Claremont, CA. They call it the “Superman Syndrome.” People who use methamphetamine often believe that they are capable of doing impossible things. Like flying. Or walking through walls. Or earning a living as a meatpacker in the era of agribusiness.

Nick Reding’s Methland (Bloomsbury, $25) made a number of “Best Books of 2009” lists, but I want to make sure it does not get consigned to the Decade That Was. It is one of the best pieces of book-length journalism that I have read in years, and if you haven’t read it already it should be your must-read book of 2010.

Methland starts out as the tale of one small town – Oelwein, Iowa – so ravaged by small-time methamphetamine production that its officials ban bicycling on Main Street. (Meth makers were riding through downtown with chemical-filled soda bottles strapped to their bikes; the motion helps to “cook” the drug.) Everyone is in a state of collapse: the people who are addicted to the drug, of course, but also the people – the mayor, the prosecutor, the doctor, the policemen – who are trying to fight it.

It sounds like an ABC Afterschool Special for the literary set – drugs are bad! see what they can do to you/us/Iowans! – but as Reding gets further into his story, the story gets much more complicated.

What Methland is really about is the many connections, subtle and apparent, among methamphetamine, immigration policy, and the mega-consolidated industries that we call Big Pharma and Big Agriculture. If the denizens of Oelwein were finding it almost impossible to combat the scourge of meth use, it was because structures and forces well beyond the scale of the town were effectively conspiring to spread it.

Reding’s critique of Big Agriculture – those same folks who chastised the First Lady for growing her own vegetables – is in particular worth the price of admission.

In Oelwein he gives us a sad example of what the introduction of agribusiness can do to employment in a farming community: In 1992, the local Iowa Ham plant was bought by Gilette. Within a day, Gilette dismantled the union and wages fell from $18 to $6.20 an hour. Gilette then sold the plant to Iowa Beef Products, and in 2001 Iowa Beef Products sold the plant to Tyson. With each sale, people were fired. In 2006, Tyson closed the plant for good. (Also with each sale, more and more workers turned to meth, hoping that it would allow them to stay awake for enough shifts at a time that they would be able to earn a decent wage. As Reding notes, meth has always been the drug “associated with hard work.”)

But Reding also describes the extent to which Big Ag has fought for the ability to hire illegal immigrants – as many as 25 percent of the agricultural jobs in the United States are performed by illegal immigrants – which among many other effects has made it harder to police cross-border drug trade. Although the powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations employ only a “miniscule percentage of the illegal immigrants in this country,” Reding observes, “that fractional number is harder still to police within an ever-expanding multitude of people that is overwhelmingly law abiding.”

Reding, the child of a longtime Monsanto employee, goes on to explain the changes that Big Agriculture has wrought in rural America in terms of political economy:

Strapped with the mandate to “grow or die,” businesses are encouraged to cannibalize competition until there are no longer many buyers and many sellers, but rather, many buyers and an increasingly limited number of sellers. The flow of capital is dammed up. Once competition has been annihilated … the surviving companies, like Cargill, begin to effect political decisions through their enormous lobbying capabilities. The government no longer governs unimpeded: it does so in tandem with major companies, just as Marx predicted. It was less than a century ago that Teddy Roosevelt made his reputation by “busting up the trusts” that had become too powerful. Those “trusts,” not coincidentally, were in large part the industrial meat packers of the early twentieth century.

In this book we see corporations work with governments, again and again, to prevent legislation that would stem the flow of methamphetamine across national borders. So the national interest in, say, regulating the importation of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth production, is deemed not as important as the pharmeceutical industry’s desire to avoid regulations at all costs. (Reading all this, it is worth remembering Adam Smith’s own explanation of the “invisible hand” mechanism begins with the assumption that actors are all “preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry” – an assumption that is questionable at best in the era of the global corporation.)

Although methamphetamine has been treated as a “small town” or national plague, Reding demonstrates over the course of this book how much it is a global drug – a drug that cannot be understood without reference to the forces of globalization.

This is a book that reminds us that the big picture is made up of many details, that what we tend to term “policy issues” rarely exist in isolation. Unlike the congressman Reding interviews (Representative Mark Souder of Indiana) who says again and again that it is not his job to seek out the connections among various social ills and develop a sense of the whole, Reding makes it his job to do so. It is an exemplary effort.

In an investigation of one small town, Nick Reding tells much that we need to know about our big, and often bad, world.

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  1. It’s funny- I remember when meatpacking was considered a good job for a husband and father because you could make a life on it. Not anymore; at least, not in most places. As for meth, I don’t know much about it. My sister lived in Eugene, Oregon for a few years and said meth had completely devastated the community.

  2. We always speak of economics in terms of grand abstractions, but it is always arrives as experience. The economists dismiss Methland and Econolypse as mere anecdote, forgetting that all empirical evidence is merely an aggregation of anecdotes.

  3. […] {Read it all} Related Posts:Thoughts from General ConventionMid-week random music play listThank you: the gratitude campaignShocking Message to Pastors & ChurchesEpiscopal Clergy in the Media This entry was posted in Uncategorized, commentary, culture and tagged culture, FPR, meth. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « Merry Christmas […]

  4. Susan, I sort of stumbled onto FPR and yours was one of the first entries I read. Bullseye is the word that comes to mind. There’s something soul-achingly wrong with the way in which we conduct the business of living when these corporate entities, beholden to none other than themselves and their shareholders, can wreak such havoc on the lives of generally innocent people and Nature. It harkens to the comment about Adam Smith and domestic industry. Unless you’re living there, you don’t much mind the negative and lasting impacts your actions will have. In effect, the people of that Iowa town are one instance of a corporate colonialism that finds its way back, ironically, to our own home.

    I will read this book. Thank you.

  5. I’ll check it out, mostly to see which way the author comes down in terms of causation. Does meth “ruin” communities, or does it become the drug of choice in communities which have been ruined? Had the jobs kept paying $18 an hour, would meth have made inroads? And let’s say the mayor and the cops DID manage to keep the meth out while the larger economic forces were at work. Would this be a great place to live? Seems to me that instead of dirt poor and high on meth, people would be dirt poor and sober. (Or more likely, dirt poor and drunk on whiskey.) Either way, people would have to get out of there.

    I guess I wonder whether the focus should be on meth at all. Ever read anything by Breece DJ Pancake? It’s fiction, but it also focuses on the connection between hard labor (in his case coal mining) and all sorts of bad stuff like drugs and domestic abuse.

    People in crappy economic situations managed to be mean, violent and drugged up a long time before anyone opened a meth lab.

  6. Amen! I’ve read Breece DJ Pancake’s stories repeatedly, and they still floor me. Not a syllable is out of place, and their overall effect is to sneak up on you and knock the breath out of your lungs. Highly recommended.

  7. Rufus,

    I am glad I am not alone.

    His stories can serve as a corrective to a lot of things. If you spend too much time mooning over the quaintness of rural America, read some Pancake. If you do the opposite and assume all rural people are one-dimensional caricatures of Sarah Palin, read some Pancake.

    When I first read him, as a fellow hillbilly, I was pretty pissed off at the depravity of all the people he portrays. But there is a dignity in it. And his own biography gives him the “right” to color people in these ways. (We hillbillies are pretty defensive about such things.)

    Generally, I think he’s a great companion to the Southern Agrarians, Wendell Berry, the book mentioned here. Etc.

  8. Modern corporations are the aristocracy that was seen by the Founders as democracy’s eternal enemy. They don’t die, their outlook is amoral and concerned with only their own benefit (which is their charter mandate, and is that way it should be), their access to power and resources pervert the actions and intentions of a democratic society, and anecdotes and exceptions aside, are manned by (here I’m referring to large corporations who pour money into the political system, not the 500 employee machine shop in Illinois) a small subsection of socially connected people. You can watch that in action every Sunday on the TV as employees of international holding companies “interview” the political sock puppets of the same corporations.

    The potency of meth and its attraction to labor intensive workers is a byproduct of the government’s banning of less potent forms of amphetamines, after WW2 amphetamines were distributed and used widely, outcries about abuse lead to prohibition, once it was shoved underground the free market got into play, if you’re going to get prison time for a gram, you might as well make it as potent as possible to get the highest price, that is what has happened to marijuana. Meth use started out in farm country as a way to make the best use of equipment they had rented, I’m not a farmer but I’ve been told that they’d rent a tractor/plow or combine by the day and if you could plow 24 hours for a couple of days it be worth sleeping for the next 2. Vets came home after WW2 and used the same “bennies” they used to stay awake while at the lookout post to stay awake to make best use of the new equipment becoming available. People got introduced to meth because mild pill amphetamines weren’t available; people get hooked on heroin and oxycodone because access to codeine or opium is tightly restricted.

    It’s getting late so I’ll just say that the cure to these issues in my opinion is sunshine. Corporations are not persons and should not be treated as such in court. If Acme inc. commits a crime, it doesn’t pay a fine the senior staff goes to a max security prison, and all of their records are opened for pubic examination. Countries that enable the hiding of assets and currency transfers like Switzerland should be designated terrorist states; they’re conduits for drug traffickers and terrorists.

    Drug prohibition is a farce, if there was access to less potent forms drug addiction could be curtailed. The issue should be drug abuse, not use. And criminalizing drugs just puts the effects of drug use in the shade where it cannot be seen.

  9. Has no one noticed the failure of “progressivism?” Do the names Woodrow Wilson, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, LBJ, Obama not come to mind?
    Not all corporations are evil. Not all people are evil. There is, as Lawler says, better and worse that represents the human condition.
    Obama and the socialists can not save you, neither can Catholic Distributism.
    If you seek justice, truth, honesty, etc., then your people have to be honest, just, and God-fearing. I’m pretty sure George Washington mentioned that.

  10. while it is true that evil exists in every society, and perhaps in equal measure, and that systems cannot save, it is also true that different systems reward different traits. A system that preaches that “greed is good” rewards greed. The question is not so much the presence of evil, the value we place upon it.

  11. FYI, I’m about half-way through ‘Methland’ after getting it from the library a couple days ago. It is every bit as good as Susan says it is — infuriating, saddening, yet very hard to put down.

  12. I read Methland last year and I was sure it would make the Top 10 nonfiction Best of ’09 lists. Much to my surprise, most publications and newspapers ignored it. What Reding describes also reminded me of the stories by Breece DJ Pancake as well as Scott Wolven’s short story collection, Controlled Burn. I wonder if the reason Methland was ignored is because it deals with people nobody in Washington (or State Legislatures, for that matter) care for anymore. Then again, I found my copy of Methland in the “Health” section at my local Borders. I told them it was miscategorized but they did nothing about it. I even wrote the author and he relayed to me how difficult it’d been to get the big stores to carry it.

  13. Interesting take on the ongoing decline of our society. It is interesting that many people think the solution to our problems involves greater political involvement in our economic life through more regulation and redistribution. I would offer the thought that perhaps the great complexity of our regulatory environment, and the tremendous power invested in our political class may paradoxically contribute to our culture of corporate corruption. Perhaps the answer lies in giving less power to our political overlords, simplifying and clarifying regulation, and enforcement of antitrust laws that enable the smaller business or farm to compete without the need for battalions of lawyers and lobbyists to buy favors.
    Perhaps our founders had it right in the first place.

  14. Thank you, Sue. I went and picked up Methland from the library as soon as I had read your review. Indeed, I did find it intriguing, sad, challenging, and not at all what I thought it would be. It’s clear, too, that the story developed into something Reding hadn’t expected it to be either. I agree it’s one of the best non-fiction books of the year and deserved more attention than it got. With three children to raise, I don’t have much time to read, so I choose my books carefully; I’m glad I chose this one.


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