Addiction Nation

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As it often happens, I get triggered by something I read in the news or on the web. Today it was a column in the Boston Globe by Yvonne Abraham responding to the current debate in Massachusetts about making slot machines legitimate. After general opposition to such developments in the past, the current interest is being pushed as a means to raise state revenues in these tough times. Abraham paints a sorry picture of the addictive effects of slots on exactly those who can afford it least.

Like scratch tickets, slots are gaming’s crack. Just like the instant games that bring in 70 percent of the state lottery’s take, they’re the province of poorer players. The part of Sydney where I grew up has the lowest average household incomes in the city and the highest average rates of spending on slot machines.

Slot machines and scratch cards are just another form of technology that produces addictive results. They show up in the larger milieu of consumption in general which also has turned into a more ubiquitous form of addiction.

We are addicted to many other substances and the products that contain them--alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, cocaine, oxycontin, and many more. Some are regulated or are illegal, others are heavily taxed, not so much to provide a disincentive but rather to raise revenues. So much for free choice in the market place. The debate in Massachusetts exposes the hypocrisy of the political players who claim to be protectors of people and the state.

I get the argument that the state needs money. I understand firsthand the value of the jobs that would be created. I know that people should be able to spend their money as they please.

But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re creating a new Monte Carlo here. The state, which is supposed to protect its citizens, is going to encourage some of them to harm themselves.

At least, these forms of addiction receive lip service and occasional action by the state. But the most serious form of addiction, consumption itself, is never debated. Consumption is held to be the carrier of freedom of choice. In many cases, market purchases are made freely, reflecting some authentic intention to satisfy some concern or to contribute to the satisfaction of a conscious intention. But many goods and services are bought out of an unconscious conformance to societal pressures brought to bear through advertising or popular culture--television, iPods, electronic games, smart phones, and on and on. Satisfaction here is inauthentic; it is fleeting and calls for more and more. Having built a political economy based on ever increasing consumption, it should not come as a surprise that the addictive, that is non-satisfying, inauthentic, patterns of consumption are not questioned except at the margins.

The absence of debate, especially in the United States is now exacerbated by the increasingly intense discussions of climate change, pro or con, and by concerns over the economy. Life style issues related to sustainability have been part of the public conversations in much of Europe for a while. But not here. President Obama rode to his office partly on his book, The Audacity of Hope. His view of hope is a vision of a better life, not the empty hope that a pile of coins will come tumbling out the next time I pull the lever.

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