So I threw out some past to make room for more future
I see a better person waiting his turn to be me
Making a long story longer
I'm kind enough not to bore you with this stuff in person.
So I threw out some past to make room for more future
I see a better person waiting his turn to be me
Since this seems to be all the rage – I hereby offer my definition of “woke”
I define “woke” as a belief that society is by default divided into two groups – the oppressors and the oppressed. All social interactions are a zero sum conflict between those two groups. All of history is merely a record of this conflict and nothing else. By default neither group can see this model of reality. However, it is possible for people to see the world accurately for one reason or another. (the process of this realization varies and is not essential to the worldview). This worldview is largely an extreme version of a class based view of the world, however instead of dividing the world up into “workers” and “capitalists”‘ there are many, many more subgroups who make up the oppressed class, and many more subgroups that make up the oppressor class.
By virtue of having this knowledge one can see the hidden threads throughout history and choose to exercise virtue, which is by advocacy for particular groups in the oppressed class. This is largely expressed as secular evangelism for those groups, and active efforts to reduce the social status of the oppressor class groups.
The pose is that of evangelism, i.e. convincing people to see the world their way, but the tactics are all destructive, in terms of social media and social status. The focus is entirely on raising and lowering the social status of different groups.
This worldview is notable for being younger, more tied to social media, fashionable consensus, signaling and being disproportionately female. I suppose a common sense of alienation from society is a necessary part of the definition as well.
A dog with two masters starves to death.
From my Notion template
This book is by far the best book on the mechanics of addiction, why it happens, how it happens, and why it is so hard to make it “unhappen”
A Tyler Cowen blog post
Everyone really – it clarifies all thinking on both drugs and a lot of behavior.
How the Book Changed Me How my life / behaviour / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.
My Top 4 Quotes
As with every addict, my days of actually getting “high” were long past. My using was compulsive and aimed more at escaping reality than at getting off. I’d banged my head against the wall long enough to realize that nothing new was going to happen—except perhaps through the ultimate escape, death, which frankly didn’t seem like that big a deal.
This accomplishment would seem almost unremarkable to most addicts, who know firsthand that there is nothing we would not do, no sacrifice too great, to be able to use.
Addiction today is epidemic and catastrophic. If we are not victims ourselves, we all know someone struggling with a merciless compulsion to remodel experience by altering brain function. The personal and social consequences of this widespread and relentless urge are almost too large to grasp. In the United States, about 16 percent of the population twelve and older meet criteria for a substance use disorder, and about a quarter of all deaths are attributed to excessive drug use.
In purely financial terms, it costs more than five times as much as AIDS and twice as much as cancer. In the United States, this means that close to 10 percent of all health-care expenditures go toward prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of people suffering from addictive diseases, and the statistics are similarly frightening in most other Western cultures. Despite all this money and effort, successful recovery is no more likely than it was fifty years ago.
Although reliable estimates are hard to come by, most experts agree that no more than 10 percent of substance abusers can manage to stay clean for any appreciable time. As far as illnesses go, this rate is almost singularly low: one has about twice as good a chance of surviving brain cancer.
My aim in writing this book is to share these principles and thus shed light on the biological dead end that perpetuates substance use and abuse: namely, that there will never be enough drug, because the brain’s capacity to learn and adapt is basically infinite. What was once a normal state punctuated by periods of high, inexorably transforms to a state of desperation that is only temporarily subdued by drug.
“Alcohol makes you feel like you’re supposed to feel when you’re not drinking alcohol.” Among other things, I wondered why, if the drug can
The chief of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, George Koob, has said that there are two ways of becoming an alcoholic: either being born one or drinking a lot. Dr. Koob is not trying to be flip, and the high likelihood that one or the other of these applies to each of us helps explain why the disease is so prevalent. I agree that many who end up like me have a predisposition even before their first sip but also appreciate that enough exposure to any mind-altering drug will induce tolerance and dependence—hallmarks of addiction—in anyone with a nervous system. Unfortunately, though, no scientific model can yet explain my quick and brutal slide to homelessness, hopelessness, and utter desolation. Choosing
Until about ten seconds before the first time I used a needle, I thought I’d never inject drugs. Like most people, I associated needles with hard-core use. That is, until I was offered a shot.
All of us face countless choices, and there is no bright line separating good and bad, order and entropy, life and death. Perhaps as a result of following rules or conventions, some live under the delusion that they are innocent, safe, or deserving of their status as well-fed citizens. But if there is a devil, it lives inside each of us. One of my greatest assets is knowing that my primary enemy is not outside me, and for this I am grateful to all my experiences. We all have the capacity for wrong; otherwise we could not, in fact, be free.
The opposite of addiction, I have learned, is not sobriety but choice.
I’d finally reached the dead end where I felt I was incapable of living either with or without mind-altering substances. This bleak situation describes the condition of many, if not all, addicts and illustrates why relatively few recover. Despite being depleted, they think the cost of abstinence seems much too high: Without drugs, what is there to live for anyway? Eventually,
a willingness to take risks, and perseverance that make a bulldog seem laid-back have all contributed to the successes I’ve had as a neuroscientist.
Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another. —Juvenal (Roman poet, A.D. 60–130)
The idea that I am my brain still guides the efforts of thousands of neuroscientists around the world as we work to connect experience to neural structures, chemical interactions, and genes.
behavior. In fact, it’s beginning to seem that the brain is more like a stage for our life to be acted out upon than like the director behind a curtain calling shots. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to assume that all of our thoughts, feelings, intentions, and behaviors at least have correlates in electrical and chemical signals in the brain, because there’s not a whit of evidence to suggest otherwise.
And the vast majority of us are trichromats, meaning that we perceive thousands of different colors by the combined activity in just three types of color-sensitive neurons. But some lucky individuals have a mutation that gives them a fourth type of color sensor, and even though they may not be aware of their mutant gift, they are more likely to have careers as artists or designers. The most important lesson here, though, is that our senses constrain our experience by offering us a relatively thin slice of what’s out there—a highly filtered version of our environment.
The fundamental role of the brain is to be a contrast detector. As experiences are distinguished from monotony, they spark neurochemical changes in specific brain circuits, informing us of all we care to know: opportunities for food, drink, or sex; danger or pain; beauty and pleasure, for example. The process of actively maintaining the stable baseline critical for conducting the brain’s business of contrast detection is called homeostasis, and it depends on having a set point, a comparator, and a mechanism for adjustment. It is easy to appreciate this principle in terms of body temperature, which is maintained around ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit. If you become much warmer or colder than this, your body feels it, and there are mechanisms to return you to baseline, such as sweating or shivering. Feelings are also constrained within tight bounds under normal conditions. What we generally experience is our personal neutral okayness; otherwise we’d be incapable of detecting “good” or “bad” events.
All drugs affect multiple brain circuits, and variation in their sites of neural action accounts for their different effects. However, all addictive drugs are addictive precisely because they share the ability to stimulate the mesolimbic dopamine system. Countless studies have demonstrated that the squirt of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens from addictive substances (including chocolate and hot sauce!) is associated with the substances’ pleasurable outcome. Some, like cocaine and amphetamine, are universally effective; others seem to have a bigger influence on mesolimbic dopamine in some individuals than in others (for example, marijuana and alcohol), and some that have been labeled addictive probably aren’t. For instance, most research suggests that the psychedelic LSD does not stimulate the mesolimbic pathway. From this and related evidence, the majority of addiction researchers would argue that LSD is not an addictive drug.
pleasure. But in general, the mesolimbic pathway conveys a transient good time, not a stable sense of hopefulness
possible. Without dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, nothing, not a letter from a friend, an especially beautiful sunset or piece of music, or even chocolate,
recent years, new evidence has shown that dopamine in the mesolimbic pathway works not exactly by signaling pleasure but by signaling the anticipation of pleasure. This anticipatory state is not the same as the pleasure associated with satisfaction, contentment, or release, but rather the anxious, lip-smacking foretaste of something of import that is just around the corner.
or really valuable (oxygen to a deprived organism). In other words, this system alerts us to the anticipation of a meaningful event, not to pleasure per se. Pleasurable stimuli happen to be meaningful, but many other things are also inherently meaningful to an organism that has evolved to survive in ever-changing conditions.
Parkinsonian deficits occur between the desire to move and the movement circuitry, which are both intact.
Besides being slower to enact intentions, low dopamine is also associated with higher-than-average orderliness, conscientiousness, and frugality. In other words, it confers a tendency toward rigidity in areas other than movement.
To sum all this up, dopamine in the mesolimbic circuit leads us to appreciate opening doors, and dopamine in the nigrostriatal circuit enables us to do so. Drugs of abuse (as well as natural reinforcers like food and sex) stimulate both of these pathways, which is how drugs make us feel good and why we seek them.
Another aspect of our control over delivery is timing. Natural stimuli increase activity of the mesolimbic system by recruiting chemicals in a cascade of neural changes that come about gradually, generally after a few minutes. Drugs, on the other hand, are absorbed rapidly and act directly to produce nearly instantaneous changes in neurotransmitter levels, including dopamine. The difference is something like the slow bloom of dawn versus switching on a floodlight.
In general, the more predictable and frequent the dosing, the more addictive a drug will be.
The very definition of an addictive drug is one that stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, but there are three general axioms in psychopharmacology that also apply to all drugs: All drugs act by changing the rate of what is already going on. All drugs have side effects. The brain adapts to all drugs that affect it by counteracting the drug’s effects.
Exogenous (made outside the body) drugs often work this way because their shape sufficiently mimics endogenous
Repeated administration of any drug that influences brain activity leads the brain to adapt in order to compensate for the changes associated with the drug.
An addict doesn’t drink coffee because she is tired; she is tired because she drinks coffee. Regular drinkers don’t have cocktails in order to relax after a rough day; their day is filled with tension and anxiety because they drink so much. Heroin produces euphoria and blocks pain in a naive user, but addicts can’t kick a heroin habit, because without it they are in excruciating pain. The brain’s response to a drug is always to facilitate the opposite state; therefore, the only way for any regular user to feel normal is to take the drug. Getting high, if it occurs at all, is increasingly short-lived, and so the purpose of using is to stave off withdrawal.
Eventually, exposure to a favorite drug results in virtually no change in mesolimbic dopamine, but withholding it leads to a big drop, which we experience as a feeling of disappointment and craving. Thus the most profound law of drug use is this: there is no free lunch.
Having a set point enables meaningful interpretation of a stream of ceaselessly changing input. Sustained feelings in either direction impede our ability to perceive and thus respond to new information, so the nervous system imposes transience. This means that if something truly wonderful happens—you meet Prince or Princess Charming—the elation will not last. On the other hand, even the most terrible calamity won’t result in perpetual despair. This is also true with more mundane stimuli: we can probably all relate to the letdown after returning home from a great vacation, or to the flood of relief after a near accident on our commute.
While different people may have different set points, for any individual the neutral state is robustly maintained throughout life. Happy-go-lucky kids tend to be contented adults, and pessimists generally remain so whatever their circumstances.
Though for regular drug users affective stability makes it impossible to maintain a high, chronic use of stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine may actually modify the affective set point. Unfortunately for users, this alteration is always in the “wrong” direction, resulting in lower baseline mood.
Persistent change in response to environmental input is called learning, and all organisms with a CNS—from cockroaches to the Dalai Lama—learn. As it turns out, memories, which are traces of learning, serve as Joe’s escape from the terror and tedium of his helpless consciousness in a hospital bed in Johnny Got His Gun. They are also, in
The term “tachyphylaxis” (TACKY-phil-axis), meaning “acute tolerance,” refers to the adaptive, compensatory changes that begin as soon as alcohol reaches the brain. A large and rather arcane literature surrounding tachyphylaxis has a practical implication that, were it widely known, might be a real boon to DUI defense lawyers and their clients. It turns out that there is a reliable and interesting twist in the relationship between blood alcohol level and impairment, due to tachyphylaxis. When
Virtually as soon as a drug begins to act on the brain, the brain begins to adapt—to counteract—that action. Thus, there is good rationale for arguing that despite a high BAC (blood alcohol concentration), because you are in a state of tachyphylaxis, you are really okay to drive. Good luck persuading the judge! In
If we are talking about drug use, we can think of the a process as what the drug does to the brain. Big doses produce large a processes, and protracted stimuli produce long-lasting a processes. But for each a process, there is a b process. The b process is the brain’s response to the a process, or the brain’s response to what the drug does to the brain, counteracting the changes in neural activity produced by the stimulus in an effort to return brain activity to its neutral, homeostatic state. When
While the a process is a direct reflection of the stimulus and so is always the same if the stimulus is the same (a certain number of ounces of alcohol or milligrams of heroin, for instance), this is not so with the compensatory b process. Generated by a powerfully adaptive nervous system, the b process learns with time and exposure. Repeated encounters with the stimulus result in faster, bigger, and longer-lasting b processes that are better able to maintain homeostasis in the face of disruption. Moreover, the b process can be elicited solely by environmental stimuli that promise the a process is coming—which is what happened with Pavlov’s dogs, who learned to salivate even when food was not present.
It also explains why the states of withdrawal and craving from any drug are always exactly opposite to the drug’s effects. If a drug makes you feel relaxed, withdrawal and craving are experienced as anxiety and tension. If a drug helps you wake up, adaptation includes lethargy; if it reduces pain sensations, suffering will be your lot.
My clever undergraduates are quick to point out a flip side to Solomon and Corbit’s model: if you want to achieve a sustained positive state, you could submit yourself to negatively charged experiences. This way the opponent process would be positive. Solomon and Corbit argued that such a pattern may be at work in an activity like skydiving. Jumping out of an airplane at several thousand feet produces intense feelings of arousal and panic, even feelings associated with impending death. They would probably last for much of the air time and certainly for all of the “free fall.” As the stimulus ends and your feet are miraculously back on solid ground, not only is the panic gone, but according to hobbyists it is like being awash in feelings of extreme calm and well-being. The relief following an intensely stressful experience, if you live through the event, may make it all worthwhile. Maybe this helps explain why people push themselves to exercise or go to graduate school.
The hallmarks of addiction—tolerance, withdrawal, and craving—are captured in the consequences of the b process. Tolerance occurs because more drug is needed to produce an a process capable of overcoming a stronger and stronger b process. Withdrawal happens because the b process outlasts the drug’s effects. And craving is virtually guaranteed because any environmental signal that has been associated with the drug can itself elicit a b process that can only be assuaged by indulging in the drug. This might happen at cocktail hour, during stressful times, or even upon awakening if that’s when you typically start using; in particular contexts such as bars or family gatherings; or in the presence of specific cues such as spoons, dealers, and paychecks, which is one of the reasons intense feelings of craving continue to frustrate recovery. To this day, and seemingly out of the blue, a certain warmth and humidity in the air or a specific type of music can make my mouth pucker with the anticipation of tequila.
Cutting-edge treatments take almost the opposite tact from the pastoral setting strategy (unless of course your using primarily took place on the farm). Following detox and some stability in mood and physiology (usually after several weeks of clean time), the addict is purposely exposed to cues that used to coincide with using, but this time within a supportive, therapeutic context. Wads of cash, drawing fluid into a syringe, or experiencing a disappointing day at first is likely to produce profound physiological and psychological effects such as changes in heart rate, body temperature, and mood. But with repeated exposure (and no drug delivery), such responses indicative of the b process begin to dissipate and eventually disappear. So, it is possible to extinguish a craving over time, as the brain adapts again, but this time to the non-predictive value of the cues.
Addiction differs in many ways from diseases typical of the broad category, a fact that took me several years to appreciate. Though I believed—and still do—that it is a brain disorder, it’s not like having a tumor or Alzheimer’s disease. Both of these can be definitively diagnosed by identifying particular cellular changes. Diabetes or high cholesterol is even easier to assess—by a simple blood test—and obesity is determined by a body mass index. On the other hand, there are no clear-cut tests to determine whether one is, or is not, an addict, and in addition to making diagnosis murky, this lack of clarity hinders efforts to cure the disease. If we remove the tumor or other errant structures, restore an appropriate insulin response, or lose enough weight, related diseases might indeed be cured. In the case of addiction—really a disorder of thought, emotion, and behavior resulting from widespread adaptation in multiple brain circuits—a cure is unlikely aside from removing most of the matter above my shoulders.
There are many contributors to this tendency toward excess, but ultimately my behavior is extreme because the stimuli (that is, drugs) have had such a potent impact on me relative to natural stimuli. The nervous system of an addict is acting normally and predictably in response to such consequential input, and addiction is a natural consequence. It’s also not likely to be prevented
The lackadaisical habits of so-called normal people who leave drinks half finished, snort a few lines on a Friday night, or occasionally smoke a cigarette with friends are strikingly different from those of addicts. Though adaptation still occurs in “chippers,” it is virtually imperceptible because of the irregular and low-dose patterns of use.
- The term “plasticity” is used by neuroscientists to refer to the ability of the brain to modify its structure and function. Though changes are always possible (that is, we remain somewhat plastic until the day we die), they are especially likely during periods of rapid development, until the age of about twenty-five years.
From the first time I got high until long after I’d smoked my last bowl, I loved marijuana like a best friend. This is not hyperbole. Some people it makes sleepy, others paranoid (due, no doubt, to an unfortunate confluence of neurobiology and genetics), but for me it was nearly perfect. One
If alcohol is a pharmacological sledgehammer and cocaine a laser (and they are), marijuana is a bucket of red paint. This is so for at least two reasons. First is its well-known ability to accentuate attributes of environmental stimuli: music is amazing, food delicious, jokes hilarious, colors rich, and so on. Second, its effects are neither precise nor specific, but modulatory and widespread. It’s a five-gallon bucket with a four-inch brush, painting up the gain on all kinds of neural processing.
It seems that anandamide and similar compounds evolved along with the CB1 receptor to modulate normal activity, highlighting important neurotransmission. The normal activity of the brain, as we’ve discussed, mediates all of our experiences, thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. The cannabinoid system helps to sort our experiences,
good. The millions of neurons involved in this discovery—including those involved in processing input from your senses, stimulating movement, coding memories or thoughts connecting this good thing to your plans or communicating it to others—are likely all releasing cannabinoids to turn up the volume on this information, helping to distinguish it from the other parts of your day in which interactions with the environment weren’t all that special.
This should make it easy to understand why the stimuli we encounter when stoned are so intensely rich. Sights, sounds, tastes, and thoughts that might otherwise be average take on incredible attributes. Early in my love affair with pot, I remember finding Rice-A-Roni so astoundingly delicious I couldn’t imagine how it stayed on the shelves of the grocery stores. Today I’d have to be backpacking for at least a week before I’d even find it palatable, but with my synapses primed for import, food is exceptional, music transcendent, concepts mind-blowing. What a wonderful treat
After I got sober, it took me a little over a year to go a single day without wishing for a drink, but it was more than nine years before my craving to get high abated. For the longest time, I couldn’t go to indoor concerts, especially if I was in proximity to pot. Good sinsemilla would induce a sort of mini panic attack. I’d
Predictably, chronic exposure leads to substantial consequences. The brain adapts by downregulating the cannabinoid system.2 “Downregulation” is a general term describing processes that work to ensure homeostasis, which in this case translates to a dramatic reduction in the number and sensitivity of CB1 receptors. Without copious amounts of pot on board, everything is dull and uninspiring.
There’s been a long-standing debate, akin to one about the relationship between cancer and smoking in many ways, about whether regular marijuana smoking leads to an amotivational syndrome (“amotivational” means lacking motivation). For instance, does regular use lead to spending long hours on the couch watching cartoons, or does it just so happen that people who like to sit around watching television (or poring through shells at the beach) also enjoy marijuana? Because correlation doesn’t mean causation, cigarette companies argued for decades that a predisposition for cancer and the tendency to inhale cigarette smoke just coincidentally occur in the same people. In both cases, common sense and mounting evidence point to the same thing. Downregulation of CB1 receptors might make the user more suitable for jobs that don’t require creativity or innovation, exactly the effects that initial exposure seemed to stimulate.
“Great,” I said. “How’s it with your kids when you’re not high?” “Increasingly irritating and tedious,” he admitted.
So, if you smoke weed, remember that infrequent and intermittent use is the best way to prevent downregulation and its unfortunate effects: tolerance, dependence, and a loss of interest in the unenhanced world.
Unlike stimulants, or even alcohol, the subjective effects of these drugs seem almost perfectly subtle as they bestow utter contentment.
Among women, who are most likely to take these medications (partly because they are more likely to suffer from chronic pain), the first decade of the twenty-first century saw a 400 percent increase in lethal overdoses.
The drive to change our subjective experience is universal, and there are many like me who will try anything that might get us high. Therefore, the solution is not to be found on the supply side, but rather depends on a change in demand, and that’s likely to be an inside job.
The patients recognized in their friend’s death a sign of high-quality dope. You’ve probably seen similar phenomena in your community; regional bursts in overdoses tend to occur not because most addicts don’t know what’s to be found but because they do. They are victims of the laws of pharmacology who fail to recognize that even drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil, which are thousands of times as potent as heroin, can’t deliver the desired effects to a learned brain (though, unfortunately, they remain potent enough at depressing respiration, which is how they can be lethal). Dream
Stimulants increase activity, hallucinogens alter perception, and sedative-hypnotics slow brain activity and promote sleep.
From a neuroscience perspective, the appeal of opiate drugs is easy to understand. The large class of narcotics, from heroin, fentanyl, and oxycodone to their less potent analogs like tramadol and codeine, all work by mimicking endorphins (endogenous morphine-like substances), the body’s natural painkillers. It turns out that our brains manufacture an incredibly rich and varied pharmacopoeia of these natural opioids, the sheer number and wide distribution of which suggest that they play a critical role in our survival.
Suppose you are overcome with pain and fear and spend what remains of your life writhing on the floor of your apartment until you bleed to death or are dispatched some other way. This is unlikely to help you survive or—more to the point—reproduce in the future. Instead, within about ninety seconds of the alarming encounter, cells in your brain will stimulate gene activity to direct the synthesis of endorphins, which are quickly released to produce effects throughout the central nervous system: blocking pain transmission, inhibiting the panic response, and hopefully facilitating an escape. It is easy to see how modulating pain and suffering would provide evolutionary advantage to an organism.
There are dozens of different opioids manufactured by the brain (including actual morphine). Experiments have shown that these chemicals serve a range of critical functions including modulating activities like sex, attachment, and learning.
These have been collectively called anti-opiates, and they produce exactly the opposite effects as narcotics. Why did evolution or that benevolent Creator decide we need compounds that enhance suffering and restlessness?
Once you are no longer in immediate danger, it would actually be helpful to perceive your pain rather than to remain analgesic. Otherwise you might still die—just more slowly—from loss of blood or, eventually, infection. So the brain doesn’t wait for the endorphins to naturally degrade. Instead, the edges of perception are sharpened by a flood of anti-opiates. In fact, pain has two primary purposes: the first is to teach us to avoid dangerous stimuli or situations, and the second is to encourage recuperation after failing the first lesson. Another potential rationale for the existence of anti-opiates was outlined in earlier chapters: the brain’s role as contrast detector relies upon a stable baseline. Anti-opiates restore the brain to its baseline most efficiently. One
But if a drug makes your mouth water, the cues associated with the drug would give you cotton mouth instead. This apparent contradiction is understood by appreciating whether or not a stimulus acts directly on the CNS and recruits homeostatic processes. A drug does. Dinner does not.
But the anti-opiate system is the cruelest. Because an addict’s nervous system is regularly flooded with compounds that produce euphoria, the anti-opiate system ramps up to create pain so that the net effect is something like normal sensation. This opposing anti-opiate system can be turned on by safety, or by the expectation of safety after danger passes, but it’s likely that there is no more effective way to activate anti-opiate processes than through regular exposure to opiates, which must
Adaptations that underlie opiate addiction, including the production of anti-opiates, begin during the very first administration (this is true of all drugs) and rapidly gain strength with use. The strength of these opponent processes may be so robust because the sensation of pain is so critical for survival.
Addicts can administer upwards of 150 times the dose that would be lethal to naive users and, even so, just feel “right” but not really high. In
Methadone acts as a substitute opiate—one that is orally absorbed and has an especially long half-life. Drinking a daily “cocktail” at the clinic prevents withdrawal (as well as antisocial activities that help keep withdrawal at bay, like stealing and shooting up in public places), and because the drug is so cheap, it’s been seen as of great benefit—though likely less to the addicts than to members of their communities.
A better strategy from a neurological perspective might be to employ the opposite tack. Instead of bathing the cells in opiates for long periods, knock them over the head with a big dose of anti-opiates! Giving anti-opiates should induce the brain to maintain homeostasis by upregulating, or at least normalizing, its opioid system. This has in fact been tried and in some ways works like a charm. Here’s how it goes: you check into a hospital, receive general anesthesia (the reason for this will be clear momentarily), and take a whopping dose of Narcan. This drug occupies all of the same sites opiates do but doesn’t activate them. If Narcan is administered to unsedated addicts who haven’t been using, they will come unglued—instantaneously experiencing the throes of withdrawal. However, if they are anesthetized while their brain is bathed with high doses of the drug, then the cells adapt back to their naive state in fairly short order.
Suboxone is a combination of a Narcan-like drug and an opiate drug called buprenorphine. Buprenorphine doesn’t have much street appeal for the same reason it’s a good choice here: although it occupies the same places in the brain as opiate drugs, it doesn’t do as good a job and therefore it is much less rewarding than its abused counterparts. However, the effects are potent enough to reduce symptoms of withdrawal, including craving, and to allow addicts to sleep. It’s less stigmatizing than methadone, but even more important, under a doctor’s supervision, it won’t make the addiction stronger. For someone motivated to get clean, this could provide a sound start. If the dose is tapered over time, it’s likely to afford the best shot at a life free from opiate addiction.
This custom certainly hasn’t diminished in the past couple of centuries, and it presents a tremendous challenge to recovery.
The manic insistence on ignoring the obvious is reminiscent of cigarette commercials I grew up watching. The juxtaposition of youthful athleticism with a nicotine habit seemed as odd to me as a child as the insistence today that alcohol somehow makes everything sexier and livelier. I still remember one commercial in particular that showed a group of gorgeously tanned young adults whitewater rafting down a rugged canyon as they promoted a popular menthol brand. Really? Smoking while rafting?
True, at times life can be awful, disappointing, terrifying, or mind-numbingly tedious. But just the same, there is the frequent possibility of being overcome with joy, gratitude, or delight. In short, it is likely impossible to tamp down terror without also leveling pleasure. As Socrates noted, and many appreciate, sorrow and joy depend on each other; I prefer the roller coaster to the train.
People also take drugs in order to reduce unpleasant feelings. This tendency is called negative reinforcement, and the motivation it provides is critical. Alcohol and other downers are negatively reinforcing in part because they reduce anxiety; opiates are so compelling because they reduce suffering; stimulants because they reduce boredom. Moreover, because alcohol reduces anxiety, this drug will be more reinforcing to those who are naturally anxious than to those who are not, increasing the risk of regular drinking in such individuals. There is good evidence that those of us who are naturally inclined toward any of these predisposing states are more likely to abuse the “complementary” substance.
However, because the brain adapts to the neural changes wrought by any drug, the effects of chronic exposure are going to undermine any attempts at self-medication. Alas, if someone finds alcohol especially rewarding because of an inherited tendency toward anxiety and she imbibes frequently, she’ll become
Other people have deficiencies in the primary enzyme that is responsible for metabolizing nicotine, and for these smokers the concentration of the drug in the blood gets higher and stays high longer. Because too much of this drug is also unpleasant, these people are less likely to smoke, and when they do, they are more likely to successfully quit. Chalk one up for positive punishment.
In other words, addicts may be those who are especially charmed by the quality of carrots and immune to the beating of sticks, as any municipal court could attest.
Because the process of fermentation is so simple, it has been discovered and exploited by virtually every human culture.
Paradoxically, the simplicity of the ethanol molecule is what makes it so difficult to understand. Molecules of cocaine, THC, heroin, and ecstasy are much larger and more structurally complex, and therefore their sites of action in the brain are very specific. Alcohol is so small and wily its actions are hard to pin down. It’s easy to imagine that there are many more places to park a skateboard than an airplane. Because the effect of a drug is dependent on this “parking” or “binding,” and alcohol does this at multiple sites, its effects are also much less specific.
Cocaine blocks a protein that recycles dopamine, and because dopamine hangs around longer than usual, we feel euphoric and energized. For alcohol, the target(s) are not as clear, which is to say that the mechanisms of drunkenness are still being worked out.
Alcohol also reduces activity at glutamate receptors. Glutamate happens to be the primary excitatory neurotransmitter, so this plus GABA inhibition really tamps down the electrical activity of neurons. Glutamate is also critical for forming new memories, and if I had blacked out that day (that is, forgotten chunks of experience), it likely would have been from alcohol’s ability to impede glutamate’s activity. Because glutamate and GABA are so prevalent, alcohol slows neural activity throughout the brain, not just in a few pathways, explaining the drug’s global effects on cognition, emotion, memory, and movement.
We have long known that alcohol use rapidly leads to the synthesis and release of beta-endorphin, a string of thirty-one amino acids that is thought to contribute to the drug’s euphoric and relaxing effects by increasing mesolimbic dopamine levels and inhibiting the “fight or flight” response. This system is the target of one of the pharmaceutical strategies to combat alcohol abuse, naltrexone, a longer-acting and orally available cousin of naloxone, which is marketed as Narcan. Both naltrexone and naloxone firmly park on opioid receptors but don’t activate them. (Thus they are called opioid antagonists.) Naltrexone, marketed as ReVia and Vivitrol, occupies these sites for relatively long periods so that when a person drinks alcohol, any endorphin activity is rendered moot. Narcan/naloxone doesn’t hang around as long but effectively reverses an opiate overdose by fitting even better than opiates do into the “parking” spot and therefore kicking them out.
Data such as these suggest that some of us are especially likely to find alcohol reinforcing because we can use it to medicate an innate opioid deficiency. Perhaps the “hole in my soul” I felt finally filled in my friend’s basement was nothing more than a flood of endorphins at last quenching destitute receptors. The heritable differences in endorphin signaling between those at low risk (left) and high risk (right) for alcohol abuse.
As the concentration in the blood and brain increases, judgment is impaired and motor skills decline while risky behavior increases, along with memory and concentration problems, emotional volatility, loss of coordination, including slurred speech, and confusion. Finally, nausea rises and vomiting begins as the area postrema, otherwise known as the brain’s vomit center, reflexively works to expel the poison. Eventually, the drinker could fall into a coma. If intoxication occurs very rapidly—for instance, by guzzling high-potency beverages on an empty stomach—it’s possible for the anesthetic effects to occur before the vomit reflex is engaged. In this case, as the brain is shut down, it’s possible to die from overdose.
Binge drinking is risky for anyone, but particularly for those whose brains are still developing. The impact of high alcohol concentrations during this “plastic” period leads to lasting alterations in brain structure and function and is more likely to result in an alcohol use disorder. The converse is also true: one of the most effective ways to curtail the risk of addiction is to avoid intoxication during periods of rapid brain development. People who begin drinking in their early teens, as I did, are at least four times more likely to eventually meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. In fact, the lifetime risk for substance abuse and dependence decreases about 5 percent with each additional year between ages thirteen and twenty-one.8 Yet young people are especially prone to binge drinking in part because they are neurobiologically primed to seek and appreciate novel and high-risk experiences. Though their parents may not appreciate it, for adolescents these tendencies are well timed to promote the development of adult goals and identity formation.
Lower blood volume and slower metabolism may also partly explain the steeper dive in women alcoholics who more quickly progress to organ damage, disordered use, and death from drinking.
As a rule, sedation is not as much enjoyed as stimulation, which is why, despite its popularity, alcohol is not as addictive as are some other drugs. Over 85 percent of the world’s adults drink, but only about one-tenth of these develop a problem. Also, even though the ethanol in all alcoholic beverages is the same molecule, different beverages contain different congeners or impurities from the distillation process, often connected to the source—tequila has more congeners than vodka—that can affect the experience of intoxication and withdrawal
While the consequences have generally gotten stricter, the per capita consumption both here and worldwide has been rising fairly steeply since my heyday. Excessive use of alcohol now results in about 3.3 million deaths around the world each year.9 In Russia and its former satellite states, one in five male deaths is caused by drinking. And in the United States during the period between 2006 and 2010, excessive alcohol use was responsible for close to 90,000 deaths a year, including one in ten deaths among adults aged twenty to sixty-four, translating to 2.5 million years of potential life lost. More than half of these deaths and three-quarters of the years of potential life lost were due to binge drinking.
In fact, alcohol killed about twice as many people in 2016 as prescription opioids and heroin overdoses combined, and even this number would be almost three times higher if it included drunk-driving-related deaths.
place. For example, by the 1970s, Valium was the single most prescribed brand of medicine in the United States, used by about one in five women.
In 2013, close to 6 percent of U.S. adults filled more than thirteen million prescriptions for sedative-hypnotics.
The first true sleep medicine was chloral hydrate, perhaps familiar to some as the knockout drops mixed with alcohol to make a Mickey Finn. A
“hypnotic” refers to their sleep-inducing properties. Because
Unfortunately, the problem with all the drugs that have been developed to treat these serious issues thus far is that with regular use they elicit an opponent process, therefore creating the state they were designed to remedy. The insomniac become sleepless. The anxious become wrecks.
What I liked most about the downer class was the feeling of distance from my feelings.
Or we might speculate that the decline in the use of tranquilizers, caused mostly by negative press and pressure on doctors to reduce the number of prescriptions written, was related to the rise of alcohol use. It would be no wonder, because these drugs essentially represent alcohol in pill form.
Americans changed the name to barbital in a sleight of hand during World War I to permit manufacture of German products in the United States without having to pay royalties.
More recently, Michael Jackson succumbed to a massive dose of Propofol, which his private doctor administered to help him sleep. The very short-acting anesthetic doesn’t share the barbiturate structure, but acts in a similar fashion. It’s a very good anesthetic because it has a really fast onset and short half-life, but like all these drugs, as well as the rest of Mr. Jackson’s pharmacological strategies, doses need to escalate as tolerance develops, making the therapeutic window grow narrower and the risk of accidental overdose grow greater over time.
Speaking of which, both inventors of barbiturates, the chemists Fischer and von Mering, died of overdose after years of dependence.
Not surprisingly, those claims were overstated. Millions of people are now hooked on benzos, but on the bright side it’s not possible to overdose from them alone, so the market is likely to stay strong.
example, whether or not you are able to drink others under the table, or are known as a “lightweight,” has been attributed to the particular makeup of subunits. Structural differences may also confer individual variation in pain sensitivity, anxiety, premenstrual or postpartum depression, diagnosis on the autism
The major difference between benzos and barbiturates is that overdose is virtually impossible with benzodiazepines alone and fairly likely with barbiturates.
Excessive anxiety is estimated to be the sixth leading cause of disability across the globe.5 Anxiety differs from fear in that the latter is an emotional response to a clear and current danger, as opposed to apprehension about possible future events or unfocused or irrational worry. There are many ways anxiety disorders are expressed, including panic disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Anxiety disorders are also linked to depression; these are sometimes thought of as two sides of the same underlying issue(s). Anxiety disorders tend to begin early in life and follow a recurrent, intermittent course, exacting costs on life satisfaction, income, education, and relationships.
In fact, women tend to be two to three times more susceptible to all stress-related disorders, at least partly as a result of neurobiology that is only beginning to be investigated.
The difference between those with ADHD diagnoses and those without is quantitative: for those with the disorder, drug treatment brings their cognition within normal range.
Multiple studies have shown that when these substances are administered in a controlled laboratory setting, virtually everybody enjoys their effects.
other drug effects, including those associated with movement and cognition, tend to get more robust rather than less so with repeated exposures, a phenomenon called sensitization. Sensitization among stimulant users is thought to account for bizarre behavioral and cognitive changes that often develop over time, such as stereotypy. Stereotypy is evident as highly dosed or sensitized individuals engage in purposeless, repetitive movement. There can be other causes of stereotypical behavior besides drugs, but it is common enough among speed users to have its own slang: users often refer to stereotypies as punding or tweaking, as they mindlessly sort, clean, or dis- and reassemble objects,
In fact, there are several documented benefits to regular caffeine use including improvements in mood, memory, alertness, and physical and cognitive performance. It also seems to reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and type 2 diabetes. This is all good news, especially because, unlike many other psychoactive substances, it is legal and unregulated nearly everywhere.
over 1.1 billion people smoke tobacco, and more than 7 million die each year from their addiction. Like
Though I’m also a former smoker and can therefore be self-righteous, I don’t think nicotine is worth dying for. On average, tobacco users lose fifteen years of life.
In fact, the total annual cost of smoking is almost 2 percent of global gross domestic product, which is also about 40 percent of what all the world’s governments spent on education.
Once in the lungs, it is readily absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed to the brain in about seven seconds. (A pack a day smoker takes in over two hundred separate hits of nicotine a day.)
As with all drug addictions, the target concentration is an ideal window between withdrawal and toxicity. Nicotine is metabolized fairly quickly, and a smoker has to regularly dose to avoid withdrawal,
The dynamic adaptations that lead to tolerance within such a short time are mirrored on the other end as tolerance partially decreases during even a few hours of withdrawal, so the first few puffs are the best of the day. The bigger lesson here is the temporal symmetry: tolerance that develops rapidly tends to reverse quickly too, while changes that take longer to accrue tend to persist.
Some of these effects have led to the idea that a nicotine patch might be used to treat cognitive decline in the elderly—the drug can improve some aspects of attention and memory—but the unlikelihood of being able to take anything long term without incurring compensatory adaptations, or substantial side effects, has so far kept these out of the clinic.
Many people notice that drinking makes them want to smoke, or vice versa, and wonder why this is. There are several hypotheses, each of which may explain part of the relationship. For one, any drug that stimulates dopamine greases the rails for another. Because they are both addictive, they can also serve as reminders of addiction, and especially when smoking was okay in bars, the contextual cues were largely overlapping. Also, the arousing effects of nicotine may counteract the sedative effects of alcohol, reflecting the familiar pattern of users counterbalancing uppers and downers. One more hypothesis suggests that smokers can drink more, perhaps because nicotine stimulates digestion and this might decrease alcohol absorption from the gut. So, until further study, we’re not sure whether, overall, the two drugs enhance or counteract each other’s effects.
My relationship with cocaine was more like leaving a mean, unfaithful lover. Pangs of desperate regret mixed with a growing sense of relief. It was like most users of coke and meth in that my compulsion was repulsive even to me, yet I’d have kept on, grinding my jaw tighter, had it not been for Steve’s brief epiphany that probably saved my life. He was the friend who noted with unexpected insight that there wasn’t enough cocaine in the world to satisfy our desire, and somehow—I honestly have no idea how—steered us both away from injecting over the ensuing several months that it took me to get to treatment.
Cocaine is like the sole porn shop in a down-and-out town. You hate yourself for going but end up visiting over and over. While using, especially in a binge, I felt as if I were flooring the gas pedal, headed for a granite wall, unable or unwilling to stop, or even to care. It was the short course to self-loathing, and with every bag my soul grew more and more hollow. Cocaine is the drug I miss the least.
does not involve interacting with a receptor. Instead, they interfere with the recycling mechanism for monoamine neurotransmitters. Though the name monoamine might be new, most people are familiar with the members of this group of neurotransmitters: dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine (or adrenaline), serotonin, and melatonin, chemicals that play major roles in mood and sleep.
Coke, speed, and E all act by blocking transporters. Transporters, like receptors, are proteins embedded in the neural cell membrane, but unlike receptors the function of transporters is to transport (or recycle) released neurotransmitter back into the presynaptic neuron, where it can be repackaged and reused. Transporters are one of the two main ways that synaptic transmission is discontinued; the other is through enzymatic degradation. Without transporters or enzymes to break apart neurotransmitters, synaptic transmission would persist much longer than it does, and therefore the signal would be quite different. When one of these drugs occupies a spot on a transporter, it prevents the monoamines from utilizing their reuptake mechanism and prolongs their effects. In the case of dopamine, for example, indication of something newsworthy would be more like a home alarm than a pop-up notification.
Thousands of people have lost their families, jobs, homes, and lives because the ability of cocaine to extend dopamine’s presence in the synapse seemed worth giving up relatively unimportant stimuli like relationships, a livelihood, and teeth. The half-life is very short (usually less than an hour), and though pharmacologists say the subjective effects last about thirty minutes, in my experience it was more like three, barely enough time to prepare the next bump.
Methamphetamine abuse is a significant problem worldwide. Though rates in the United States have been stable with about a million chronic users, the market is growing quickly in East and Southeast Asia.8 Meth is a Schedule II drug and may be prescribed for ADHD, extreme obesity, and narcolepsy, but amphetamine is more often the choice of physicians because it is less reinforcing than methamphetamine (the addition of a methyl group increases absorption and distribution). Either of these drugs can be neurotoxic when taken at high doses, and there is no treatment for this brain damage.
when all three superpowers (Japan, Germany, and the United States) might have been so as a result of loading their troops with “uppers.”
The half-life of methamphetamine is about ten hours (ten times that of cocaine), but amphetamine’s half-life varies widely—anywhere from seven to thirty hours, depending on the pH of the user’s urine.
In contrast to most other drugs, where there is more or less a linear relationship between time since last using and the experience of craving, with coke and meth craving seems to build over time, and most users relapse within a few weeks.
the way a hungry lab rat must
(As a rule of thumb, it takes about five half-lives to get rid of about 95 percent of any drug, so this one hangs around for a couple of days.)
But for many, the acute effects make this short-term dip well worth a little low. The drug greatly enhances a sense of well-being and produces extroversion and feelings of happiness and closeness to others, due in part to the fact that it impairs recognition of negative emotions, including sadness, anger, and fear. Affective neuroscience (the study of the brain’s role in moods and feelings) has demonstrated quite clearly that we can’t feel what we can’t recognize, so this pro-social bias seems perfectly engineered and helps explain why ecstasy is called the love drug and has been adopted for use by marriage counselors. In terms of unpleasant acute effects, the drug can cause overheating, teeth grinding, muscle stiffness, lack of appetite, and restless legs—none of which are especially contraindicated on a dance floor. At
But, alas, the more you take any drug, the larger the b process grows, and the opponent/dark side of this drug is truly awful. Many regular users look to be headed for a lifetime of depression and anxiety.
For example, primates given ecstasy twice a day for four days (eight total doses) show reductions in the number of serotonergic neurons seven years later.
There were two major findings. First, former and current ecstasy users were virtually identical, and, second, these groups showed significantly more clinically relevant levels of depression, impulsiveness, poor sleep, and memory impairment. Again, these were recreational users, many had not taken the drug for years, and still deficits were strikingly evident.
As discussed, coke, meth, and E interact not with receptors but with transporters, but that in itself is not what makes them dangerous. Indeed, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors as well as older tricyclic antidepressants are some of the most well-known transporter-blocking drugs, and neither shows evidence of permanent brain damage. Even cocaine doesn’t appear to cause the same sort of long-term damage that amphetamines and ecstasy do, perhaps because it—like the antidepressants—stays in the synaptic gap rather than being transported into cells like its more toxic cousins. It seems likely that the presence of these drugs inside the
A singular fact about psychedelics is that the majority of scientists who study abused substances don’t think these are addictive.
Psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT are natural compounds that have been used for millennia by indigenous people in sacred rituals; LSD is a synthetic compound, created by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, in 1938.
and who often bring nothing to the experience but a vacuous yearning.
the very body of the Western heritage at best, in favor of exotic traditions they only marginally understand; at worst, in favor of an introspective chaos in which the seventeen or eighteen years
usually delivered through a paper tab that has been dosed with a small amount of liquid, will induce a trip that lasts for six to twelve hours. Mescaline is similarly long acting, while psilocybin’s duration is about half as long. All of these are typically taken orally and induce rapid and profound tolerance. In fact, besides the fact that they don’t cause dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens, this tolerance is so quick that regular use is pointless.
The first time I tripped, and every time after, was like opening a door into a much more vast and mysterious existence than the one I usually inhabited.
worthwhile. My good fortune was probably partly due to my optimistic constitution and the somewhat idiotic naïveté that characterized the 1980s.
because deep down I knew my smoking was mostly to quell the panic and boredom of not smoking—I
These drugs don’t lead to the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (need I say more?), so nonhuman animals won’t self-administer them.
For instance, khat is so popular in Yemen that its cultivation consumes an estimated 40 percent of the country’s water supply.
In addition to this sense of detachment, sometimes accompanied by a feeling of leaving one’s body, the drugs produce amnesia, so whatever happens under their influence is lost to conscious memory.
addition, at least some of PCP’s effects are due to increased levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate, and excess glutamate has also been implicated in schizophrenia. The
Unfortunately for them, chronic use is bad for the brain. Reflecting the ubiquitous role of glutamate signaling, a variety of negative effects are evident in regular users, supported by parallel research in other animals, including problems with incontinence, cognitive deficits, gross abnormalities in brain structure, deficits in dopamine signaling, and a loss of both dopamine and glutamate synapses. Because these drugs are still used in the clinic, there is some concern, especially regarding pediatric anesthesia, that they may be altering brain structure and function, although studies in humans are so far inconclusive.2 Unwittingly,
There is a well-established positive correlation between exposure to weed or other natural cannabinoids and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The general consensus has been that cannabinoids don’t cause the disorder but can unmask a latent vulnerability, bringing schizophrenic symptoms to the surface that might otherwise have remained below the threshold for detection.
drop in the number of functional CB1 receptors. In such cases, users can expect profound cross-tolerance so that smoking weed would actually be about as effective as smoking the grass in your backyard.
Although inhalant abuse exists worldwide, it’s especially common among the poor and the homeless, including especially children who work or live on the street.
The effects of inhalants are similar to getting drunk, but some people report experiencing something like hallucinations. A sudden sniffing death syndrome may occur, but more commonly these compounds tend to damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and bone in addition to the brain. Repeated use has been linked to cognitive impairment, likely due to degeneration of neural pathways as the axons that conduct information throughout the brain lose function, and perhaps to lead poisoning from huffing gasoline.
Schedule I or II substances were made illegal by analogy. The need for this law was so compellingly obvious, even to Congress, that it was introduced, passed by both houses, and signed by the president of the United States (Reagan) in less than two months. However, like virtually all legal attempts to control the drive to use drugs, it hasn’t made a dent.
one of those people who couldn’t control their use. I thought I was smarter…or more resolute…or more deserving. Besides, I was just getting started and way too young to have a habit. My desperate evasions were just like those of millions of other people determined that they’d never be like a drunkard parent or
Sure, I met some of the criteria some of the time, but my ability to fool teachers, clinicians, and law enforcement stemmed from an ability to fool myself.
say there are four primary reasons people like me develop addictions. Well, actually five, but I’m saving the gloomy news for last. The four are these: an inherited biological disposition, copious drug exposure, particularly during adolescence, and a catalyzing environment. It’s not necessary to have all four, but once some threshold is reached, it’s like breaching a dam—virtually impossible to rebuild. So, with enough exposure to any addictive drug, any one of us will develop the hallmarks of addiction: tolerance, dependence, and craving. But if the biological predisposition is very high, or use starts during adolescence, or certain risk factors are present, less exposure will do the trick. Genetics
for instance, some people might have a tendency toward anxiety or be naturally endorphin deficient, and both of these states can be remedied by drinking.
All genetic influence, we’ve learned, is context dependent and incredibly complex.
The relatively new field of epigenetics is just getting under way, but it is thought that some of our parents’ and grandparents’ experiences are imprinted in our cells this
other words, the experiment suggested that if your parent used THC before you were conceived, you may be at increased risk
It’s increasingly looking as if exposure to drugs of abuse in our parents and grandparents predisposes us to take drugs ourselves—effectively a b process across generations.
concretized by lasting patterns in the brain and behavior. The downside of this is that any neurobiological consequences of drug use are much more profound and longer lasting when exposure occurs during adolescence than when it occurs after about age twenty-five—the neural definition of adulthood.
Beyond the gateway effect, we know that chronic THC users have an increased tendency to feel blue, show more difficulty with complex reasoning, and suffer from things like anxiety, depression, and social problems. Scientists
The heart of the matter is that the brain adapts to any drug that alters its activity and it appears to do this permanently when exposure occurs during development. The more exposure to the substance we have, and the earlier we have it, the more strongly the brain adjusts.
Those with high anxiety—whether they got there from inherited liabilities or stressful experiences, or both—are obviously more likely to enjoy the benefits of sedatives like alcohol and benzodiazepines.
Even today, I’m confounded by people who can drink or use other drugs but don’t. For me, and others like me, nothing short of impending doom (and often even that) would provide enough incentive to forgo pharmacological stimulation. People who stop after only one drink, mete out cocaine like a banker, or keep a bag of weed around for months are entirely foreign to my experience and beyond my capacity to comprehend.
For example, on some reservations close to half of children are born with fetal alcohol poisoning, and rates of addiction are similarly through the roof.
However, no biological differences have been discovered that explain the higher rate of addiction in these people.
The more closely we examine any aspect of reality, the more we see how much there is to learn. Complexity,
As a result of looking closely at any problem, we increasingly realize the flaws in our assumptions and ask better and better questions. So, I can say with absolute certainty that there’s not “a gene” for addiction, nor is it caused by a “moral weakness”; it doesn’t “skip a generation”; all people aren’t equally vulnerable, nor is any one person equally at risk across the life span. In other words, we know a lot about the causes of addiction, and they are complicated.
but “how much more likely am I” to become an alcoholic if my parent or grandparent lost control of his or her drinking than if no one in my immediate family had done so? The answer is about 40 and 20 percent, respectively, versus 5 percent. In
It turns out that we have about half the number of genes as the average potato: around twenty thousand!
The truth is, people like me who are prone to excessive use are less likely than average to be swayed by outside pressure, including punishment. We’re also more likely to ignore public mores
it’s been done with Suboxone/buprenorphine for opiate addicts, with Chantix/varenicline for smokers, and with benzos for alcoholics, to a lesser degree, because the drug is such a generalist.
fact, there is no evidence of addiction among people who use coca in its indigenous form. Risk for addiction likewise increased with distillation of alcohol—yielding concentrations way above the limits of fermentation. And so on. As drugs get more potent, they are easier to traffic, and once they are popular, it’s a pretty good bet that synthetic versions—with even more potency—are on their way.
After being sober for some time, I was stopped at a light early one morning on Spanish River Boulevard in Boca Raton. Glancing over at the car next to me, I noticed a seemingly normal fellow guzzling from a bottle in a brown paper bag. He looked up, and our eyes connected over the edge of the bag. What has haunted me ever since is how thoroughly and quickly I looked away, as if I had done something wrong by noticing his early-morning nip. And I did feel, and can still recollect, a sense of shame and, I’m embarrassed to say, distaste. Why do people who are acting so contrary to their own best interests evoke denial in all of us? A victim of virtually any disease usually elicits pity; addicts mostly evoke revulsion. What is it about the irrational behavior of an addict that makes everyone want to turn away?
and behavior, in ways that are direct and profound. As we grapple to respond to the growing population of addicts, we’d do well to recognize that disordered use comes from, thrives in, and creates alienation. This means that building walls to keep us from our emotions or our neighbors will only make things worse, by feeding the epidemic.
From my Notion Template
The Amazon Algorithm.
Anyone who enjoyed Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger – it’s not as good and could have used an editor, but good nonetheless.
How my life / behaviour / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.
I’m not sure I was changed in any way, but seeing the very, very wide range of human experience is always interesting – particularly how Kemp could just turn the war on an off (rational, since he was a tourist/volunteer) whereas the Spanish on either side could not
Of course, if I had been willing to join the International Brigade and fight for the Republicans it would have been simple; in every country there were organizations, ably directed by the various Communist parties, for that very purpose. But
Certainly the execution of prisoners was one of the ugliest aspects of the Civil War, and both sides were guilty of it in the early months. There were two main reasons for this: first, the belief, firmly held by each side, that the others were traitors to their country and enemies of humanity who fully deserved death; secondly, the fear of each side that unless they exterminated their adversaries these would rise again and destroy them.
Resolved to be the first to welcome the victorious army, he and a Spanish friend of a similar temperament, Ricardo González, of the famous sherry family, loaded his aircraft with crates of sherry and brandy, took off from San Sebastian and soon afterwards landed on the airfield at Santander. A swarm of blue-clad soldiers surrounded the aircraft and Bellville and González climbed out with glad shouts of ‘Viva Franco!’ and ‘Arriba España!’ when they realized with astonishment and dismay that these were Republican militiamen and that Santander was still in enemy hands. They were brusquely marched to prison, transferred to Gijón, in Asturias, just before the fall of Santander and for a week or two were in grave danger of summary execution.
The details of his flight had been arranged in London by a certain Major Hugh Pollard, one of those romantic Englishmen who specialize in other countries’ revolutions.
The Nationalists started with the great advantage that the most important of the fighting Services, the Army, was on their side.
Their difficulty was that the crews, having murdered their officers, were unable to sail or fight the ships effectively until, later on, they were trained and officered by Russians.
So perished in the first few months of the war the finest flower of Spain.
Less wisely, they opened the prisons. These, as Señor de Madariaga points out,9 had been emptied months earlier of their political prisoners by an amnesty of President Azaña, and so could disgorge only common criminals. The latter were immediately enrolled in the various militias, and were responsible for much of the violence and horror that disgraced Republican Spain in the early months of the war.
Apart from Andalusia, where the Anarchist tradition was strong among the peasantry, it is reasonable to say that the agricultural districts were for the Nationalists, the cities and industrial areas were for the Republicans. Thus,
The Russians did for the Republicans roughly what the Germans did for the Nationalists—they supplied technicians and war material of all kinds. In return they exacted a far greater measure of control over Republican policy and strategy than the Germans were able to obtain from Franco; the price of Russian co-operation was Russian direction of the war and the complete domination by the Communist Party of all Republican political and military organizations.14
On many occasions during those early days it was the courage and initiative of individual commanders that turned the scale for the Nationalists. At the end of the war, when I was in Madrid, I heard the comment of an Englishman who had witnessed both the Russian and Spanish revolutions: ‘If Franco’s generals hadn’t had more guts than the White Russian generals, Spain would now be Communist.’
Their job was not made easy for them by the attitude of the military, which seemed to be that all foreign correspondents were spies who must be kept as far as possible from the scene of operations, who were only in the country on sufferance and who ought to be more than satisfied with whatever news the Army cared to issue in the official communiques. This was in marked contrast to the attitude of the Republicans, whose Press and Propaganda services were far superior to those of the Nationalists as their fighting was inferior and who took pains to give journalists and writers all the facilities they required. Although both sides imposed a rigid censorship on all dispatches going out of the country, the Nationalist made virtually no concessions to the Press, while the Republicans laid out enormous sums on propaganda abroad. These factors account in a large measure for the poor Press which the Nationalist received—and of which they ceaselessly complained—in England and the United States.
to look at the ruins of the Alcázar. There was nothing but a vast pile of rubble; the cellars, even the foundations, lay bare, with twisted iron girders sticking through the broken masonry and a great pit in the middle where the Republicans had exploded a mine. From the débris rose a foul stench of ordure and decay. The houses all around the square were pocketed with bullet holes, their windows shattered. A young Carlist from Galicia told us: ‘We are going to leave it like that as a monument to Marxist civilization.’ In fact, no attempt has been made to rebuild the Alcázar, and when I revisited it in the spring of 1951 it looked, and smelt, exactly the same.
It was early when we went to bed but late before I found my sleep. This was due partly to the thoughts racing through my mind, partly to the strangeness of my bed but chiefly to the thunderous sounds punctuating the stillness as my companions broke wind throughout the night.
The day after my arrival two troopers reported for duty incapably drunk; apparently they were old offenders. The following evening Llancia formed the whole Squadron in a hollow square in the main barrack-room. Calling out the two defaulters in front of us he shouted, ‘There has been enough drunkenness in this Squadron. I will have no more of it, as you are going to see.’ Thereupon he drove his fist into the face of one of them, knocking out most of his front teeth and sending him spinning across the room to crash through two ranks of men and collapse on the floor. Turning on the other he beat him across the face with a riding crop until the man dropped half senseless to the ground. He returned to his first victim, yanked him to his feet and laid open his face with the crop, disregarding his screams until he fell inert beside his companion. Then he turned to us: ‘You have seen, I will not tolerate a single drunkard in this Squadron.’ The two culprits were hauled, sobbing, to their feet to have half a bottle of castor oil forced down their throats. They were on duty next day, but I never saw either of them drunk again.
As we came over the crest San Merano gave the order, ‘Charge!’ Spurring our horses, we swept downhill in a cheering line, leaning forward on our horses’ necks, our sabres pointed. In a moment of mad exhilaration I fancied myself one of Subatai’s Tartars or Tamerlane’s bahadurs. Whoever, I exulted, said the days of cavalry were past? Preoccupied with these thoughts and with my efforts to keep station I never thought of looking at our target; nor, it seemed, did anyone else. For the next thing I knew we were in the middle of a bleating, panic-stricken, heard of goats, in the charge of three terrified herdsmen.
The enemy were evidently respecting the hour of the siesta for everything was quiet when we arrived. The
Father Vicente, in great spirits, dominated the gathering. He was the most fearless and the most bloodthirsty man I ever met in Spain; he would, I think, have made a better soldier than priest.
At first they made no progress against our fire. Many fell; some lay down where they were and fired back at us, others turned and ran in all directions, looking for cover, not realizing that this was the most certain way of being killed.
Parties with more divergent political views than the Requetés and the Falange could scarcely be imagined. Writing of ‘this magnificent Harlequin’, Señor de Madariaga says it was ‘as if the President of the United States organized the Republican-Democratic-Socialist-Communist-League-of-the-Daughters-of-the-American-Revolution, in the hopes of unifying American politics’. Either the Falange or the Requetés would have to dominate; the skill at intrigue of the former, and the political ineptitude of the latter made the outcome certain; the Requetés ceased to exert any serious influence on Spanish politics.
A former Chief of Police of the Irish Free State, General O’Duffy launched into Irish politics in the 1930’s, forming his own United Party, or ‘Blueshirts’. Seeing in the Spanish Civil War a chance to increase his prestige in Ireland, he raised a ‘Brigade’ of his countrymen to fight for the Nationalists. The ‘Brigade’ was in fact equal in strength to a battalion, but O’Duffy was granted the honorary rank of General in the Spanish Army.
Like some other Irishmen and some Americans—happily a minority—whose minds cherish the memory of past enmity he had a pathological hatred of the English, which he never tried to conceal. To his men he was known as ‘General O’Scruffy’ or ‘Old John Bollocks’.
It seems to me that nothing illustrates better the superiority of Republican propaganda over Nationalist than the Republican story about Guernica was given immediate and world-wide publicity, and is still generally believed; whereas the Nationalist case scarcely received a hearing.
At a smaller table nearby sat the newspaper correspondents, among them Randolph Churchill, Pembroke Stevens, Reynolds Packard and his wife and Philby of The Times; Churchill’s clear, vigorous voice could be heard deploring with well-turned phrase and varied vocabulary the inefficiency of the service, the quality of the food and, above all, the proximity of the Germans, at whom he would direct venomous glances throughout the meal. ‘Surely,’ he exclaimed loudly, ‘there must be one Jew in Germany with enough guts to shoot that bastard Hitler!’
He was greatly relieved when I assured him that I was not a Freemason; he had been convinced that all Protestants were Masons—a belief shared by most of the other officers. It was a waste of time trying to explain to Spaniards that English Freemasonry was a different thing from the Continental variety, which they abhorred because of its connection with the Popular Front governments in France and Spain. My friend FitzPatrick told me that what eventually finished his career in the Legion was his admission, in the course of an argument, that he was a Mason.
Another officer, Alférez Colomer, a Catalan from Gerona, was about the same age as myself. He was a noisy, rancorous little man, for ever bickering with his brother-officers and bullying his men. He had been badly wounded in an earlier battle, which had perhaps affected his temper; but he always seemed to me to have a chip on his shoulder. His contentious nature was, literally, the death of him: one day, after I had left the Bandera, he became very drunk after a battle, and challenged another officer to a stupid competition to see which of them could pick up more of the unexploded hand-grenades lying in front of their trenches. Colomer picked up one too many; it blew his head off.
He was just as severe on matters not strictly military but reflecting indirectly on the health and efficiency of the cadet. A model of rectitude in his own private life, he was also well aware of the temptations to which young men so easily succumb in a city. He therefore made it an order that every cadet, when walking out in the evening, must carry in his pocket at least one contraceptive. He would frequently stop cadets in the street and demand that they show him this armour; heavy was the penalty for him that failed to produce it.
The motto of the Legion was ‘Viva la muerte!’ It
In contrast, discipline on duty and the field was extremely strict, even savage by English standards. Orders were executed at the double and usually reinforced by threats or imprecations; the slightest hesitation, laxity or inefficiency was punished on the spot by a series of blows across the face and shoulders from the fusta—a pliant switch made from a bull’s pizzle, which was carried by all officers and sergeants. More
If there is any case of an attempt on the virtue of a woman, it will be punished on the spot by death.’ He
The earlier happy atmosphere evaporated without any corresponding gain in efficiency.
The New Year opened sadly for me. On January 31st a Press car containing four friends of mine—Dick Sheepshanks, Kim Philby, and two American correspondents, Eddie Neil and Bradish Johnson—was passing through the village of Caude, eight miles north-west of Teruel, during an enemy artillery bombardment, when a 12.40 cm. shell burst beside it. Sheepshanks and Johnson were killed outright. Neil died a few days later; Philby escaped with a wound in the head.
Campos was a tall, flabby young man, a little stupid and morose. He told me that he had been one of the original members of the Falange in Granada, and that he had taken part in the firing squad that executed the poet García Lorca. I prefer to believe him a liar. The Nationalists, including the Falange, strongly denied any responsibility for Lorca’s death, attributing to the vengeance of his private enemies, of which he had a large number; certainly he had many good friends on the Nationalist side who would have saved him if they could. His murder was a crime that robbed the world of one of its greatest living lyric poets; the mystery of it has never been satisfactorily explained.
They complained bitterly of well-fed Political Commissars who came from Madrid or Barcelona to give them lectures on The Fighting Spirit or The Meaning of Democracy.
At this moment a voice behind me said in English: ‘Excuse me, but didn’t we meet at Cambridge?’ Wondering if I was dreaming I turned and saw a lieutenant of artillery of about my own age, with a pleasant, clean-shaven face. He introduced himself as Guy Spaey. He had, in fact, been a contemporary of mine at Cambridge, where he was at King’s; we had a number of friends in common. Of mixed Belgian, Dutch and German extraction, he had arrived in Spain in October 1936, and immediately joined the Nationalist forces. At the moment of our meeting he was Gun Position Officer of a battery of 10.5 cm. mountain artillery, attached to Lieutenant-Colonel Peñaredonda’s command.
and from the north-west by the First Cavalry Division and the 5th Navarre Division, both under the command of General Monasterio.
Mora let her finish—I think she would have scratched his eyes out if he had interrupted. Then he asked her what she thought her loss was worth, paid her the sum she demanded and told the officer of the Vigilancia to find the offenders; they did a month in the Pelotón. I imagine the Duke of Wellington, who had his troops flogged for similar offences,1 would have approved of Mora.
At first sight von Hartmann, though short and handsome, looked like the typical Prussian officer of stage and screen, with close-cropped hair, scarred face and monocle.
am inclined to turn red in the face when scared, and I couldn’t help laughing when one of the ammunition numbers cried out: ‘Look at the colour of the Alférez’s face! It’s giving away our position.’
About this time I had another lesson in the workings of chance, in the form of a letter from my brother, once again at Gibraltar. He told me that his new observer, Charles Owen, had a brother who was also in the Legion; did I know him? His family were half Spanish and had lived in Vigo before the war. As it happened, there was a lieutenant in the 55th Company who came from Vigo, a sombre but friendly character called Arrieta; upon inquiry I had found that he knew the Owens well: Charles,
Cecil Owen and I must have been the only two British officers in the Corps; meanwhile our only brothers were in the same ship, flying together in the same aircraft. After receiving a citation for the Medalla Militar, Cecil Owen was killed in the Battle of the Ebro at the end of August, serving with the 16th Bandera.
Gay, courageous and sincere, he was one of the sweetest-natured men I have ever met. He did not live long.
At nine o’clock on the morning of February 28th I was ordered to withdraw my guns and rejoin the Bandera below; by ten o’clock I had completed the withdrawal. Around noon a ‘75’ shell landed squarely on top of my recent command post, blowing it inside out.
As we marched along the road we saw ahead of us the ‘circuses’ of our fighters diving in rotation to machine-gun the fleeing Republicans, harrying them incessantly with hand grenades tossed from the cockpits as well as with their guns. Later we heard from prisoners that these grenades, although they caused few casualties, were very demoralizing.
Beyond were several half-ruined shepherds’ huts; against their walls about a dozen prisoners were huddled together, while some of our tank crews stood in front of them loading rifles. As I approached there were a series of shots, and the prisoners slumped to the ground. ‘My God!’ I said to Cancela, feeling slightly sick. ‘What do they think they’re doing shooting the prisoners?’ Cancela looked at me. ‘They’re from the International Brigades,’ he said grimly.
It was over lunch the next day that I nerved myself to ask Cancela: ‘Where do the orders come from that we must shoot all prisoners of the International Brigades?’ ‘As far as we’re concerned, from Colonel Peñaredonda. But we all think the same way ourselves. Look here, Peter,’ he went on with sudden vehemence, ‘it’s all very well for you to talk about International Law and the rights of prisoners! You’re not a Spaniard. You haven’t seen your country devastated, your family and friends murdered in a civil war that would have ended eighteen months ago but for the intervention of foreigners. I know we have help now from Germans and Italians. But you know as well as I do that this war would have been over by the end of 1936, when we were at the gates of Madrid, but for the International Brigades. At that time we had no foreign help. What is it to us if they do have their ideals? Whether they know it or not, they are simply tools of the Communists and they have come to Spain to destroy our country! What do they care about the ruin they have made here? Why then should we bother about their lives when we catch them? It will take years
He paused for breath, then went on: ‘Another thing; I mean no offence to you personally, Peter, but I believe that all Spaniards—even those fighting us—wish that this war could have been settled one way or another by Spaniards alone. We never wanted our country to become a battleground for foreign powers. What do you think would happen to you if you were taken prisoner by the Reds? You’d be lucky if they only shot you.’
it was better to be one of the heroic wounded than one of the glorious dead;
As I unwound the tape from a grenade and slung it across the clearing I understood that at last I was face to face with death; that there was nothing I could do about it. With that realization there came over me an extraordinary sense of freedom and a release from care. A few yards in front of me I caught sight of the red and yellow colours of a Nationalist flag which had been carried by one of our pelotones; it was on the ground beneath the dead body of its bearer. Running forward—I realize now, of course, that this was the most puerile dramatics—I seized the flag and ran back with it; calling encouragement to my men, I waved it in a wide arc. Whether this nonsense had any moral effect I am unable to say: a second or two later there was a soft thud beside me, an anguished shout of warning from my runner—‘Cuidado mí Alférez !—and a violent explosion.
Nearly a year later I learnt that our adversaries this day were a British battalion of the International Brigades; Captain Don Davidson, my informant and one of its Company Commanders, told me that their own casualties were very heavy.
Captain Don Davidson, an English officer of the International Brigades whom I met subsequently, confirmed that I should certainly have been shot if captured. CHAPTER TEN After
In fact it never occurred to me to offer my services to the British Intelligence authorities, even if I had known how to do so; certainly they never approached me—I suppose I was considered too irresponsible.
‘Oh God!’ I prayed, ‘don’t let me die like this, in terror!’ I took a grip on myself, remembering how someone once said to me, ‘You’re never dead till you think you are’.
Sheean had run his own hospital for the British Army in the First World War, after which he had gone to America, where he had a fashionable and lucrative practice lifting the faces of the ageing rich; but his hobby was travelling round Europe, treating wounded ex-Servicemen without payment; just before coming to Spain he had paid a visit to Turkey for this purpose.
Next morning, when I was wheeled down to the operating theatre, I took the bottle with me and asked Scherman if I might use it in place of the anesthetic he couldn’t give me. ‘Certainly! I might even have a nip with you.’ I started with an enormous swig, he with a very small one to encourage me; then he set to work. Whenever the pain became too much for me I signaled him to stop and took a long pull at the brandy. In this way I finished the bottle, feeling comparatively little pain during the operation, although I felt a great deal when the effect of the brandy had worn off. I was quite proud of myself until I remembered that this was the manner in which operations were usually performed before the last century.
Thought Organization Status – Ramble
After hearing a song from him on the show Your Honor I looked him up recently, and discovered that he had a great many albums (some live and compilations, but still) in his late period that I managed to miss during my bluegrass period. That led me to this article on his love lives, which I found quite interesting. I found the line “He had many adulthoods” quite gripping, though not quite accurate.
Upon reflection on his personal life and career in the back of my head while doing a lot of rote cut and paste work I had the thought, “Leonard Cohen was a machine who converted people into art” (not meant as a compliment)
The album cover is one of my favorite photographs
One odd thing I’ve noticed about our current times is how massively illiterate the movements are. Communism in the 1930s actually turned people away, Woody Guthrie prominent among them. There seem to be no foundational texts amongst any of the fringe movements(Defund, the Q people, the Proud Boys, whatever passes for anarchism these days, the very woke, etc, etc).
I first noticed this trend a few years ago in this interview with this… person.
Oddly, I came across this post I wrote a while back
Ideology as the usable consensus of extreme personality types – see my “Let’s Kill Hitler” book idea. Basically the ideology evolves not as the continuation of first principles, but as a series of compromises on the part of part of the extreme personalities involved – basically the ideology is whatever allows a certain collection of extreme personalities to work together. Cooperation is the important thing – not the consequences. An extreme ideology will be composed of extreme members and so forth. See the the alt-right and modern wokeness.
I’m reminded of the Utah Phillips line “common sense of degradation”. The modern unifying feature would seem to be a common sense of alienation from visible society.
I was going to update the post as a clarifier, but it is probably better off as a new paragraph(s).
I think what I’m trying to say is that books are no longer Schelling points. You could always point to some habit or event as not in keeping with the laws of the old testament or das kapital, but can you really point to a new habit or event as something that conflicts with the outrage over George Floyd or gas pipelines? Instead it just evolves with the changing preferences and day to day hatreds of the people drawn to the original Schelling point. Which basically means that the alienated fringe will be both dynamic and dysfunctional. Not a big deal really (what else would they be doing) but with internet and mobile technology they are unified and strangely influential on mass culture. Instead of the top 5% of the population in alienation moving in a thousand different directions they will move in 2 or 3. The lack of textual constraint allows them to keep up with current fashions, trends and technologies. And an active, motivated, unified (same people, shifting goals and language) 5% of people with very strong preferences is a meaningful marketing and voting bloc.
I suppose in a way this is a rediscovery of BJ Campbell’s “auto update” feature of the culture war, but with lack of foundational texts as well as Schelling points added to the explanation.
Thinking about this again – I realize that I’m underemphasizing the role of fashion and ease of coverage by the modern media. “Wokeism” (the Q people not as much) is very, very, very easy, and cheap to cover from a home office – all you have to do is weave a bunch of screenshots from Twitter into an existing story and there you go. Gresham’s law, improperly formulated strikes again – bad stories will drive out good stories based purely on price. Currently the ease of coverage and woke fashion overlap rather well., although crime does seem to be taking away from this a bit.
An aside – it would be great if ChatGPT (or whatever AI is current at the time you read this) came up with an approximate price for each news story. Media articles in whatever form are usually not presented in terms of cost – but it would be great if they were. Say this is what your news source looked like:
If an AI browser plugin created something like that, along with a “Hide under $1000” checkbox I would be eternally grateful.
From my Notion template
It is a very surface level economic history of the United States. Granted – I’m a tough crowd, I’ve read several books on the topic – taken several classes, etc, etc, but there wasn’t that much new in the book.
The Amazon Algorithm
Someone looking for a very rudimentary overview of US economic history
When historians use the term feudalism, they are attempting to describe an economic system in which power relations among people formed the building blocks of society.
Monarchs in Spain, France, and England grew wealthier through trade, which spread from the Mediterranean to coastal West Africa, and then to the Americas. In the process, they consolidated military power at the expense of local lords.
At the same time, these mercantilist exploits brought a major economic downside. The huge amounts of silver shipped back to Spain flooded the currency market, sparking a bout of inflation that lasted a century and crippled the Spanish economy. In spite of its large land-holdings in the Americas, Spain would never recover the economic power it wielded in the early 16th century.
Most of those early migrants lived along the Atlantic coast in former Indian towns that had been abandoned during the plague epidemic that forced survivors inland from the coast in the late 16th century.
fact, the first two successful English colonies in what would become the United States—Virginia (1607) and Massachusetts Bay (1620)—were themselves private companies.
Joint-stock companies, the forerunners of today’s publicly owned corporations, pooled private sources of capital under the official protection of the crown, funding ventures that were too expensive or risky for an individual person. Drawing on a system of legal contracts developed in Italy centuries earlier, 16th-century English monarchs pioneered the practice of issuing corporate charters that granted an exclusive right to trade in a certain area to a particular group of subjects. In addition to creating a helpful monopoly, these charters created legal entities whose ownership was spread among several investors. These people purchased shares, or stock, to make up the whole company, which they owned jointly. Hence, “joint-stock company.”
Approximately 80 percent of the English migrants to Virginia between 1607 and 1624, or close to five thousand, were dead by 1625. Hemorrhaging money and unable to attract new investors, the Virginia Company failed in 1624, when the English government declared Jamestown a royal colony.15
Three years later, approximately one hundred people—a combination of the Separatists who had bought the patent and others who purchased their own passage directly—landed by accident far to the north of Jamestown in a former Massasoit Indian town, which they renamed Plymouth.
(We start to refer to “Britain” instead of “England” after the Acts of Union in 1706 and 1707 by the English and Scottish Parliaments unified those two countries into the United Kingdom of Great Britain.)
The American slave population became self-sustaining in the early 18th century, so even as the international trade declined, the population of enslaved people grew. By
the 1770s, nearly seven hundred thousand people, or 15 percent of the total non-Indian population of the United States, were enslaved.
Almost 95 percent of all enslaved people in the United States at the time of the Founding lived in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. One-third of the population of those southern colonies was enslaved, and approximately one-third of all southern households owned slaves.
The push for national independence grew strongest in the parts of the British empire that could envision their economies operating without the British army present.
On the other hand, Europeans on the periphery of the British empire depended greatly on the mother country. In present-day Canada, which Britain acquired from France after the Seven Years War in 1763, ongoing conflicts between the substantial native population and far-flung European fur traders and fishers meant that colonists depended greatly on British military support. In the slave societies of the West Indies, native inhabitants had been almost entirely annihilated, and small numbers of English colonists owned massive sugar plantations farmed by African slaves, whose numbers eclipsed those of their white owners by as much as ten to one in 1780. Landowners relied on brutal violence, sanctioned and backed by British law, and the strength of the British military, further cementing their ties to the crown.
generations. Beginning in the early 15th century, merchants from kingdoms and city-states along the west coast of Africa established commercial relationships with Portuguese merchants, trading gold and spices for European metals and textiles. From the beginning, African-European commerce included the trade in human beings.
In 1807, both the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress outlawed the international trade of slaves. (The Constitution of 1787, in an effort to forge a compromise between slave-owning interests and antislavery advocates, had included a clause prohibiting any move to ban the trade for twenty years.) By 1820, all other major European powers had as well.
Large plantations certainly wielded disproportionate economic power, but most southern whites were not slave-owners. Historians estimate that, by the time of the Civil War, about 385,000 out of a total of 1.5 million white households in the South owned slaves. (African Americans and Native Americans did not own slaves in significant numbers, and were usually legally barred from doing so.) About half of these slave-owning households owned between one and five slaves; another 38 percent owned between six and twenty. Although they held a vastly disproportionate level of wealth, the remaining 12 percent of slave-owners (those who had twenty-plus slaves) represented only 3 percent of all white households.
In fact, by the mid-19th century, approximately two hundred thousand slaves worked in industrial settings. At the outbreak of the Civil War, more than sixty worked for, and were owned by, William Weaver, a native Philadelphian who moved to Virginia in 1814 to establish an iron forge with two charcoal blast furnaces in the Shenandoah Valley.
A significant number of enslaved people lived in urban areas such as Charleston and Baltimore. There, some slaves labored for, and often alongside, their owners in workshops, but many were owned by urban professionals—doctors, bankers, and lawyers who kept slaves as investment property. Some performed domestic duties, but more often they were hired out to work for private companies or to perform public works projects, such as digging canals or dredging harbors. Slave-owners received hourly pay for their slaves’ labor, and in many cases the enslaved people themselves brought home those wages in cash. In both cases, urban slaves often labored alongside free workers, both black and white.8
By the eve of the Civil War, historians estimate that the total cash value of the 4 million slaves in the American South was $3.5 billion in 1860 money. At more than 80 percent of the country’s total economic output, that figure would be roughly $13.8 trillion today. Understood in that way, enslaved people were capital assets worth more than the country’s entire productive capacity from manufacturing, trade, and railroads combined.
1776, when Thomas Jefferson declared the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” nearly 15 percent of the 4 million non-Indian inhabitants of the United States were enslaved. Although slavery remained legal in all states, almost 95 percent of enslaved people lived south of Pennsylvania, and the highest concentration was in Virginia.
By 1804, every state north of Delaware had legally abolished the practice, and new midwestern states and territories that joined the nation in the decades to come likewise prohibited it.
Slavery in the North died out because of the organizational power of antislavery activists combined with the lack of large-scale commercial agriculture in the region.
Evidence suggests that many, if not most, white northerners had no moral problem with slavery, but few powerful interests had much to gain by defending it.
In 1794, a twenty-eight-year-old Yale-educated New Englander named Eli Whitney, engaged as a tutor for the children of a plantation owner in South Carolina, patented a machine that mechanically separated cotton fibers from cotton seed. According to the traditional story, Whitney invented this “cotton gin” (gin was short for “engine”) after observing enslaved people slowly and painfully removing seeds from cotton balls.
The amount of cotton an individual enslaved person could prepare for export rose as use of the mechanical devices spread. By some estimates, the per-slave cotton yield increased 700 percent.
The results for the cotton industry were astounding. Southern planters produced around 3,000 bales of cotton per year in the early 1790s. By 1820—by which time domestic textile manufacturing had spread considerably—that number approached 450,000. By the eve of the Civil War in 1860, the South grew and exported (either domestically or abroad) nearly 5.5 million bales of cotton per year.
Karl Marx, who was simultaneously capitalism’s fiercest critic and its most trenchant analyst, viewed slavery and capitalism as incompatible.
Just as slavery drove the southern economy, manufacturing became increasingly important to the economies of the Northeast and, by the middle of the 19th century, the Midwest. And just as slavery’s social and economic reach extended far beyond the South, so, too, did industrialization exert a powerful influence on all Americans.
The Boston Associates engaged so-called “mill girls” to perform the difficult and monotonous work of textile production. Primarily the daughters of white Protestant farmers, these workers encountered a paternalistic social system at the mills, designed to “protect” their feminine virtue and convince their parents to allow them the social independence to live away from home. Lowell provided dormitories for workers as well as churches, libraries, and stores.
In 1790, only 5 percent of Americans lived in urban settings; by 1860, 20 percent did.
Unlike roads, waterways allowed merchants to move large quantities of textiles, iron, slaves, and foodstuffs over significant distances. According to one estimate, the amount of money it took to ship a ton of goods from Europe to an American port city would only get the same cargo about thirty miles inland pulled by a wagon.
These trenches—a few feet deep, a few dozen feet across, but sometimes hundreds of miles long—represented a tremendous engineering challenge. They were designed so that draft animals could walk parallel to the water, dragging nonmotorized barges laden with goods. As a result, the
In most cases, municipal governments saw a positive return on their investments, not only in direct payments but also through the tremendous economic growth generated by the new system of canals—three thousand miles’ worth by the 1840s, linking the Atlantic seaboard with midwestern cities such as Terre Haute, Indiana, and Cincinnati, Ohio.
while canals increased the ease with which large quantities of goods could be moved from the interior to the seaboard, ultimately those goods moved only as quickly as the oxen dragging the barges.
The American foray into rail began in 1828, when the state of Maryland chartered the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company, which laid tracks to the west to create an alternative to canal traffic. The first steam-powered locomotive to travel those rails moved slower than a horse, but within two decades, the technology improved. The railroad boom took off in the late 1840s, and the number of miles of tracks multiplied. Americans laid more than twenty-one thousand miles of railroad track in the 1850s. By the eve of the Civil War, a New Yorker could reach Chicago in two days, a trip that would have taken three weeks in 1830.
The U.S. Post Office, which was granted a special license and responsibility by the Constitution to deliver the country’s mail, expanded from seventy-five branches in 1790 to more than eighteen thousand by 1850.
In the 1840s, a group of investors formed a rapid-delivery service that charged customers high fees to move parcels by stagecoach westward from the East Coast. Within ten years, that original partnership broke up into several specialized companies, including Wells Fargo and American Express.
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The first telegraph was created by the French government in the 1790s to allow communication from Paris to twenty-nine cities up to five hundred miles away. But those original telegraph networks were optical, not electronic. To make them work, trained operators staffed towers spaced ten to twenty miles apart, from which they sent coded signals by shifting the positions of specialized panels. Although nothing in the United States matched the complexity of the French system, smaller networks of optical telegraphs emerged along the Atlantic Coast in the first decade of the 1800s, and others connected New York and Boston to their outlying farming communities in the 1810s. Optical
By erecting poles alongside railroad tracks, telegraph companies made all parts of their network accessible, so they could perform maintenance and protect against the elements and sabotage. Thus, as railroads spread across the continent in the mid-19th century, the electronic telegraph went with them.
Yet before 1800, corporate charters were far from common, and almost no business enterprises were incorporated. Because charters had to be granted by the sovereign—the king or Parliament in colonial times; the state or federal legislature after independence—the few corporations extant were almost exclusively public operations, such as turnpikes, bridges, churches, and cities, including New York. During the entire 18th century, charters were issued to only 335 businesses—and much more than half of those were issued in the last four years of the century.
Unlike today, when incorporation is granted in perpetuity, most antebellum corporate charters were limited in time, set to expire after a fixed period of ten, twenty, or thirty years. Nonetheless, having a distinct legal existence separate from their owners made corporations appear more stable and predictable, and made them more attractive to investors.
Slowly, states turned to a new model known as general incorporation, granting corporate charters administratively, rather than legislatively. In 1811, New York became the first state to enact such a law for manufacturing firms. In 1837, Connecticut became the first state to allow general incorporation for any kind of business.
A landowning Virginian, Jefferson believed that self-reliant and small-scale family farms, not impersonal factories (or, ironically, large slave-labor plantations like his), provided a bulwark against tyranny and ensured the future of self-governance.
In the years to come, the Jeffersonian Republicans completed the rout of the Federalists at nearly all levels—by the War of 1812, the Federalist Party barely clung on in remote and far-flung corners of state and local politics, but had largely disappeared as a national force.3 Yet
These three pillars—tariffs, internal improvements, and a national bank—formed the essence of the American System.
In addition, the Bank’s corporate structure reinforced the privileged place of the wealthy: The federal government itself owned 20 percent of the corporate stock, while the other 80 percent was sold to wealthy Americans. Yet this structure was exactly as Hamilton intended. By catering to elite merchants, the Bank wrapped up their financial interests in federal institutions and thus guaranteed that they would continue to lend political, moral, and economic support to the Constitution and its government.
Jackson’s coalition, heirs to the Jeffersonian Republican tradition, renamed themselves as Democrats during the fight. Beginning in 1833, their opponents identified as Whigs, taking the name of the British party that had historically challenged the authority of the king. (The “king,” to these American Whigs, was Jackson himself.) America’s second party system was born. The
Hoping to mollify southern planters, Congress passed, and President Jackson signed, a law to lower tariff rates in the summer of 1832. Enraged politicians in South Carolina still insisted that the rates were too high. In the fall of 1832, South Carolina’s legislature passed a law nullifying the federal tariff. In response, a vengeful Andrew Jackson asked Congress for the right to use military force to collect tariffs in that state. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and declared that any use of force by Jackson would give South Carolina a just cause to declare its independence from the United States.15 For a few months, the possibility of armed conflict appeared real. Only skillful diplomacy defused the crisis. Congress passed a compromise tariff that lowered rates, on the condition that South Carolina repeal its nullification statute. Yet the battle lines that formed over the Nullification Crisis, as well as the constitutional and legal theories about the relationship between the federal government and the states, established a powerful precedent.
The first “land grant” law, passed in 1850, designated a line—which would become the Illinois Central Railroad—between Mobile, Alabama, and Chicago, Illinois. The law created a series of six-mile-square land parcels along each side of the proposed track; in an alternating, checkerboard pattern, the federal government bequeathed every other parcel to the states of Illinois, Alabama, and Mississippi, and sold the others off to farmers.
oceans. Although economic recession in the mid-1870s slowed the juggernaut somewhat, Americans laid up to 8,000 miles of track per year through the 1880s. By 1890, the country boasted 166,000 miles; by the early 20th century, there would be 254,000 miles of tracks.
Railroads became the first “Big Business” because they combined the unique scale and scope of their industry and the deliberate choices by their leaders to adopt what we now recognize as a modern system of management.
Educated and skilled office workers, they would—along with other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants—form the heart of a new urban middle class in the modern American economy. Keeping their company in business for years to come meant job security, so professional managers tended to promote stable and less risky business practices.
In 1856, he borrowed $600 from a personal mentor (who was also his boss) and bought stock in a transport company that soon paid him his first return: a check for $10. By 1863, still a manager at the Penn Railroad, the $45,000 he made per year from his stock investments far outpaced his salary.
In 1867, he and a handful of partners launched an oil refinery in Cleveland, just as the commercial petroleum industry was beginning to grow.
A 19th-century “trust” resembled what we would call a holding company today. As a legal entity distinct from any of the member companies, the Standard Oil Trust controlled all the stock of those corporations, centralizing control over prices, distribution schedules, and other business decisions. By the 1890s, more than 90 percent of the oil produced in the United States was refined through Standard
As a percentage of gross domestic product, which at the turn of the last century was about $21 billion, the merger that birthed U.S. Steel would be worth about $1 trillion today.
The largest and fastest-growing corporations in the decades after the Civil War were typically more capital-intensive than labor-intensive.
Morgan had an extremely conservative disposition toward risk, even by the standards of bankers, who were traditionally averse to excessive gambles.
The disastrous financial Panic of 1893 created new opportunities for Morgan to put his vision of corporate control into action. The economic collapse, precipitated by overspeculation in railroads, crippled the nation. More than fifteen thousand companies, including six hundred banks, failed in what became the worst economic depression to that point in U.S. history. As countless railroad companies teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, Morgan and a handful of his partners engineered a series of takeovers and mergers. Shareholders in those failing companies surrendered their stocks in exchange for “trust certificates,” and the House of Morgan took control of the companies’ assets. In the aftermath of the Panic of 1893, approximately thirty-three thousand miles of railway track (one-sixth of the total) was “Morganized.”22
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877—the first major industrial strike in American history—began in July, when workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia walked off the job. Their specific grievances were local—a series of sharp pay cuts as the B&O struggled through the protracted economic depression that followed the Panic of 1873—but their fury echoed across the industrial heartland. Within
Men, women, and children by the thousands toiled in dirty, dark, dangerous environments in factories and mills, quarries and mines, rigs and rail yards. The spread of mechanization and chemical technologies made work itself more boring and, simultaneously, more dangerous. Booming industry drew rural Americans away from farms and into cities, where they competed with a massive influx of European immigrants in a flooded labor market.
One of the earliest and most dramatic manifestations of class tension between laborers and economic elites was the creation of a national labor union in 1869 called the Knights of Labor. Officially called “The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor” and first organized as a secret society, the Knights of Labor grew into a major voice for the wholesale reform of the industrial system. Unlike most trade unions, the Knights welcomed both skilled and unskilled workers from the craft, retail, and manufacturing sectors, and, quite notable for their day, they encouraged membership by both African Americans and women. Central to the Knights’ social vision was the notion of the producer. So long as you made something, they reasoned, you served a social good, regardless of your race, sex, or relationship to the means of production. The only people the group actively excluded were “nonproducers”—liquor dealers, gamblers, lawyers, and bankers, for example.
A horrific incident in Chicago in the spring of 1886 helped cement the link between the Knights of Labor and radical, often violent, socialism in the minds of many business leaders. Amid a labor protest in Haymarket Square, someone threw a bomb that killed ten people. Eight suspects, all loosely affiliated with the Knights and variously described as anarchists, were convicted of murder. The Knights themselves were not involved, but their public image never recovered. Membership peaked in 1886, and the group declined in size and influence thereafter.
Within weeks, the strikers attracted the support of the burgeoning American Railway Union (ARU), the first industry-specific nationwide union. The ARU had been founded the previous year by Eugene V. Debs, a labor organizer from Indiana who would later—after his imprisonment for leading the Pullman Strike—become the country’s most prominent socialist politician and activist.
Troops killed several dozen strikers in clashes before the strike ended. Eugene Debs served six months in jail for violating a federal injunction to allow rail traffic to resume. During his imprisonment, he became a committed Marxist and later converted his American Railway Union into a socialist political party.
Yet the most distinctive aspect of the farmers’ political program, and the issue with which Bryan launched his career, was their attack on eastern banks and the influence of financiers over the national government. Monetary policy, in particular the question of the free coinage of silver, was their primary focus. The “silver question” often strikes history students as esoteric, obscure, and technical, yet it was one of the single most important political issues of the late 19th century. The struggle split the country between those who favored minting coins only in gold—monometallists—and those who wanted to use both silver and gold—the bimetallists. As a political rallying cry, the silver debate proved instrumental to a larger critique of corporate capitalism. Bimetallists,
As with everything in the history of big business, the story of regulation begins with the railroads.
Another strategy, which took aim at the rise of corporate monopolies more explicitly, led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. If the ICC had represented an effort to regulate monopolistic behavior, the antitrust movement endeavored to disband monopolistic companies entirely. Named after its chief proponent, Ohio senator John Sherman (brother of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman), the act sought to preserve the benefits of free competition by cracking down hard on anticompetitive behavior. It criminalized “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce.” Instead of prescribing rules and procedures to mitigate corporate power, as the ICC did, the law required the criminal prosecution of “every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade of commerce.
For the antimonopoly forces, U.S. Steel’s survival exposed the limitations of the antitrust movement. The Sherman Act successfully attacked cartels and price-fixing schemes, but because it banned restraint of trade, not market dominance in general, it did nothing to curb corporate mergers
Historians of the period have long used the phrase “Progressive Era” to describe the years between the turn of the century and the onset of World War I, defined by a political and intellectual response to the rapid rise of industrialized society. Rooted neither in radical socialism nor in unfettered laissez-faire economics, Progressivism sought to mitigate capitalism’s excesses while retaining its benefits. In the process, the Progressive period both reaffirmed classical elements of the American political tradition and established new institutions, government agencies, and expectations about the promise of democracy.
1908 Model T cost $850, but by the early 1920s, the price had fallen to under $300.
As one journalist put it in 1924: “The American citizen has more comforts and conveniences than kings had 200 years ago.”
Henry Ford didn’t invent the car—there were already six different models on display at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893—but his devotion to the Model T starting in 1908 revolutionized the industry. Standardization was key: Ford simplified the design of his “Tin Lizzie” and used a bare minimum of parts (about five thousand).
To entice his workers to remain, Ford also pioneered labor policies that appeared progressive to many. In 1914, the company introduced the “five-dollar day,” when two dollars a day was more typical.9 In the next few years, Ford reduced the workday to eight hours and the workweek from six to five days, goals long championed by the labor, populist, and socialist movements. His business success, his personal austerity (especially when compared to the flamboyant wealth of men like J. P. Morgan), and his public devotion to the ideal that industrial workers should be able to afford the fruit of their labors—that a car should be inexpensive enough for the masses—contributed to Ford’s personal popularity around the world.
Before the rise of industrial capitalism, however, retail outfits were only found in cities and mostly sold specialty items such as books and furs. The idea of shopping for a variety of grocery or household items—or the notion that stores themselves could be big businesses—didn’t develop until the late 19th century.
In 1872, a Chicago-based traveling salesman named A. Montgomery Ward launched the country’s first mail-order firm. He published an illustrated catalog and mailed it, free of charge, to small-town farmers, who could then order products at lower prices than what local merchants charged. In 1886, another Chicagoan—a twenty-three-year-old man named Richard Sears—imitated Montgomery Ward’s success and started selling pocket watches by mail. Within a few years, Sears partnered with Alvah Roebuck, a watch repair specialist, providing both sales and maintenance services, all remotely. The pair broadened their offerings to compete directly with Montgomery Ward—their catalog became known as “the Farmer’s Bible,” and their Chicago warehouse filled orders from around the country.
Incorporated in 1893, Sears, Roebuck supplanted Montgomery Ward and became the country’s biggest mail-order company by 1900.13 In
The earliest and most famous pioneers of this model were F.W. Woolworth’s, which operated from 1878 to 1997, and the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, which survived until 2015 as the A&P supermarket. Formed in 1859, the A&P opened its doors in New York as a discount purveyor of teas and coffees, which its founders purchased in bulk straight from ships (allowing them to offer cheaper prices). Within twenty years, the A&P offered a wide variety of grocery products and owned stores in more than one hundred locations, stretching from Minnesota to Virginia. Combining efficient distribution channels, inventory management, and low costs—the hallmarks of Taylorism—grocery chains like the A&P grew prominent in the early 20th century.14 The success of the retail revolution, and the chain store model in particular, changed the way Americans identified as consumers, but it came at a cost.
Invented in the mid-19th century, Listerine was an alcohol-based chemical designed as a powerful antiseptic for use during surgery. In 1920, advertising copywriters for Lambert launched a marketing campaign that proposed a new use for this old product—as a solution to bad breath (when taken in small quantities and not swallowed!). In its ads, Lambert introduced Americans to the word “halitosis,” an obscure but clinical-sounding, scientific word for “bad breath,” giving the impression that Listerine addressed a pressing medical problem. By 1927, Lambert’s profits, driven by Listerine sales, had skyrocketed from one hundred thousand dollars a year to more than $4 million, in the process changing the daily ablution habits of millions of people.18
General Motors was founded in 1904 when William Durant, a carriage maker in Flint, Michigan—just seventy miles northwest of Henry Ford’s headquarters in Detroit—took over a small and failing car company called Buick. Over the next several years, Durant expanded his production of Buicks and absorbed dozens of other car manufacturers under his corporate umbrella, following the model of horizontal integration pioneered by large extractive companies such as Standard Oil. That rapid growth created organizational and managerial confusion, because the various constituent companies (Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and so on) each had their own internal structure, products, and corporate culture. Many of General Motors’s cars targeted the same type of consumer, leading to a frustrating internal competition that hurt profits. In the mid-1910s, Durant set his company on the road to resolving these problems by launching an important collaboration with executives from the DuPont Corporation.
Only after the death of Henry Ford in the late 1940s would the Ford Motor Company start to catch on to the modern strategy for marketing cars.
What made the years framed by the Roosevelt presidencies so pivotal for business history was not the flamboyant rhetoric, but the long-term dance between two emerging giants of the 20th century: the massive integrated corporation and the administrative, bureaucratic state, which developed an essentially associational relationship with each other.
During World War I, income taxes provided vital revenue for the government, but the tax regime was steeply progressive, applying only to the top earners. Only approximately 15 percent of American households paid any income taxes at all in 1918; the richest 1 percent contributed about 80 percent of all revenue and paid effective tax rates of about 15 percent of their total income.
During the Coolidge administration (1923–29), Mellon achieved many of his goals, and the top rate paid by individuals declined from 73 to 25 percent.
Total corporate profits fell from $10 billion to $1 billion, a drop of 90 percent.
By the time the market bottomed out in 1933, nominal gross domestic product was nearly half what it had been in 1929.
and gestures such as the “Hoover flag,” an empty pocket turned inside out.
As he put it: “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”29 Social Security was highly popular (rising from a 68 percent approval rating in 1936 to 96 percent in 1944), but many large corporations and business associations recoiled at the new expense employers faced.
All told, the United States government spent approximately $320 billion (in 1940s money) on World War II, about half of it borrowed from the public through bond sales and the other half raised in taxes. That spending provided a massive boost to the gross national product, which shot up from $88.6 billion in 1939 to $135 billion in 1945.
By 1944, unemployment had fallen to just over 1 percent (remember that the official rate hit 25 percent in 1933). Within the span of eleven years, in other words, the country had seen both the highest and lowest levels of joblessness of the century.
In 1929, prescription drugs accounted for only 32 percent of all medicines purchased in the United States (by cost); by 1969, that figure reached 83 percent.
In 1954, however, General Electric became the first private firm to own a mainframe computer when it bought a UNIVAC.
Roughly defined, a conglomerate is a corporation that conducts business in a wide range of markets and industries that have little or no relationship to one another. Berkshire Hathaway, the company founded by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, provides a familiar example of the form today—it acts as a holding company that owns and operates an array of disparate businesses, from GEICO insurance to Jordan’s Furniture to Fruit of the Loom.
The rise of the conglomerate form reshaped managerial culture. Conglomerate builders such as Charles Bluhdorn succeeded, at least for a time, because they were experts at managing their company as an investment portfolio, not as a productive entity.
From the 1960s onward, boards of directors increasingly sought to hire men (and let’s not forget that occupying the corner office was a nearly exclusively male privilege) who were experts not in a particular industry or niche, but in business management itself. Versatile generalists, holding degrees from the newfangled business schools mushrooming throughout the country, could adapt their broad understanding of business principles to any specific managerial problem they encountered. Conglomerate executives in particular often bragged that they could manage their companies through financial controls and measurements, remaining disconnected from the actual product or service the company provided. The
Bluhdorn’s successor (he died of a heart attack in 1983) renamed the company Paramount Communications in 1989 to take advantage of one of its highest-profile holdings, Paramount Pictures. The entire operation became part of the media giant Viacom in 1994.
In short, the dominant regulatory trend had been economic regulation. In contrast, the trend in the 1960s and 1970s was toward social regulations, rules that, by design, targeted aspects of business behavior not traditionally considered “economic”—public health and safety and, quite literally, the downstream consequences of companies’ production processes. There had been earlier examples of social regulation, including the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which led to the creation of the FDA to improve the safety and quality of food and medicine. Yet the scale and scope of this new type of regulation exploded in the late 1960s, reinforcing a cultural and political distinction between protecting the economy and protecting people from business.
In the early 1970s, Congress overhauled the laws governing campaign finance contributions. The federal government had regulated campaign giving to various degrees since the Tillman Act of 1907, which barred corporations and unions from donating to political campaigns on the rather explicit grounds that they were not humans.
Instead, with minor exceptions, businesspeople preferred other, less official ways to skirt the campaign finance laws. Executives, for example, routinely arranged for special bonuses to top managers, with the clear expectation that those managers would donate their windfall to the candidate of the corporation’s choice.
In 1975, the FEC clarified that political action committees were legally legitimate, and an explosion in corporate-backed political action committees followed. In the four years between 1974 and 1979, the number of business PACs increased tenfold, from 89 to 950, while the number of labor PACs barely budged, rising only from 201 to 226. The number of corporate PACs continued to soar, peaking around 1,800 in the late 1980s before declining slightly and largely leveling off. In the winter of 2016, the Federal Election Commission counted 1,621 political action committees affiliated with businesses, and 278 for labor.
Not satisfied with running a traditional restaurant, the McDonalds spent the 1940s searching for a way to simplify. They wanted a food item that they could perfect and sell at a constant, affordable, and profitable price. They settled on the hamburger.
In 1955, the American automobile giant General Motors topped Fortune magazine’s list of global companies ranked by annual revenue. For the remainder of the century, GM held that crown. Yet in 2002, it fell to second place, bested by a company that had barely been known outside of Arkansas in 1980 but exploded onto the international stage thereafter: Walmart.
The son of a farmer-turned-debt-collector, a teenage Sam Walton spent the Great Depression with his father foreclosing on delinquent farms in Missouri.
Rural America had traditionally been a hotbed of populist opposition to unfettered capitalism, from the anti-chain-store movement to opposition to the gold standard and eastern finance. Yet by the late 20th century, conservative politicians found greater success linking evangelical Christianity with free market economics.
When Gates stepped down from Microsoft in 2014 (having reduced his role since 2000), he was the wealthiest person on Earth.
At the beginning of 2008, five venerable and highly respected investment banks—the descendants of the “House of Morgan”—sat atop American financial capitalism. By the fall of that year, none of them existed. Two, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, avoided bankruptcy through emergency mergers (engineered to a significant degree by government officials and the Federal Reserve) with J.P. Morgan and Bank of America, respectively. The 150-year-old Lehman Brothers was not so lucky. After its leaders failed to convince government regulators to offer either a direct bailout or a “shotgun marriage” to another financial institution, Lehman entered the largest bankruptcy in history on September 15. The remaining two, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, surrendered their status as investment banks and transformed themselves legally into traditional bank holding companies, which faced far greater government regulation in exchange for easier access to government loans. As the former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation put it, it was “the end of Wall Street as we have known it.”
That political shift proved to be a guiding force behind the movement for widespread deregulation, which often garnered the support of groups that otherwise opposed each other politically. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act, a law spearheaded by liberal politicians such as Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and consumer activist Ralph Nader, as well as free-market conservatives like the economist Milton Friedman. The opponents to airline regulation argued that a more market-driven airline industry would face greater competition to cut rates and, eventually, provide better service.8
By the mid-1990s, having stripped away most of its functions, Congress finally dissolved the Interstate Commerce Commission
The redirection of capital to financial pursuits—the hallmark of the process of financialization—led to growing number of deals known as “leveraged buy-outs” (LBOs)—mergers that depended on tremendous amounts of borrowed money.
Before the mid-20th century, just under 50 percent of American households owned their own home. Excluding farmers, who owned land at disproportionate rates, the rate of homeownership was below 40 percent. Between 1940 and 1970, American homeownership rose steadily to about 65 percent,
After hovering around 65 percent for several decades, homeownership rates rose quickly between the late 1990s and 2007, reaching 69 percent.
either renegotiate the loan or resell the home later at a profit, convinced many people that homeownership was a foolproof investment. “They’re not making any more land,” went a common refrain.
This unfounded faith in the never-falling value of houses was perpetuated by mortgage lenders and the real estate business, which profited from every loan made and every home purchased. (Economic historians showed that the misunderstanding of historical home price values came from the simplest of oversights: Once you account for the overall increase in prices over time, the real—noninflationary—price of homes remained remarkably stable throughout the entire 20th century.)
I recently completed listening to this long and good interview of Lars Doucet on the Lunar Society Podcast – it aroused many strong feelings, so I thought I would share.
In no particular order
The list makes it seem like I’m more critical than I am – the topic fully engaged me and I will be reading the book at some point in the near future.