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Addict Nation

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This piece on the recent explosion of gambling in general, and sports gambling in particular, reminded me that I’ve been encountering more and more evidence that addiction of all kinds is becoming more prevalent, in a society in the grip of what the historian David Courtwright calls “limbic capitalism.”

I now count myself as merely lucky that [sports gambling] held no appeal to me. I know this because I’ve read Heavy, the bestselling memoir of Kiese Laymon, a MacArthur Fellowship–winning writer and English professor at Rice University in Houston. “I’m not even sure I came to the casino to win,” Laymon wrote about his old gambling addiction. “I’m here because I’m sad, lonely, and addicted to losing.”

Laymon opens Heavy as an 11-year-old boy watching his mother play the slot machines at a Las Vegas casino. In the memoir, his mother wins almost $65 in quarters. “If you’re [11], that’s a lot of money,” he said to me recently over the phone. “So that was my first time at a casino.”

In 1993, a few years later, Laymon’s home state of Mississippi was one of a wave of six states to legalize riverboat gambling along the Mississippi River. In time, going to the riverboat casino became just another family activity for Laymon. “I never thought this was a place you go to lose money,” he said. “When I would meet people who could see there was something wrong, I was just like, ‘What do you mean? We just go to have fun.’ It was normalized to me.”

Laymon told me how bad things eventually got for him: A decade ago, as a professor at Vassar College, he spent all of his $73,000 advance check for Heavy at the blackjack tables at the Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort in Connecticut.

“The book became the book it became because I lost that advance,” Laymon said. “Then, you’re writing for your life.”

In a society obsessed with the profit motive, addiction is something to be created, nurtured, and exploited, because of the fact that it’s so fantastically profitable. The market for any commodity or activity that lends itself to addiction will feature 90% of the profit coming from the 10% of the most addicted consumers. A statistic that illustrates this well is that 70% of the American population either never drinks or drinks occasionally, while the eighth decile of the American population consumes an average of a drink a day, the ninth decile consumes an average of two drinks a day, and the tenth decile — 25 million adults — consumes 77 drinks per week.

Meanwhile, we’ve gone from around 8,000 drug overdose per deaths per year in the 1980s, at the height of the moral panic over drugs, to around 110,000 last year.

A psychology professor at CU was telling my wife the other day that she’s at her wit’s end about the undergrad boys in her classes, because so many of them play video games for so many hours per day that they find it impossible to do their schoolwork as a result (She has found that this is a very gendered issue, as the vast majority of her students with a video game addiction seem to be male).

Online shopping, online pornography, online doomscrolling . . . basically online everything seems to lend itself to addictive behavior. And with everyone carrying the Internet around them on their phones at all times, this is a problem that is becoming literally inescapable in one form or another for almost everybody.

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