What I've been reading, featuring the opioid crisis, billionaires and academia, and "Storming the Wall" by Todd Miller

There is nothing deep inside us, Richard Rorty once remarked, that we haven’t put there ourselves. So even though, at least for some people, psychoanalysis, and psychology more generally, have interesting things to say about misogyny, they also run the risk of naturalising it (misogyny is deep inside us because our mothers are)

Misogynists, of course, are radical essentialists when it comes to women. They know exactly what they are like, and we should not, Manne intimates, be fighting one essentialism with another.

Once misogyny is essentialised – once it is treated as in some way integral to our nature, or just a part of how we live – it all too easily becomes one of Manne’s exonerating narratives. If there is little justice for women, what is there? If there is no cure for misogyny, what is there? The question then is how to co-exist with it.

Her book is clarifying about misogyny, but it is equally interesting for what it has to say about the issue that has dogged the social sciences virtually since their inception: the relationship of the individual to the systems and structures that seemingly comprise him or her.

Each of these books devotes chapters to the history of OxyContin, a so-called blockbuster drug whose lamentable success was owed to a confluence of factors particular to the US. They include, but are not limited to: the country’s dysfunctional privatised healthcare system, which makes it possible for addicts to accumulate doctors willing to prescribe painkillers in a way they can’t in the UK; a corrupt regulatory agency beholden to the industry it was tasked with regulating; a punitive legal paradigm that criminalises drug users instead of helping them; an abstinence-only approach to treating drug addiction that impedes evidence-based medication-assisted treatment; corporate greed; a political class that takes marching orders from the lobbyists of said corporations; entrenched poverty, joblessness and hopelessness; and a general epistemological failure when it comes to ideas about what ‘drugs’ are, which psychoactive chemicals are safe and which are dangerous, and what a drug dealer is supposed to look like. These factors converged in such a way as to unleash hundreds of millions of potent pills out into the world in the late 1990s and 2000s, which in turn prepared a consumer market for heroin. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, each one of them a world.

That the heroin epidemic initially hit African Americans much less hard than white Americans was in part because both doctors and the Xalisco boys were racist: doctors were less likely to prescribe painkillers to black people and the Xalisco boys didn’t sell heroin to them. The Xalisco dealers also avoided major cities, like New York and Baltimore, where gangs that sold heroin were already well established.

As someone whose research areas strive for policy relevance, the described ease with which self-interested parties can exploit terrible public health studies is disheartening: does academic work ever dictate policy or does it just offer a misleadingly diverse menu of evidence that only steers momentum in the direction of the most powerful interest groups? The history of tobacco, fossil fuels, and now opioids (which I knew embarrassingly little about before reading this) are deeply discouraging.

Dylan Matthews: You had some really eye-popping examples in the paper about pollution.

Suresh Naidu: Yeah, and it kind of reveals... sometimes when you take economics too literally, it leads you into kind of very sociopathic ways of thinking about things.

We have quotes from Armen Alchian, who said, “Give me a capsule that will magically clean all the air in Los Angeles... Beg me to crush it... I won’t crush the capsule. Because if I do, poor blacks will have to pay $20 a month more for land rental... The black in Watts, already used to living with bad air, loses his discount for doing that.” And that’s just this idea that if you clean up the pollution, more people will want to live there and that will drive up the housing prices, making the people that are already used to pollution worse off.

I think that’s the kind of reasoning you’ll find in a lot of what the Manne teachers were teaching, as well as, “Here’s why a lot of regulation by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] might not be the most efficient way of reducing environmental damages … and maybe people don’t value environmental damage that much anyway.”

DM: There’s a section in the paper where you talk about how [Goetz] had an argument that it can be rational to punish black defendants more than white defendants for the same crime. Where does that come from?

SN: Alongside the ideas about antitrust and regulation, there also comes this idea of thinking about crime as something that can be a rational decision. For a while, people thought that criminals were like social deviants or psychologically disturbed, and what economics brings to that is, “Nope, criminals are rational like everybody else, and they’re making decisions based on considering costs and benefits.”

What that means is that part of the object of sentencing and punishment should be altering the calculus of crime. And one of the values of being harsh in sentencing, for example, is that you deter future criminals.

I’m only about to begin a PhD now and have never so much as had to apply for a grant so I’m surely green and naïve about the relationship between billionaires and policy-oriented research. Still, I don’t anticipate that future experience will shake me from the discomfort of its normalization even when goals and politics happen to align:

  • “Storming the Wall” by Todd Miller. The detention-center crisis at the US-Mexico border is not often enough described as America’s long-standing and intentional climate policy.

    Central thesis of the book: “…one of the most reliable forecasts for our collective future is that a vast numbers of people will be on the move and vast numbers of agents will be trained, armed, and paid to stop them… the world’s biggest polluters are the same countries constructing unprecedented border regimes… I have set out to chronicle the way a massive system of social and economic exclusion militarizes divisions not only between the rich and the poor, but between the environmentally secure and the environmentally exposed.”

According to geographer Elisabeth Vallet, there were 16 border fences when the Berlin Wall fell in 1988. Now there are more than 70 across the globe, a number that accelerated after 9//11 and includes Hungary, Greece, Spain, Morocco, Turkey, and India among the countries that have also constructed border walls… Militarized borders are not only proliferating throughout the globe, they emanate from centers of power, such as the United States and the European Union, that fund border infrastructure and train the guards.

More dangerous than climate disruption was the climate migrant. More dangerous than the drought were the people who can’t farm because of the drought. More dangerous than the hurricane were the people displaced by the storm. The climate refugee was a threat to the very war planes required to enforce the financial and political order where 1 percent of the population wielded more economic power than the rest of the world combined.

Harsha Walia wrote that ‘patterns of displacement and migration reveal the unequal relations between rich and poor, between North and South, between whiteness and racialized others.’ … Angela Y. Davis said that ‘the refugee movement is the movement of the 21st century. It’s the movement that is challenging the effects of global capitalism, and it’s the movement that is calling for civil rights for all human beings.’

Elbit Systems has invented a semi-sentient fortified ‘smart wall’ capable of detecting human movement and touch. The company is now buliding a series of high-tech surveillance towers that are able to see night and day for a distance of up to seven miles. These towers are able to work in tandem with one another, in tandem with the drones, in tandem with the more than 12,000 motion sensors implanted along the 2,000-mile Mexican border.

  • A devastating hit on the Cass Sunstein book-publishing machine. I have never read a Sunstein book, but this review holds up on its own as a work of prose that is mean-spirited, well-crafted, and hilarious. It also has straightforward complaints:

Let’s consider, for a moment, some of the things we’ve learned since Nudge came out in 2008. We now know that in the arena of environmental regulation, nudges decrease support for the more ambitious policies that might be needed to avert an ecological catastrophe. We know that a technocratic, cost-benefit-focused approach to government works to the detriment of visionary change. We know that the old neoliberal binary—state bad, market good—is simplistic and no longer squares with a reality in which many of our greatest tyrannies emerge from a rapacious and meekly regulated private sector. Most importantly we know that the Obama presidency, the guiding hope to so many market-friendly liberals, ended with rising inequality, stalled social mobility, a spiraling climate disaster, and the Trumpian revolt against expertise. Sunstein ignores all of this.

While the planet burns and voters run into the arms of the demagogues, Sunstein wants us to concentrate on what really matters, which is the regulation of silicon exposure in the construction industry or the question of whether rearview cameras should be mandatory in new automobiles. These are, to be clear, issues that deserve serious regulatory attention; technical expertise and bureaucracy still have an important role to play in public administration. But they’re not, as Sunstein would have it, everything. The most pressing political questions today will not yield to merely administrative solutions; the dysfunction of liberal capitalism calls for a more active public sphere, for a radical reimagining of the state and its relationship to productive forces, rather than a retreat to the consolations of private life and bureaucracy.

On average – that is, for all kinds of housing – land now accounts for 70 per cent of a house’s sale price. In the 1930s it was 2 per cent.) When Thatcher entered Downing Street in May 1979, more land was owned by the state than ever before: 20 per cent of Britain’s total area. Today the figure is 10.5 per cent. The disposals include council houses, forests, farms, moors, royal dockyards, military airfields, railway arches, railway sidings, museums, theatres, playgrounds, parks, town halls, bowling greens, allotments, children’s centres, leisure centres, school playing fields. There has been in Christophers’s words ‘a colossal devaluation of the public estate’, and not one that came about by accident.

In 1985, less than a quarter of rented homes were privately owned; in 2014, more than half. Rent as a proportion of household expenditure has doubled over the same period. Rent is the primary source of economic growth in the UK. In 2006, asking what had helped the British economy grow ‘so wondrously’, the Guardian’s finance reporter Patrick Collinson wrote ‘The answer [is] the rise of the landlord class … in modern Britain, it seems, putting up the rent is somehow regarded as economic growth … Germany makes millions of cars, Japan still makes consumer electronics. Britain produces buy-to-let landlords. How our competitors must envy our economic success.’

It is a mark of how far Britain has fallen that, in what may indeed be its biggest crisis since 1940, so many Tories are willing to suspend disbelief in Johnson’s pantomime caricature of the man who gave it the courage to “stand alone” in that dark hour. So what if he has the V for Victory sign the wrong way around?