trying to get perspective about this city and where it is heading.

As I was meandering to work today, I went through the pedestrian mall and my mind was naturally drawn to the numerous bars. I’ve had a theory for a while about what drove out so many of the stores I used to like, the stores that the average person would want to shop at and could afford to shop at. There is a general gentrification going on that is being promoted and funded by TIFs (among I’m sure other causes), but there is more than just that going on. I’ve considered that maybe the bars have been so profitable that they’ve driven up the rental costs in the downtown, driven them too high for the average small business owner.

This is problematic. Few things can compete with alcohol. All that has been able to compete are mostly high end restaraunts, art galleries, gift shops, jewelry stores, etc.

I was thinking about what this means. Why is it that it is so hard to compete with bars? The first thing that came to mind is that alcohol is an addictive substance. For a large number of people, the more alcohol they drink the more they want to drink. It guarantees repeat customers who are willing to pay high costs for their preferred drug. There is a reason the only mom and pop grocery story left in town is a major retailer of alcohol, and of course it is downtown.

I’m not for prohibition of addictive substances. But we have to get serious about the externalized costs, whether from legal or illegal markets. I’m in favor of making most addictive substances legal, but putting high sin taxes on them and providing the highest quality rehab centers (along with whatever else is beneficial). The sin taxes should go to deal with all the externalized costs, from rehab centers to homeless shelters… also to deal with the problems developing in the downtown and other impacted areas.

There is something telling about how gentrification and the sale of addictive substances act as twin forces in utterly transforming this town. I’m far from convinced that these changes are positive.

* * * *

What is the relationship between gentrification, crony capitalism, and bars? Or to put it another way: What is the relationship between wealth, power, and addiction?

I wouldn’t be the first person to associate addiction with the consumerism of a capitalist society. Nor would I be the first to associate addiction to power relationships. I know William S. Burroughts had many interesting thoughts on the matter. Is it simply about social control? If so, to what end? Or is it as Burroughs suggests, just power serving power, like a disease?

I’m specifically thinking of the city I live in, but all of this applies more broadly. Also, the issue of alchol should be widened to all addictions and everything related to it: drug wars, mass incarceration, etc. Part of my context here is the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari. That author sees addiction as a social failure, rather than a mere personal issue. It isnt just the addict who is addicted, but the entire society addicted to the system. The alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, the bar owners are addicted to the profit they can make, and the local government is addicted to the tax money that is brought in.

The difference with alcohol, though is that it is a socially acceptable addiction. The entire identity of a small college town like Iowa City is tied up with alcoholism. The UI is famous for being a party school. The town was well known as a drinking town going back for more than a century. Generations of people have traveled from far away just to get drunk in this town.

What is at the heart of this? What is the driving force behind it all?

* * * *

I originally posted these thoughts on Facebook.

It was on my mind for some reason. Several people commented and it led to a detailed discussion, but my mind was no more clear afterwards. I still don’t quite know what to make of this line of thought.

It’s complicated, as I’m always repeating. There is a much larger context involved (German immigration, Prohibition, TIFs, etc). No changes come out of nowhere. There are always underlying causes that go much deeper, often to historical roots.

Here are a few other things I’ve written before about related issues. Also, along with them, I’ll throw in some articles about the local area.












Click to access Tax_Increment_Financing_A_Case_Study_of_Johnson_County.pdf









39 thoughts on “Wealth, Power, and Addiction

  1. It is probably fueled by the inequality.

    Inequality is correlated with a lot of bad things. I suspect that many people have been taking up alcohol as a sort of escape from their lives, particularly as the city gentrifies.

    Perhaps people are looking for an escape from the dark realities of society.

    • “It is probably fueled by the inequality.”

      That seems likely to be the core factor.

      America began in inequality and it has plagued the country ever since, although it briefly lessened for large parts of the population in the mid 20th century. But when you look at the racial angle, inequality continued even during that best of times.

      So, why is it so central? Is it simply because the country was founded on class-based indentured servitude, racist slavery, and ethnic cleansing genocide? Why is it persistent so long after all of those original conditions ended?

      Most Americans also have never come to terms with being an immigrant nation, even though it is one of the most defining features of every aspect of American society. Our alcohol culture has always being tied up with this. Drug and alcohol prohibitions have always been used as social control against ethnic and racial minorities.

      Yet Americans also have a love affair with the very intoxicating substances that are the source of so much fear and hatred. Like so much else, this society obviously lacks balance.

      “Inequality is correlated with a lot of bad things. I suspect that many people have been taking up alcohol as a sort of escape from their lives, particularly as the city gentrifies.”

      There is that. My original thoughts were more along these lines. I’m not sure all of what that connection means, but it seems central.

      The last time inequality was at such a high point was during alcohol Prohibition. The Great Depression was a collective hangover after a decade of an alcoholic and economic binge.

      We are living through another era of high inequality and prohibition that has lasted much longer and become far worse. The hangover is going to be a doozy!

      “Perhaps people are looking for an escape from the dark realities of society.”

      I do understand that. When I was at the lowest point in my depression, I first took LSD. It was like falling in love. LSD isn’t addictive, but it loosened the vice grip depression had over my mind and lifted me out of normal life. It forced me to realize that life could be seen differently.

      It is different with alcohol, of course. But that sense of release is a common element. Many drugs lessen inhibitions by changing the state of mind in which inhibitions normally operate. Our everyday identity and behaviors are state-dependent. Change that state and you change aspects about yourself, at least temporarily.

      The difference with addictive substances like alcohol is that the altered state becomes the new normalized self. The person seeks to permanently live in that new state, which is impossible. Psychedelics don’t allow that to happen and actually have the opposite effect. Some psychedelics have even been used to break addiction.

      So, why is alcohol the drug of choice of Western society? It is potentially one of the most destructive drugs around. But many Western people have a healthier relationship to alcohol than do Americans. Maybe alcohol is fine, as long as it isn’t combined with high inequality.

      • Is there a cultural connection between having a more balanced, stable, and healthy relationship to alcohol (along with other potentially addictive substances, including food) and having a more balanced, stable, and healthy relationship to wealth and class? I’m not sure, but it would make for interesting research.

        I know how cultures of trust have less inequality. Do they also have lower rates and less severe expressions of addiction in all its forms (alcohol, drugs, food, etc)?

  2. I’m not addicted, but as a college student, for me it’s a combo of bandwagoning and… Well, being drunk is kind of fun. Hangovers aren’t, and maybe being drunk enough to black out or go to ER isn’t, but generally being drunk with friends is a good time :/ the “buzz” so to speak. It feels good in the moment. Just like many addictions. It gives that rush we crave.

    • Also as someone with some social anxiety and can be a bit awkward alcohol is nice for that. Actually, as someone a bit more anxious cautious and serious than she’d like alcohol is like a miracle, lol.

      Iowa city is a college town, too. Any college town I think would have a big market for alcohol.

    • “It feels good in the moment. Just like many addictions. It gives that rush we crave.”

      I’ve never been a big fan of alcohol. I don’t like the feeling of being drunk. A slight buzz can be relaxing on occasion, when the atmosphere is relaxing, but I have absolutely no desire to drink and party.

      I also don’t like pot much. It makes me nervous. I’m not big on drugs in general, although I did do psychedelics quite a bit for a time. The most addictive drug I’ve ever personally met is nicotine.

      “Also as someone with some social anxiety and can be a bit awkward alcohol is nice for that. Actually, as someone a bit more anxious cautious and serious than she’d like alcohol is like a miracle, lol.”

      That is one reason drugs alcohol can be so addictive.

      “Iowa city is a college town, too. Any college town I think would have a big market for alcohol.”

      That is true.

      This has been a college town (1847) almost from the moment it was founded (1839). It was also a German immigrant town from that earliest period. The German Americans brewed the beer locally (3 breweries in town back then) and the college students consumed it.

      Also, as a college town, it was a magnet for people from all over. People continue to regularly drive to Iowa City as far as from Chicago just to drink at the bars.

  3. I am thinking that in some ways, the problems of places like New York City, Boston, San Francisco, and the larger cities has come to the medium sized cities.

    The professional upper middle class has begun to displace the middle and working classes within the city centre. People are forced to move out or cope.

    What is going to remain are the stores that cater for the new demographics and the bars.

    When the USSR collapsed, many Russians turned into alcoholics, particularly many males, as an escape from the dreary realities.

    I suspect that much like small town America, there is the danger of a massive growth in the consumption of drugs as well. Being a medium sized city, it is possible that you could be caught up in the worst of both worlds.

    • That makes sense to me. I’ll give you bonus points for a good answer.

      There has been a massive growth in meth use in Midwestern states like Iowa where there are lots of small towns. It is mostly in rural areas.

      I don’t know if drug use has increased in Iowa City (quite likely it has, as drug use has increased nationally since the War On Drugs began; maybe it is unsurprising that drug use increased as inequality increased). Drug arrests have increased locally (mostly targeting blacks), which is an entirely different issue.

      • Oh yes. I wasn’t around when my parents talked about how gritty Manhattan was, but right now it’s definitely gentrified, at least. It’s like all the grittiness has been pushed out to the outer boroughs and parts of uptown and the LES. I saw this neutrally, btw. And to be honest I rather enjoy the relative safeness, even though I know it’s at a painful price…

        This may be relevant. My cohort, the millennial college kids and grads, is beginning to settle in America’s medium sized cities, many in traditional flyover states. I wonder what this will mean for the future…


        • “This may be relevant. My cohort, the millennial college kids and grads, is beginning to settle in America’s medium sized cities, many in traditional flyover states. I wonder what this will mean for the future…”

          I’ve seen some data like that before. It does interest me greatly.

          This is a major shift. And the impact will be immense. It creates a whole new social dynamic that will likely increase over time.

          This is less true for some states, though. Iowa has had a net loss off young adults. This has largely been from rural areas. However, Eastern Iowa is a lot less rural. It’s possible that some cities in Iowa have a growing per capita of young adults.

          I found some info on how the age demographics have changed in this town. From 2000 to 2010:

          The median age shifted from 25 to 25.6 years old. That isn’t much of a change.

          Those 17 and below shifted from 16.2% to 14.9%. Those between 18 and 24 shifted from 32.8% to 33.4%. Those between 25 and 44 shifted from 28.1% to 25.7%. Those between 45 and 64 shifted from 15.9% to 17.8%. Those 65 and older shifted from 7% to 8.2%.

          I don’t know if any of those changes are significant. They are more or less steady. There was a tiny increase on the older generations, but that might not mean much considering the older demographic is so small.

          The majority of the local population is 44 and below. Within that, most of those are 24 and below.

          There has been some population growth in the local area. Some of that has been an increase of minorities, but most of that is probably foreign students (mostly Asian). There is some increase of the black and Hispanic population as well.

          I’m not sure how any of this might relate to gentrification or bars.

          • I think young people may be fleeing rural, more impoverished areas. In my readings, it seems to be a trend of my cohort to flee working class and poor white areas, including urban ones like in areas like philly, where white working class areas are aging and declining in population. The rural, poor counties, including former industrial towns in the north east suffer the same fate.

      • “Yes, it is rising.”

        I am a bit suspicious of that kind of data. I’ve learned how much the War On Drugs has distorted data.

        More people are being screened and admitted for substance abuse treatment. And more people are being arrested and imprisoned for drug-related crimes. But that might just mean drug users are being targeted more than in the past, not just by police but also by employers.

        I have heard that drug use has increased in recent decades, in spite of or because of the War On Drugs. That intuitively makes sense. One just has to look back to how Americans became obsessed with alcohol during Prohibition.

        The problem, though, is this. When something is illegal, the behavior becomes more hidden and so the data about it less accurate. It’s easier to determine, for example, how many prescription drugs are sold in stores than how many illegal drugs are sold on the street.

        Arrest data are notoriously misleading. Blacks get arrested and imprisoned way more than whites for drug use and possession. Yet whites use and possess drugs at least as much or at even higher rates, depending on which data you look at.

        Good data is hard to find.

  4. On addiction, I’m beginning to think that food addiction is a true thing, something that should be seen on the same level as a dr for alcohol or gambling addiction. Specifically, junk food addiction. Specifically, salt/fat/sugar addiction.

    We were wired to crave this stuff when flood was scarce. Now that food is plentiful…

    But more, I think addiction to garbage food is very real. I remember seeing a study that showed that eatin processed junk food lit up the same part of the rain as cocaine. I really do believe that junk food or sugar/fat/salt addiction is real and an issue we need to address

    • I’ve thought that for a long time. The reason I thought that was from personal experience and observation. I experienced food addiction in my own life and saw it in others.

      I should restate something I said earlier. I claimed that nicotine was the most addictive drug I’ve met. That is false.

      Sugar is by far the most addictive drug around, far more addictive than nicotine or meth. There are more sugar addicts than any other variety of addict in the world, and few sugar addicts ever end their addiction (eventually killing most addicts through health deterioration).

      • Yes…

        I’ve just been thinking about the “fat acceptance” movement, the NAAFA, the “health at every size” movements. And how in theory the ideas sound good (not discriminating against fat people) but in reality it’s just a bunch of kooks.

        Yep. In my experience there are some SERIOUSLY sugar addicted people around. And it’s not politically correct to say, but many morbidly obese people do indeed act like addicts when it comes to their (junk, sugar) food. I say so since a key NAAFA/FA/HAES idea in reality is that weight is unrelated to health and it’s pretty impossible to lse weight, that overeating does not cause weight gain, and that people have ‘set points’ which is why they are 400 pounds; because that is their natural set-point. Fuck that, no one has a natural set point of morbid obesity. At most some people by tend to the slight bigger/chubby side. Intuitive eating BS, etc etc. Basically their morbid obesity is due to condishuns and such. Fuck it. I’m not sure what condishun it is to act like a sugar addict at the ER or to be wailing for pizza… right after being hospitalized for a heart attack! Or to be downing liters of coca cola in the checkout line… with a cart full of liter upon liter of soda pop! (Yes, these are all true stories)

        Since FA is mostly women, it appears to be women who still do buy into society’s ideas of female worth (beauty) and subscribe to the same desires women are expected to (beauty.) They don’t challenge this status quo, they just want the beauty standards to change to suit them.They feel undesirable and unattractive in this society and they want society to remake itself to find them attractive. They subscribe to the same desires they’re supposed to, except they don’t conform to society standards at all. It’s not “fuck it, I’m worth more than my body.” It’s “‘I’m pretty too!””

        I’m endlessly fascinated by America’s body image issues. How despite our high body anxiety, we’re getting fatter by the minute. It’s funny how our obsession with thinness, instead of resulting in more thinness, results in… skyrocketing obesity rates. Or that’s the correlation.

        Increasingly, body image anxiety is affecting men, as well. Or at least it’s getting more attention.

      • Yeah, let’s not deal with any problems. Let’s just accept them.

        Fat acceptance. Disease acceptance. Mental health issues acceptance. Genetic issues acceptance. Poverty acceptance. Homelessness acceptance. Homicide acceptance. Racism acceptance. Police brutality acceptance. Et cetera.

        We just need to shift our standards to redefine all our problems as the new norm for individuals and for society.

  5. One answer here is that it is profitable to make people fat. Just like it is profitable to put an excessive body image out. The food industry as an immense amount of power, as does the corn growing industry.

    I suppose there is also the clothing industry in its attempts to portray the latest fashion and sell more.

    It is in some ways not too dissimilar to the advertising by the automotive sector of cars as a form of “freedom”.

  6. One question I have is how far does this go before people realise that they have been screwed over?

    Or that screwing over their fellow citizen is going to be counterproductive?

    Today we have apologists for the very rich. Others advocate for what the NSA has been doing and for the endless wars.

    Do they seriously think that the militarised police have nothing to do with the wars, torture, and drone strikes? Or are they so naive as to believe that the police will only ever be used against the poor, the minorities, and never them?

    I suspect that this may be the case. I would argue that this is what happened to American manufacturers. A greedy oligarch which only cared for profits combined with a “mw first” society. It is probably no coincidence that the US welfare state was shredded during this time. Today, perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than the American Tea Party.

    The question is, how does it end? Or do people have such a high RWA score on average that they will follow the elite… To oblivion?

    • It’s hard to know.

      As I see it, we are in the early stage of a paradigm change. It could take a long time for a full shift to happen or it could be quick.

      Before I check out from this life, I hope to see some of the changes to come, just for the sake of curiosity. I want to see how at least parts of it will play out, even if the results are less than perfect and happy.

      I suspect the world as we know it will be utterly transformed, likely sooner than later. The process of getting there might be disruptive and violent. Some governments migh not survive.

      On the other side of all that, I don’t think it will just be political and economic systems that will be altered. Human identify, relationships, and communities will take on drastically new forms and roles.

      But first our present social order and sense of humanity will have to utterly fail, as it is in the process of doing. Collective change will be forced, not chosen willingly. New conditions will demand new attitudes and responses.

      In the short term, it will be messy. That short term may be for the rest of our lives. We may never see anything positive come out of it. If a positive does eventually result, it will be future generations that will benefit from it, not us.

      Our only choice will be to either help or hinder the change. But our choice won’t be to stop it.

  7. I suggest looking and researching the effects gentrification on other cities, including the larger cities.

    It may be a good crystal ball into the future.

    • I’m not sure I want to know more than I already do. I see the direction it is heading. I hate to imagine where it might end up. It’s going to get worse before it gets better… and I fear how far worse might get.

  8. I suspect that the developing world has become a crystal ball for what is happening with the US.

    A small number of rich people living behind gated communities with many poor.

    Most people will be hardly able to get by.

    A very corrupt government beholden to special interests.

    Aging and falling apart infrastructure for which there is limited capital to fix.

    Increasingly brutal police and military forces.

    Indeed, one could argue that this is already happening.

    As I mentioned, Jeff Faux wrote the book, the Servant Economy as a grim warning for where things are hraded. The question is how bad is rock bottom? Judging by things, it could reach developing world levels. I wish I was exaggerating.

    • What interests me is this. There hasn’t been conditions this destabilizing globally since the early modern revolutionary era sparked off by the American Revolution. Even the world wars didn’t pose a real challenge to the global order, as did that eralier era. The world wars were more of a shuffling of the deck than the beginning of a whole new game.

      Of course, the American Revolution was preceded by a long period of simmering discontent as the radicalism of the Enlightenment Age developed. How long will discontent simmer in the present before an equivalent to the American Revolution happens? And, in the revolution against American neo-imperialism, who will be the equivalent to what the American colonists were to the British Empire?

      Before the American Revolution, the empires thought that there main threat was only other empires. The similarity to the Cold War sticks out.

      The 9/11 terrorist attack woke up the US government to the fact that there were other threats besides a new national challenger for global supremacy. Like the Boston Tea Party, 9/11 was an attack on a symbol of capitalism/corporatism. Like the British, the US lashed out wildly, not knowing how to fight an enemy that couldn’t be easily defined in traditional terms of war.

      So, what comes next?

      • What comes next?

        For the foreseeable future, rock bottom. The question is if there will be a recovery, and how well are the lessons learned?

  9. The next revolt is likely going to be against the corporate world and the very rich that profit from it.

    As for how and when, it will be hard to predict, but seem extremely obvious after the fact.

    • The future is the screen upon which people project their desires and fears, their utopian ideals and their dystopian fantasies. Predictions usually say more about the person predicting than what is being predicted.

      That is why I constantly switch my attitudes about the future. I don’t see any rational reason to have any clear opinion about the future, other than it will be different than the present.

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