The Lessons of Lost Weekends

Mr. Barger is Editor of The Flying A, company magazine of the Aeroquip Corporation at Jack­son, Michigan.

It’s fairly axiomatic nowadays that alcoholics cannot get well un­less they fully accept the fact that recovery hinges on total abstin­ence. It is possible, of course, that future breakthroughs in drug and therapy techniques may alter this flat rule. But at the present time few responsible people who know anything about it would dare dispute this point—for the alcoholic, one drink is always too many.

As a recovered alcoholic with almost eleven years’ continuous sobriety, I’ve made a lot of head­way since I gave up the vain hope that I might be able to "handle a little beer now and then." Though an occasional drink seems to be a delightful beverage to the next man, it’s poison for me, and I don’t take it. I want to stay away from it for the same reasons I don’t want to step over cliffs, walk in front of automobiles, or grab high tension wires. These would be exciting experiences, momen­tarily, but survival seems much more preferable.

Recovery from this distressing problem doesn’t make a person immune to future folly of various kinds, but it does give one a pro­tective sort of wariness. Like a once-scalded cat who now fears anything resembling a teakettle, I search everything for hidden booby traps. And it’s a long jump, but I’ve even been able to relate the lessons of my own "boom-and­ bust" experiences to such matters as monetary inflation, deficit spending, foreign aid, and kindred ideas. I did not arbitrarily do this; the similarities just seemed to be immediately self-evident.

Here they are. By a stretch of the imagination, they might even be called "ideas on liberty."

Monetary Inflation—It doesn’t even take too much imagination to realize that here’s the almost per­fect parallel. Most alcoholics start out drinking with the idea of "taking only a few." Past dis­asters and the grim prospect of sickness and hang-over don’t seem to be an effective deterrent. Now, today we could, if we cared to look, see the long-run result of monetary inflation; we could see that runaway inflation, which al­ways results in ruin, gets its start when we accept the first seem­ingly harmless doses of it. So far, our national inflation has been on a fairly moderate scale and we’re confident that we can control it. But we may be hooked already. Many of us have a vested interest in inflation; we denounce it pub­licly, but enjoy it privately. We fail completely to profit by the wretched experiences of other countries who have gone the full inflation route.

Deficit Spending—There are few alcoholics now alive who could not list the perils of deficit spending. Governments do it by issuing more money, savings bonds, or creating bank deposits with notes. The alcoholic doesn’t have access to the printing presses at the federal mints, and he’s usually not able to swing

Reserve. So his deficit money is of a cruder nature—usually I.O.U.’s plastered in the various bars where he’s still able to get credit. This "fiat money" causes no end of trouble. For a short-term gain, he takes on long-term liabilities. Often, these debts are never paid back.

Foreign Aid—Social workers who have experience in the field will certainly agree that "econ­omic evangelism" is almost a total failure in rehabilitating alcohol­ics. It is easy to be misled on this point. Many alcoholics have mon­strous financial problems, and this causes them no end of worry and grief. But money problems are not the cause of drinking, nor will money stop it. Real recovery be­gins when the alcoholic changes his thinking. After that, he will most likely earn his own way.

What does this have to do with foreign aid? Well, it may be that we’re trying to solve, with money, problems which lie much deeper—problems which stem from basic attitudes and philosophies of liv­ing. We may even be doing much harm without realizing it. We have vastly overrated the power of money, and underestimated the power of individual responsibility. Certain ingredients must be pres­ent before economic growth can much influence with the Federal occur. Are we sure that we are not asking other countries to succeed in spite of themselves, and in spite of governments that stamp out every promising bud of economic growth?

Hidden Inflation—I learned about this from Japanese boot­leggers in late 1945. One of my first happy discoveries in occupied Japan was the availability of "sake," the country’s excellent rice wine. The Japanese drink it in an almost ritualistic manner, often heating it in small vaselike con­tainers. Ignoring local custom, I guzzled it by the jugful. One thing did puzzle me: on some days, I could demolish with ease the contents of three jugs. On other days, even one jug placed me high on a cloud over Mt. Fujiyama. Later I learned that an alcoholic tends to obtain an amazingly con­stant amount of actual alcohol per spree. Hence, the three-jug days didn’t indicate a greater capacity for alcohol; they only meant that the bootleggers had been espe­cially bold in "watering their stock." It was simply the working-out of natural economic laws, and in this case the seller chose to deceive the customer rather than to pass along his own costs through high­er prices. Since then, I’ve seen "hidden inflation" at work in our own consumer products field; 5-cent candy bars have shrunk,lunchroom-size milk cartons are smaller, and much furniture has been cheapened where it doesn’t show. We still get only what we pay for when the free market op­erates.

Wage and Price Controls—I once heard a fantastic tale about a very affluent alcoholic who hired bodyguards to keep him from tak­ing a drink. This "save-me-from myself" experiment soon failed, because the bodyguards could not keep the man from doing some­thing he really wanted to do. Many forms of government con­trol seem to be along the same order. The very people who advo­cate wage and price controls are likely to be the ones who also cheat on their own procedure. They are trying to enlist body­guards to keep themselves and others from "sinning." This point gained, they then work with equal zeal to outwit the bodyguards!

Subsidies and Taxation—"Set­ting up one on the house" has long been established as congenial barroom etiquette in states where it is not against the law. It is pos­sible that few beneficiaries of this occasional largess ever fully real­ize that they, the customers, ac­tually pay for this generosity. They do not realize that the "house" could not hand out free drinks unless it had received rev­enues from themselves or previous customers. Toward the end of my mottled career with the bottle, I was beginning to recognize the "house" favors for what they really were: subsidized handouts. I don’t resent the custom, but I am at war with the notion that people, collectively, can receive anything that they don’t pay for in the first place.

The Threat of Economic Col­lapse—There seems to be a lot of nonsense in the air nowadays about our depression-proof econ­omy, and its various "automatic stabilizers" such as unemployment insurance and wage scales. It sounds to me a lot like schemes for going on a binge without suf­fering the effects of a hang-over. Competent economic historians warn us that economic collapses inevitably follow inflationary booms (or binges). The resulting collapse is nothing but Nature’s way of warning us that we were doing things the wrong way . . . just as a hang-over and other troubles warn the alcoholic that he’s not living correctly. But a series of good head splitting, belly-curdling, throat-scalding hang­overs were good, since they made him want to stop. Perhaps we have to suffer our economic hang­overs, too, until we decide to find out just what it is that’s hurting us and do something about it. It would, of course, be a costly lesson—but it would be cheap at thrice the price if it taught us how to establish our economy on foundations of rock instead of sand. The real danger would not be in the collapse; it would be in a blindly stubborn refusal to accept the truth about it, and to realize the nature of the errors that pro­duced it.

Blame the Sellers—Lately I’ve read several books which indict the marketing approach of our economy, blaming almost every­thing from juvenile delinquency to mental breakdowns on the nation’s advertisers and marketers. The arguments seem to imply that self­ish, irresponsible interests are causing us to do things we don’t want to do. We should harness these oily rogues before they’ve destroyed the last remnants of our social values.

This is nonsense. It’s simply a variation of the old pattern I prac­ticed often myself: blaming my hang-over on the bartenders. It is true, of course, that our country has a lot of delinquency and neu­rosis, but the fault doesn’t lie with our marketing systems, anymore than it does in the stars. The fault is still in ourselves.

This completes my random list of observations. I like to think that they have a "horse sense" sound, and that they aren’t too unreasonable. They are relatively "unbiased," because they devel­oped during years when I paid little attention at all to any of the competing forms of economic and political thought. I was almost outraged to learn that my ideas stamp me as a "conservative" instead of a "liberal." But, I’ve learned to live with that stigma! It is curious that when I cross verbal swords with "liberals," they frequently accuse me of not dealing with reality, of living in a dream world. This is odd, be­cause their ideas were mostly mine when I was in a world that was mostly dreams, mostly un­reality.