Dec 17, 2021

Michael Shellenberger On Homelessness, Addiction, Crime

The former far-left activist has a sobering reality check on the woke policies of West Coast cities.

Andrew Sullivan
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Unafraid conversations about anything

I belatedly came to Shellenberger in my research on nuclear power’s potential to help cut carbon emissions. But his new book — on the terrible progressive governance in many American cities in recent years — is what gave me the idea to interview him. On homelessness, crime, addiction, and the fast-deterioration of our public spaces, San Fran-sicko, despite its trolly title, is empirical, tough-minded and, in my view, humane. But make up your own mind, in what was one of the more timely conversations I’ve had this year.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two clips of our conversation — on the reasons why San Francisco progressives won’t build safe homeless shelters, and on the growing backlash against Democrats on crime and urban disorder — head over to our YouTube page. (And be sure to check out Shellenberger’s substack — he’s on a major roll this week.)

A reader writes:

I just listened to the Dishcast with Sam Quinones and am so grateful you are covering addiction and homelessness. I especially appreciated the perspective that homeless addicts — who I am afraid of and repelled by — are suffering the most, and in genuine need of help. It’s easy to forget when I’m frustrated and everyone seems to be diagnosing the real problem as my own bigotry! (A personal anecdote: my brother’s truck was recently stolen and destroyed by addicts in Bakersfield, where he works as a firefighter and puts out fires every day that are set by the homeless. This is a problem!)

The diversity of guests on the Dishcast has been mind-expanding. In this episode I was reminded of John McWhorter’s claims about woke as the new religion. It seems as though homeless men, especially if they are racial minorities, have become sacred cows for progressives.

I think there are some more achievable policy solutions than strengthening communities and social relationships, however. This article from the California Globe highlights some concrete things that could be done by redirecting the massive resources already going to homelessness.

Here’s a clip of my conversation with Sam about the meth crisis:

Another reader remarks:

I loved your interview with Quinones. For one thing, I love his speaking style — many false starts and revisions, as he looks at the subject from many perspectives, going several directions before going ahead. (It’s my style as well.) I think it’s characteristic of many thoughtful people, but they don’t always get a chance to speak. The episode makes me want to read his book.

Another reader:

Thank you for introducing Sam Quinones to those of us who haven’t read his books. You and he shed so much light on the relationship between the large and ever-expanding encampments and meth and fentanyl use. He was able to explain the rapid expansion, which had been the most mysterious aspect of the issue for me.

We have always had homelessness, but not like what we see today. It’s a different thing altogether. I used to think that taking the profit motive out of drugs and decriminalizing them would reduce the problem, but I think I heard the opposite from Quinones. I also was unaware of the meth issue among gay men. The gay men I socialize with don’t talk about it, but maybe they are not having the problem (we are boomers).

Here’s a snippet of the convo on gays and meth:

A recommendation from a reader:

For those who are interested, there is a documentary on gay men and meth on Amazon Prime that is quite devastating to watch. (I’m not affiliated with Amazon, just passing along some info.)

Yes — but it’s from 2014! We could use an updated one. From a reader with first-hand experience with the meth crisis:

Overall, your perspective on crystal meth addiction in the gay male community is spot on. I was able to hide it for years, until one day I was unable to do so, and it caught up with me. Exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, I found myself unable to stop, as meth allowed me to cope with the isolation and other traumas. 

What I don’t think was discussed by you or Sam in his book are some positive steps towards recovery that many have found. First, the community of Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) moved itself online at the start of the pandemic and now continues to offer hundreds of meetings each week, in addition to in-person meetings across the world. I regularly find addicts are unaware of CMA and have trouble relating to those they find in AA or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. 

Second, some of us have found support against meth cravings through the use of the anti-depressant mirtazapine. There has been a small clinical trial. While not a panacea for meth addiction, I have met others who have found recovery through its use, along with a combination of regular attendance of recovery meetings.

A reader who practices medicine in California touches on some themes that Shellenberger and I discussed:

I wonder if you’re aware of the pressure put on physicians in the past to prescribe opiates. More than a decade ago, complaints of pain were termed “the fifth vital sign.” About that time the California medical board issued “guidelines” about dealing with complaints of pain. These were interpreted as meaning you could get in trouble with your licensing board if someone complained that you were unwilling to give them dope.

Drug-seeking behavior has been a problem for clinicians forever. If the patient gets the desired controlled substance, there’s the added advantage that you get your drugs free, or for minimal copays. It’s found in all practices and is always unpleasant unless you give in to what the patient wants. It certainly is the easiest thing to do. They get their prescription and leave.

(There are any number of legitimate uses for opioids, of course. I’m not discounting the pain of someone with terminal cancer. I’m talking about patients with chronic complaints of pain with no objective findings to explain the complaints.)

Responsible medical practice requires that you not prescribe in bad faith. If I don’t believe what I’m told, I am not to prescribe controlled substances. There are many tells an experienced physician can see. Sometimes you’re told things that require you to suppress a laugh — for example, a man with multiple skin abscess from skin popping was “attacked by a swarm of bees.”

This isn’t about being judgmental. It’s about not doing harm.

In my area, officials are working on getting addicts permanent housing — “the problem is housing” — complete with “wrap around” services. Addicts are free to continue using once we get them housed. It didn’t work when they were living with mom and dad, so why should it work in the hotel rooms we’re buying? None of those responsible for making policy seem to have considered that their approach may very well make it easier to continue the addiction. With the best of intentions, I think it likely that the current approach will lead to more harm. 

Incidentally, housing addicts in California has become a very big business.  Somebody is benefitting, even if it isn’t the addicted.


Several readers below share their personal perspective after reading my latest column, “Woke: On the Wrong Side of History.” The first:

Thanks for the fantastic essay. It really hit home for me as a Puerto Rican advancing through middle age, since so much has changed regarding race perspectives in my lifetime. Not only is the left (of which I count myself a member, sadly) on the wrong side of history, its most influential leaders are gobsmackingly ignorant of it. Hispanic support for Trump would not be such a shocking phenomenon for the left if it spent more time learning Hispanic history and less time trying to pretend Hispanics are all oppressed POCs wallowing in misery, desperately waiting for all-knowing lefty superheroes to liberate us from the shackles of white supremacy.

Regarding your comments on Hispanics being “white adjacent” and your observation that “even within the CRT category of ‘brown,’ there are those who identify as white,” those are the key insights pointing towards a history that the left has either forgotten or refuses to recall: Nearly all Hispanic immigrants to the US hail from former colonies that had been ruled by Spain, a European (i.e., WHITE) country. As such, the history of these immigrants has nothing to do with the 1619 Project and very little to do with Anglo white supremacy; rather, these immigrant cultures were informed by a white perspective of the Latin variety.

The Spanish imperial project (can you believe there ever existed a mean, horribly oppressive empire that spoke Spanish) was similar to that of the British, though it differed significantly because the Spanish did not aggressively police interracial mixing among whites, blacks, and natives. It was discouraged enough such that whites remained at the top of the hierarchy (which remains the case to this day), but a mixed-raced person could advance in Spanish society further than a “pure” black or indigenous person, especially if that person celebrated Spanish heritage, culture and so forth.

Over time there have developed large cohorts of Latin American Hispanics who identify as white (irrespective of how they may present to Anglos) because Hispanic culture historically rewarded celebrations of European ancestry and identity without regard to a “one drop” rule. These people simply do NOT identify as “oppressed” POCs and, if anything, identify as the descendants of great white conquering “oppressors.” None of this changes when they immigrate to the US. Putting the moral questions regarding these developments aside, these identities are real and widespread and the Democratic left needs to understand them, rather than wish them away because they complicate the “Black and brown” narrative.

There are data to back up my little history review. In the 2020 US Census, the government offered Hispanics more racial categories, such as “multi-racial” and “other,” in an attempt to steer them away from selecting white as a default option. Out of a total of 60 million Hispanics in the US, 20 percent still opted to choose white as the only selection for their race! That millions of Hispanics still identify as white ought to tell the left something about what they are getting wrong with this “brown” approach, namely that attempting to shoehorn an entire group made up of multiple races and backgrounds into one “oppressed” POC category is a fool’s errand.  

Another reader points to a form of privilege not appreciated enough:

I came from Cuba in mid-1960s at the age of 9 with no knowledge of English. My parents never learned English. By age 12 or 13, I had learned enough English so that friends of my parents would bring me their job applications and other forms to fill out. I was often impatient in doing that, something I deeply now regret. To me, the major privilege now isn’t color of skin, but knowing English and having American citizenship.

People from Central America, South America, and Caribbean don’t think of themselves in terms of being part of an identity tectonic plate. They think of themselves in terms of the country from which they come. They begin to classify themselves as Hispanic, or Latina/o, or the revolting “Latinx,” as an Anglo heuristic.  (“Latinx,” in my opinion, is left-wing linguistic neo-colonialism.)

By the way, when I went through diversity training at a very, very large, prestigious bank, among the microaggressions listed was, “Telling someone they speak English well.”

Another reader sizes up the two parties philosophically:

A friend recently insisted that the GOP has a form of nationalism that he described as “Country Music Nationalism,” which consists of “long neck beers, freedom, pickup trucks, flags, guns, farms, open roads.” A few of us pushed back, saying it’s not a positive narrative from the GOP, but a negative one (fear of foreigners, of snobs, of moral decay etc), and that patriotism is the confabulated positive version of it. Fear — in its Trumpian “they’re sending their rapists and murderers” form — is the narrative core.

We then realized the Dems are also obsessed with the past, but not in a good way: its sins. The past is not a golden age to return to, but the source of all our current ills and our doomed future. The 1619 Project isn’t a track record of the massive progress we’ve made as a civilization, nor even how much we have left to do, but about how we are permanently tarnished and broken. We ultimately boiled it down to two messages:

GOP: “The present is bad, our past was good. Return.”
Dems: “Our past sins have doomed our future. Recant.”

The GOP narrative has a direction, even if it’s the wrong one, and will ultimately continue to win until the Dems have a vision of the future that’s not just righteous indignation and self-abasement. The true tragedy is that we’re all moving into the future. To have two parties who are terrified of it, instead of excited and inspired by it, does not bode well for us no matter who “wins.”