As is now well known, not a few people in the Dissident Right are sympathetic to Andrew Yang’s insurgent bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Though at present a minor candidate, Mr. Yang may well receive a bump after the upcoming debates, and regardless, as 2016 has shown, damn near anything is possible in American politics.
The sympathy is largely derived from his support of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), specifically, $1,000 a month for every citizen. While various economists and politicians have batted around this idea for some time, Mr. Yang backs it as a safety net for all those Americans facing long-term unemployment due to deindustrialization, automation, and the general “precariatization” of our economy. There is an obvious logic to this plan, and its seduction is understandable. With an economy that goes through dramatic changes every few years, perhaps the simplest and most charitable thing we can do for those left behind is give them a bit of money to make ends meet.
While this money would not make anybody rich, the working poor might suddenly be able to make rent and car payments with ease. Many think this UBI would increase fertility as well and (though not purposefully) increase the number of stay-at-home moms, a goal many traditionalists value quite highly. All of that is well and good. I have never viewed government support of the poor as some kind of burdensome overreach. Furthermore, a simple UBI would do much to cut back on the federal government’s unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy.
But there is one big problem with this plan. In a word: drugs.
I have nothing but sympathy for the citizenry living paycheck to paycheck in our nation’s vast Rust Belt. But that doesn’t change that in the here-and-now, giving them a considerable amount of cash with no strings attached might not be the best thing for them. Some recipients would certainly use the money responsibly to dramatically improve their lot in life: pay off student loans, stop taking taking payday loans, etc. But quite a few others would indulge in America’s latest hobby with a reckless abandon that gives me goosebumps.
The entire number of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan, from 2001 until today, is 3,568. The same figure for Iraq, starting in 2003, is 4,571. Together they are 8,139, or about one ninth of the total deaths from overdoses in 2017 alone. The total number of American casualties in the Vietnam War was 58,220, less than any two-year pairing of overdose deaths in the last decade. The enormity of this death toll is truly hard to fathom, but consider this comparison: the total overdose deaths for the most recent ten years we have numbers for is 471,935. The estimated population of Miami today is 470,914.
And that’s just overdose deaths. It doesn’t take account of the crime committed by addicts to feed their habit, the broken families, the disastrous health consequences of habitual drug use, etc.
In terms of numbers, then, what is going on today is a war, and it is a war that we are losing. Since 2012, the percent increase of overdose deaths has gone up nearly every year. From 2012 to 2013, fatal overdoses went up just shy of six percent. From 2013 to 2014, it went up just shy of seven percent. From 2014 to 2015, the increase was about 11.3 percent. From 2015 to 2016, the increase accelerated dramatically, to 21.4 percent. From 2016 to 2017, the increase leveled a bit, going up only ten percent. As such, the numbers for 2018 may be as low as 80,000. That’s an optimistic view, mind you.
This represents a tragedy unlike any other in America’s history. The reason it is discussed so little by today’s media is because the vast majority of those dying from these drugs are White people, and poor White people at that. Decades ago, crack and AIDS generated all the sympathy in the world—not to mention a few government programs—for blacks and homosexuals. Today, the magazine that purports to be the nation’s foremost conservative voice, blithely claims that, “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale [White] communities is that they deserve to die.”
Andrew Yang, to his immense credit, does not agree with this in the slightest. He has even expressed sympathy for the plight of these poor White communities—far more sympathy than any other remotely prominent Democrat. For him, a $1,000 UBI is needed to help turn them around. His thinking is, essentially, that since many poor White communities developed a taste for drugs (and other bad habits as well) as a consequence of going broke, that making them flush with cash again will lead to the immediate breaking of said habits.
Unfortunately, this is not true. Do not misunderstand me. Unlike our elite, I fully believe our nation’s poor and downtrodden White communities are both economically and morally redeemable—and that the rest of us have a duty to help them get back on track. But that does not change that many of the bad habits in these communities are well ingrained, and at this point, need more than an economic fix.
Put more bluntly: sending a ton of money with no controls on how it’s spent to a small town with equally high rates of unemployment and drug addiction will not get you anything more than a jump in overdoses. I say this not out of condescending detachment, but from a familiarity with that world. Plenty of my friends from adolescence are cut from this sociological cloth. They work crappy jobs, have no savings, and get high all the time. They have plenty of economic problems, and not a few health problems that could be better addressed with some extra money, but when that first UBI checks hits their mailbox, there’s not a doubt in my mind that the first thing they’ll do is book an Uber and head for the strip club. After all, that’s what they do now when they get their annual tax refunds.
From West Virginia to Minnesota and from Poughkeepsie to Biloxi, a UBI is going to mean a whole lot of very unhappy people can suddenly buy a whole lot more Fentanyl, cocaine, and heroin than they had ever thought possible. It will translate into more trips to the casino, the liquor store, and the whorehouse. As Earl Turner put it, upon visiting a druggy flop house, “They lack self-discipline and any real sense of purpose. They’ve given up. All they really want to do is lie around all day screwing and smoking pot. I almost believe that if the government would double their welfare allowances, even the bomb throwers would lose their militancy.” Left-wing journalist Chris Hedges documented this malaise in his 2012 book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt as well, where he was one of the first to seriously address the then-blossoming opioid crisis:
The reliance on government checks, and a vast array of painkillers and opiates, has turned towns like Gary [West Virginia] into modern opium dens. The painkillers OxyContin, fentanyl — 80 times stronger than morphine — Lortab, as well as a wide variety of anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax, are widely abused. Many top off their daily cocktail of painkillers at night with sleeping pills and muscle relaxants. And for fun, addicts, especially the young, hold “pharm parties,” in which they combine their pills in a bowl, scoop out handfuls of medication, swallow them, and wait to feel the result.
A decade ago only about 5% of those seeking treatment in West Virginia needed help with opiate addiction. Today that number has ballooned to 26%. It recorded 91 overdose deaths in 2001. By 2008 that number had risen to 390.
Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in West Virginia, and the state leads the country in fatal drug overdoses. OxyContin — nicknamed “hillbilly heroin” — is king.
Later in the book, Mr. Hedges introduces the reader to three middle-aged White men who live together in Gary, noting, “The men scratch out a meager existence, mostly from disability checks. They pool their resources to pay for food, electricity, water, and heat.” In talking to the three of them, the complete dearth of economic opportunities becomes quite apparent, as does the fact that the three men have largely abandoned hope:
[Neil] Heizer [one of the three] speaks in the slowed cadence of someone who puts a lot of medication into his body. He recently lost his car after crashing it into a fence. His life with his two roommates is sedentary. The three men each have a television in their bedrooms and two more they share, including the big-screen television that, along with an electric piano for Hovack, were bought with Heizer’s first disability check. The men spent the $20,000 from the check in a few days.
The part of the book these quotes are taken from ends when Neil Heizer dies of an overdose.
Though Mr. Hedges would almost certainly like to see these guys hauled off to a re-education camp, I have to admit his description of the ennui found in poor, White, drug-addled communities is spot on—more than any other I have been able to find, in fact. It is something I know a thing or two about.
So, yes to economic relief to Middle America. But free money with no oversight? No, or at least not yet.