Michael Shellenberger: The Root Cause of America’s Homelessness Epidemic and Why the Term ‘Homeless’ Is Misleading
“We’re literally paying people in the form of cash welfare, housing, and other services to live in tents on the street, use hard drugs, defecate publicly, and commit crimes,” says Michael Shellenberger, author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.”
Even the word “homeless” itself is a propaganda word, Shellenberger says. “It suggests that the underlying problem is lack of housing, expensive rents, or poverty. And that’s not the case.”
The term “homeless” lumps together two groups that are radically different. But it’s irresponsible to conflate mothers escaping abusive husbands, or people who are just going through some hard times, with people who are mentally ill, or drug-addicted, or both, Shellenberger says.
Fundamentally, a victim ideology guides how progressives deal with homelessness. And this ideology refuses to demand even a modicum of accountability from so-called victims, Shellenberger argues, even when they’re engaging in self-destructive behaviors that could be deadly.
Jan Jekielek: Michael Shellenberger, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Michael Shellenberger: Thanks for having me, Jan. I’m super happy to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: I have to say this before we start. “Apocalypse Never,” your previous book which you wrote a year ago, is a book that’s very important to me in trying to understand the realities around climate change. It’s just trying to find a path through all this weaponized information. So I want to give you a shout out for that book.
Today, we’re going to talk about “San Fransicko.” This is something you’ve been working on for a long time, the issue of mental health and homelessness and the intersection of this. Give us a framework. What is really happening out there?
Mr. Shellenberger: Sure. As you mentioned, I’ve been working on the environment for the last 20 years, pretty heavily focused on the environment. But in the late 1990s, I did work on decriminalization of drugs, harm reduction, and housing first.
I did work for a number of organizations supported by George Soros, including his main foundation, Open Society Institute. When I stopped doing that work around 2000, my understanding was that we were advocating drug treatment, drug rehabilitation as an alternative to prison.
Around 2017, when drug overdose deaths reached 73,000 a year, up from 17,000 in the year 2000, I remember thinking something has gone horribly wrong. I started to look more at the issue.
Last year, we had 93,000 deaths from illicit drugs, overdoses and poisonings. I knew this was something I needed to come back to. “Apocalypse Never,” my book on the environment, is a reflection on what I had been wrong about, and why I changed my mind about some questions. I wanted to do the same thing for “San Fransicko.”
Mr. Jekielek: First of all, you don’t hear a lot about people changing their minds or being wrong or having made mistakes these days. It’s almost like people dig in. So one of the things that comes through in “San Fransicko” is the homelessness problem. Iit’s a misnomer. It’s not a homelessness issue. It is a drug abuse issue, but somehow these things are conflated.
Mr. Shellenberger: That’s right.The word homeless is a propaganda word. It’s been around for decades, but it was really used in the 1980s by progressive activists to demand more subsidized housing.
They used people who were on the street suffering from drug addiction or untreated mental illness as reasons for more housing. Part of the reason that you would use the word homeless is it suggests that the underlying problem is lack of housing, expensive rents, or poverty. And that’s not the case.
It was interesting. I try to look back on how I thought about these questions. There was always a lot of political activity around homelessness in San Francisco when I was there in the 1990s, but I was never fully on board with a lot of it because it seemed like it was a defense of people being addicted to hard drugs, living on the street, and engaging in criminal activities.
It never seemed right, either for the people that were engaged in those activities or for the other residents of the city. At various moments, people have … This is not, by the way, my interpretation of that word. The advocates who used the word homelessness explicitly said that they were using that word.
The problem is they’re combining groups of people that should not be combined. So the two groups that are in the biggest trouble that are living on the street, are people suffering from untreated mental illness, and people suffering from drug addiction. Sometimes they’re the same people. Sometimes they’re different people.
There are people with schizophrenia that live on the street. But there are also people that got addicted to heroin or meth that have become disaffiliated—alienated from friends and family, in part, because they’ve stolen money from them or borrowed money from them and not paid it back—and have been kicked out of their homes.
To mix up those people with, say, the mother escaping an abusive husband, is just irresponsible. There are people that do suffer hard times, and they need some financial help. We do a pretty good job of helping those people. They don’t need the same thing that people that are addicted to heroin and meth need.
Mr. Jekielek: It seems like there’s a kind of ideological determination. You expound on this in the book. This was really fascinating because I hadn’t thought of it that way, that someone in this sort of situation cannot be held accountable for their situation because it’s seen as an illness. But paradoxically, the only way they’re going to get out of it is to take some responsibility for their situation or let someone else take responsibility. That’s a fascinating juxtaposition.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes, that’s right. To some extent, San Francisco is famous for having treated people with HIV/AIDS at a time when other people were not treating them. So it really comes out of a tradition of compassion. San Francisco is named after Saint Francis, who was a saint to the poor and the sick. So, leading with compassion is a big part of our identity.
The problem is most people have some awareness of people that are addicted to hard drugs or even to alcohol and marijuana, which are not perceived as being hard drugs. But people that are suffering from addiction often do need an intervention. This has been well understood for 150 years of opioid abuse. There’s a television show, a reality show called “Intervention.”
Many, if not most of us have a family or a friend who, at some point, suffered from addiction and benefited from an intervention, or not gotten an intervention and needed one. I have had two childhood friends that have died from complications relating to drug addiction. I have another friend that’s still struggling with addiction.
You have to ask the question, why do people that say they’re so compassionate allow people suffering from drug addiction or severe mental illness to live on the streets? The basic idea for progressives is that the system is bad. The system being our democratic capitalist system is bad. It creates victims. Progressives only pay attention to people who are obviously victims of that system.
In “San Fransicko,” I also described the seemingly contradictory nature of the progressive response to crime, in particular to homicide. What you notice when you look at the data, 30 times more African-Americans are killed by other civilians than by the police.
Yet there’s all of this attention to police killings. Why is that? Well, it’s because progressives are really obsessed with people that are killed by representatives of the system. In that case, by the police. So in the case of people that are addicted to hard drugs or suffering from mental illness, they’re not perceived as victims of the system, per se.
So there’s not as much concern or routine care for them. In fact, the people that are perpetuating violence and addiction are drug dealers in San Francisco. The drug trade is controlled by Hondurans. They themselves are viewed as victims of human trafficking. It’s not true.
But that victim ideology—the idea that people can be put in the category of victims and that everything should be given to them, and nothing is asked—is really the dominant ideology of progressives right now. It’s the dominant ideology of all of our political leaders in the San Francisco Bay area.
Mr. Jekielek: This is fascinating. I want to build on this a bit more because this actually offers a broader framework to try to understand what’s happening in our society right now.
Mr. Shellenberger: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re looking at the critical race theory in schools. I think there are elements of what you’re talking about in all of these kinds of efforts. What’s really fascinating is you made a note of this. You were talking about Viktor Frankl’s approach to psychology.
The idea that life has to be infused with meaning, to take from the title of this book. But also accepting responsibility is a critical element of that. The people who might believe in this kind of victimology ideology that you’re describing, also agree that taking responsibility for yourself is something that’s important and agree with Victor Frankl’s approach to helping people.
Mr. Shellenberger: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: It seems like such a paradox. I guess you’re offering a little bit of an explanation as to how that works.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes. Most people are familiar with Victor Frankl. Some people aren’t. Victor Frankl was a psychologist, a psychiatrist in the 1930s and ’40s. He was in Austria. He’s Jewish. He became famous for [the] successful treatment of people with depression and suicidal college students.
He would ask the depressed college students who were contemplating suicide, “Why don’t you commit suicide?” It was such a wild question because, of course, it sounds like he’s suggesting it. He’s not. He’s just asking people, “Why haven’t you committed suicide?”
And the answers that people gave are ones you might imagine. “Because I would hate to hurt my family who I love,” or “I have a girlfriend or a boyfriend who I hope to marry,” “Oh, I’m excited to get my degree in college and have a job and a life.” And so they would describe goals. Things that they live for.
Frankl argued against Freud at the time that that’s how people live life passionately. That’s how people live a good life—they have goals. Those goals might change. Some things might not be realized. His philosophy got put to the test when he was taken to the concentration camps.
He realized very early on, if he was going to survive the concentration camps, he had to have a goal. He had to have the right mentality. Of course, it was to survive the concentration camps and be reunited with his wife and parents and to write a book. Well, he gets out of the concentration camps. His wife’s been killed. His parents have been killed. He has a new goal, which is to find a new life partner, remarry and to write his book.
I was watching an old Victor Frankl video when COVID started in 2020. I found myself within five minutes of watching them, feeling happy, empowered, excited. I was so struck that Victor Frankl was very popular among liberals and progressives in the 1960s.
Yet at the same period, that same philosophy, when it became part of political life when you would say—we need to have a better attitude, people need to have a good mentality, they need to be self-reliant, they need to be resilient—that was treated by the radical left as blaming the victim.
That’s the name of a very famous book that came out in 1970. I think it’s a real disservice. It’s a manipulation of language, because what it does is suggests that some people are essentially victim by nature of their identity, racial identity, or by nature of their experience.
If you’re African American, this is very insulting and racist, the idea is that you’re a victim because of your race. Or if you suffered abuse or trauma or some suffering, you are a victim because of that trauma. That’s the first bad idea.
Then the second bad idea is that nothing should be expected of people that are victims. But that’s absurd, because of course the way that you achieve a heroic life, the way that you become a hero is to overcome your victimization and your oppression. So part of the reason I want to write “San Fransicko” is to get it to that moment.
Where did progressives go so wrong? On the one hand, they embraced this really empowering message of self-help in their private lives. But then in their politics, they totally rejected it with this idea that self-help was blaming the victim.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, that moment, is that in 1970? Is blaming the victim coming out? Trace this for me. This is so fascinating.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes. I think some of these ideas, you trace them back and they always end up starting much earlier than you discover. But certainly, 1964, we passed this really sweeping and amazing progressive Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination right away.
President Johnson, his advisor was Patrick Moynihan, who was a Democrat and became a Senator of New York later. Moynihan said we’ve got a problem, which is that we’re seeing high levels of divorce and family disillusioned in the African American community. It was a very sensitive subject back then, as it is now. Moynihan had put out a big report on the black family and some of the challenges there.
Mr. Jekielek: It was just a fraction of what it is today …
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes, about one-third of African American families had parental absences, father absences. Today I believe it’s over 70 percent. So they were identifying a real problem. The response from the radical left was, that’s blaming the victim. I think one way to look at it is that the left felt like that message of personal responsibility was competing with their story, which is that the society and the system are to blame for all bad things that happened to people.
That’s a very old view. This is Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century who said that people are born pure and innocent. Then we’re corrupted by society. Conservatives really have the opposite view, which is that individuals are born fallen, to borrow from the Christian or Judeo-Christian language. Then society gets them on the straight and narrow.
So it comes from that. Then it just became more radical over the last 50 years. I even see in older generations of Democrats, they still had some belief that even people that suffered from victimization, oppression or racial discrimination, that things should still be required of them, that that wasn’t the end of the story. But it’s just become really dogmatic.
Last year, I believe we were in a very severe moral panic after the George Floyd death and protests. That led to a situation where anybody who suggested some sort of reciprocity or personal responsibility was viewed as continuing with oppression. They were just shouted down. That’s how we resulted in so many of the terrible policies we saw, including cutting police, not requiring people to follow the basic laws of city life.
Mr. Jekielek: How does it work in skid row in LA or the Tenderloin in San Francisco? I remember when I was living in San Francisco, driving through the Tenderloin. This was 10 years ago. Already it was dangerous to drive through. You could hurt somebody. There were people wandering through the streets, obviously in very rough shape.
I know it’s only gotten a lot worse, but this is a direct result of how people who are trying to help these people are dealing with them, and police at the same time. You suggest the ideal situation is for the advocates, and the police to be working together. But this isn’t how it plays out now.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes, you’ve got it just right. What we call homeless encampments is a euphemism. It’s a propaganda word designed to make you think that it’s something different than it is. The idea is that, “Oh, it’s these people helping each other. They’re camping out.” The European researchers… And there was a major study done of this that was commissioned by the Norwegian government.
They describe these as open drug scenes where people live inside of open-air drug markets. So buyers and sellers are meeting there, but they’re also just living there because they’re so addicted.
When you’re addicted to opioids, whether pills, heroin or fentanyl, and you’re in the depths of that addiction, you often need to be using your opioids every four hours, except at night when you might sleep a long time. You sleep off that, but you wake up right away and you need to use. That’s what those encampments are. They’re open drug scenes.
In Europe, they tried at first, just like we’re doing in California, just giving people methadone, which is the substitute for heroin. Giving people clean needles. Encouraging them to go into drug treatment. It didn’t work. People were like, “No, I’ll just stay here in the squalor and use drugs” because they’re suffering from a kind of mental illness, which is what drug addiction is.
Finally, the people of those cities—Amsterdam, Lisbon, Frankfurt, Vienna, Zurich—they all took action with police and social workers to require people, “You can’t camp in public. You can’t use drugs in public. You can’t defecate in public. You can come to the shelter. We can get you drug treatment. Or you can go to jail. But those are your two choices.”
That was where I thought we left things in the early 2000s. But, we’ve done a series of laws, court judgements, and changes in public attitudes—so much that now it’s just, “Hey, if you’re doing those things, we’ll leave you alone because we think you’re victims.”
Mr. Jekielek: What about police, and how do police interact with these areas? Or how are they allowed to interact with these areas?
Mr. Shellenberger: Naturally, police have been completely demonized, particularly the last several years. But really it’s older than that. It goes back 50, 60 years when police were viewed as part of the system. They’re part of this oppressive prison state. Prisons became viewed as a metaphor for the capitalist system by a lot of radical left, socialist, progressive anarchists.
There’s really a long history of valorizing and celebrating convicts, criminals. This is very old. The idea is that capitalism itself is a crime, that property is theft. Nobody is wealthy, they didn’t steal their wealth. It’s all a corrupt con game.
Anybody that breaks the laws in some sense—a rebel, a resistance fighter, and that goes for people that commit very violent crimes even. So the anti-police protests are very old to some extent. They gained new life, obviously, last year.
What I point out in the book and one of the most surprising things, even for me, even in someone that’s become very skeptical of the claims made by the left, is just how effective policing really is. You need good policing for sure. But just having more police on the streets reduces crime.
There’s just so many studies that have found this. But one way we know you can reduce homicides is by having police interact with potential killers. It’s that classic Hollywood movie where the police officer knows the potential criminal and they have this relationship.
We know that one of the factors driving a rise in homicides—the willingness of people to kill—is just total cynicism in the system. Total disbelief that the system is fair, that the system is impartial, that it’s not discriminatory.
When you have months of activists, the news media, incredible individuals saying that the police are racist, that the police are killers and violent, it reduces the legitimacy of the police. The police are less likely to engage in the community, and would-be criminals are more likely to commit crimes including homicide.
Mr. Jekielek: As a Canadian looking in, it’s unbelievable how many people are incarcerated. You describe in the book, and this has been documented on this show a number of times before, that people with mental illness end up in prison, or they’re in these open-air drug markets. But they’re not in the sort of area that would actually help them because neither of those scenarios necessarily help them.
Mr. Shellenberger: That’s right. It’s an issue I’m sensitive to. My aunt suffered from schizophrenia. She was pretty well taken care of. She lived in a residential care facility in Denver, Colorado. She had her own bedroom, a shared living space, shared kitchen space. She was too disabled to work. So she was cared for by taxpayers but in as positive a way as possible.
A lot of people remember how terrible our psychiatric hospitals became around the mid-20th century. And that’s true. But it’s important to remember that the treatment of the mentally ill has always been extremely difficult and often really terrible.
In the 19th century, the 18th century, people with mental illness were locked up in basements and barns, literally in chains. Many people were killed. So the initial impetus to get people into psychiatric hospitals was very humanistic.
We then had a great depression. We had World War II. They were short staffed in those hospitals. The activists that were trying to reform the hospitals took the story to LIFE Magazine, and Look—these were the big magazines and newspapers. We saw photos of how terrible the hospitals were.
At the same time, progressives were pushing for a very humanistic response, at least they thought, to treat the mentally ill in communities. But what ended up happening, and this really started under President John F. Kennedy and then accelerated after that, we just started, literally, dumping people from the psychiatric hospitals onto the streets.
Some people did get the care that they needed like my aunt. Other people ended up homeless and often addicted to hard drugs. Then many other people ended up in jail and prison. I point out that the institution that has the most seriously mentally ill people in the country is Los Angeles County Jail, kept in absolutely terrible conditions, at least for this population.
It’s much easier to deal with somebody with depression or mild depression who becomes addicted to heroin. That’s someone who we have better experience dealing with. But people with schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder—sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart—that’s a group of people that is extremely difficult to deal with. It requires some amount of sophistication, but it certainly requires engagement and some coercion. Otherwise people end up getting hurt.
Our grandparents, suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, we don’t allow them to wander and live on the streets. One of the questions I wanted to ask was why, then, do we allow people that are suffering from psychosis, whether from schizophrenia or from chronic meth use, to be on the streets?
Mr. Jekielek: You get the impression that it’s a combination of good intentions, and a very specific ideology, like Foucault’s ideology or something that came from him.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes. Michel Foucault is this incredibly influential intellectual. It’s interesting. A lot of people that did not get graduate degrees in the social sciences or the humanities are not familiar with Michel Foucault about his ideas. He’s a French historian, wrote widely in the ’60s and early ’70s, and was hugely influential. Many of the ideas today that we take for common come from him.
One of his first big books was on the treatment of mental illness. First of all, it turned out to be an inaccurate history. But he promoted this idea, which was very popular in the ’60s and also very wrong, that there is no such thing as mental illness.
They promoted the idea that these are people that were just, we say today, neuro atypical. They’re sort of quirky or slightly different. That the mistreatment of those folks is just a kind of prejudice. According to Foucault, it was actually a way to enforce standards of the enlightenment and of reason on people. So, there was a romantic view that if these folks were just allowed to be free in society, everything would be fine. It didn’t turn out that way.
Seriously mentally ill people that are not properly taken care of can get into a lot of trouble, including committing acts of violence. They can be in psychotic states for a long time and end up hurting other people or hurting themselves. Then Foucault had a similar take on prisons, which is that he was actually against rehabilitation.
He viewed it as too insidious as a power trip, and was a big critic of any kind of incarceration or any kind of … Really, the whole criminal justice system was suspicious from his point of view because we needed something that looked a lot more like what we would call anarchism or more decentralized government, or no government at all.
Mr. Jekielek: How does this manifest in the opposite, which is mass incarceration? The other side being a lack of treatment for people?
Mr. Shellenberger: One way to look at these two waves where we had a huge increase in homicide and other crimes starting in the late ’60s, 1970s, all the way through the early 1980s, then we then had a big backlash. A lot of mass incarceration in response to that in the 1980s and 1990s. Then we started to come back from that. A lot of us were like … We really went too far in the other direction.
I think we’re at a very interesting moment right now because in my book, certainly some people on the left will try to dismiss it as conservative. But I do think when people read it, they’ll see that, really, I’m arguing for a system much more like what they do in Amsterdam or Europe, which is universal psychiatric care—shelter first, treatment first, and then housing earned.
The left has promoted this idea that people on the streets should just be given housing. No questions asked. That housing is a right. Everybody has a right to their own apartment, no matter the circumstances. We know that’s actually really dangerous. It’s irresponsible to give people suffering from addiction or serious mental illness, cash, or their own apartment without any restrictions on how they spend it.
It often is cruel to people to not give money to the homeless, but we know that when you’re supporting people in their addictions, it can actually result in very destructive behaviors. But that is the basic idea, that the people on the street suffering from addiction and mental illness are victims and nothing should be required of them. Requiring anything of them is a kind of oppression.
It’s not something that mainstream psychiatrists believe. It’s not something that addiction specialists believe or agree with. In “San Fransicko,” one of the main characters is a leading addiction specialist at Stanford University. He’s somebody who supports harm reduction measures including giving addicts clean needles so they don’t get HIV/AIDS, but he says very clearly, “Look. You need interventions. I mean, this is obvious.”
I think America needs to mature in its own relationship to freedom. These things are justified out of a kind of freedom for victims. But also I think for non-lefties, they go, “Well, you can’t tell people what to do.” My view is, yes, that’s fine. You can’t tell people what to do.
I don’t think we should put any resources into making addicts who are killing themselves in the privacy of their own homes some sort of a law enforcement priority. But we have a situation here where we’re literally paying people in the form of cash welfare, housing, and other services to live in tents on the street, use hard drugs, defecate publicly, and commit crimes.
So clearly, something’s not working. We need to have some accountability. Tthat includes from the people that we label victims.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about Europe a little bit because people will often say to this, “Okay. Well, but look in Portugal, for example, all drugs are legal, or people know better, at least they’re decriminalized,” right? That isn’t the whole story, but that’s what you keep hearing to justify why so many things aren’t working. That’s what I’ve heard many times.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes. When you ask progressives what the solution is to all the drug overdoses in San Francisco … We have one of the highest rates of drug overdoses in the country—712 drug overdose deaths or poisonings last year. They say we just need a safe place for people to use drugs. They claim that that’s what Europe did. They claim that Europe simply decriminalized. That’s just false.
In Amsterdam, I saw it myself at work. But I also interviewed the head of Portugal drug programs. One of the main talking points is that Portugal just decriminalized all drugs, and it’s fine. I asked the head of Portugal’s drug program, “If I were shooting heroin in Lisbon, in public, what would happen to me?” He said, “You would be arrested and brought to the police station.”
They have decriminalized a certain amount of drugs for personal use. But if you’re caught breaking other laws as a result of your addiction, including using drugs publicly, shooting heroin on a park bench, you are brought before something called a Commissions for the Dissuasion of Addiction, which is just as scary as it sounds.
Usually, it’s like a defense attorney, a prosecuting attorney, a social worker, a psychiatrist, and your family members. So basically, it’s an intervention with the power of the state behind it so that if you’re a repeat offender, you’re arrested again. Something else happens, they will come after you and increase the punishment and the consequences of your behavior.
Mr. Jekielek: But the idea is that, because of this accountability, you can have a chance, right?
Mr. Shellenberger: That’s right. Interventions are liberating for the person that’s being intervened upon. The addicts are in the grip of a mental illness. That’s the first thing you have to understand. In the book I describe three recovering addicts, two of whom were homeless at one point. And they just say, “I had to be arrested to quit drugs. And I’m glad I was arrested.”
I interviewed many people, including people that were actively addicted and homeless, who would say, “I wish somebody would do something. I wish I would …” They wouldn’t necessarily say “I wish I was being arrested,” but they would ask to be on probation. They need some sort of structure to keep themselves healthy and clean.
It used to be that even addicts would be arrested every once in a while and would find themselves in jail or prison where they would have to detox and kick their addiction, at least for a period of time. We’re not doing that now.
So, the result is, often there’s a lot of what we call poly drug use. There’s a lot of people using multiple hard drugs in a single day, day after day. Meth at night, often, then heroin or fentanyl during the day. It is very hard on the body to live like that.
We see people in San Francisco with open wounds, open sores, people are becoming deeply sick. Obviously they’re dying of drug overdoses. So the popular idea that we should just simply help people to remain heavily addicted but in a slightly safer way, I find it just offensive and quite cynical.
Many people need the intervention. The Portuguese know that. Yes, you don’t necessarily need to arrest addicts and put them in prison, but they do need the intervention so that they can get clean and move on with their lives.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m remembering this amazing … Was it a Dutch saying? “The weak doctor makes the wound stink,” or something like that.
Mr. Shellenberger: That’s exactly right. Yes, it was interesting because I had just gone to the big museum in Amsterdam. The Netherlands was really one of the first rich countries. It was famous because it was a country that traded around the world.
In one of the rooms were these pictures of big battles and scenes of war—of the Dutch fighting and being really tough. Then in another room were these paintings of the same period of domestic life of tranquility—of a wealthy family in particular. One of a wealthy family with each of them holding their little musical instruments. This must have been the 17th century.
And I was struck by that … I was still struck even when I talked to the Dutch that there’s some sense of the softness that you have in the internal life. The private life was only made possible by having national security. This is something that you always hear conservatives say “Freedom’s not free,” right? You have to have some strength there. Of course, in the family too, there’s discipline provided against bad behavior and to reward good behavior.
That was when I mentioned this experience of visiting the museum to one of my Dutch friends. That’s when he said “soft doctors make wounds stink.”The idea is that if you have a wound and it’s not clean and gets infected, then it smells. So you have to scrub it and make it bleed.
This is something that all bicyclists know. If you get road rash, you need to scrub that wound to make sure it bleeds and is clean. There’s something to that. I think that we are dealing with a really infected wound in the form of these open-air drug scenes, or untreated mental illness.
Yes, we need to get clean. That means that there’s going to be some painful coming-to-grips with reality. It won’t necessarily be completely pretty, but we’ll end up on the other end of it with a lot healthier people than we have now.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that I really loved about “San Fransicko” is you went out into the various communities, and not just America, to try to understand what was happening on the ground—talking to the people who are actually doing the work of a variety of sorts. What would you say is the thing that surprised you most that you learned that is unconventional wisdom. Or maybe it is conventional wisdom.
Mr. Shellenberger: The most surprising thing, by far, is that the reason we don’t have enough shelter beds in San Francisco or in other cities in California, or on the progressive West Coast is because the homeless advocates themselves had fought to fully fund them. So, when you interview progressives, it’s shocking.
They say, “Well, we didn’t want the money to go to shelters because we wanted all the money to go into something they call permanent supportive housing.” They really believe, out of a radical left view, that housing is a right. That if you just show up and say, “I’m homeless,” that you have a right to an apartment in San Francisco or in Venice Beach, which is one of the most exclusive residential communities in Los Angeles.
That is really what people believe. That is what they say. That’s why they have denied sufficient funding to build shelters. There are other factors involved, like it’s hard to build anything in San Francisco because of nimbyism. But that’s also solvable. The shelters can be built elsewhere. But that was what was so striking about it.
That was where I saw the comparison with “Apocalypse Never,” where I point out that the people that are most alarmist about climate change are the same people that are against using nuclear energy or natural gas—which are the two technologies that have done the most to reduce carbon emissions. That was where you go, “There’s something else going on here. There’s some ulterior agenda.”
If we know that … We offer more generous cash welfare, housing, and services in San Francisco. There’s a magnet effect. But at the end of the day, you have people living on the street because you’re allowing people to live on the street.
If you were to say to the people on the street, “You can’t sleep here in the park. You have to go sleep in the shelter. And if you’re not going to go to the shelter and you’re going to insist on being here, then we’re going to arrest you,” you will suddenly discover that you don’t have tents all over your city anymore. That’s all that is.
That was, I think, the most surprising thing. At the end of the day, it was like, “Okay. If you just don’t let people camp out and you require them to sleep in shelters, that solves the problem. You then have to make sure you have enough shelter space.” So, I was struck by the ways in which … It’s not just the radical left.
Our current governor, Gavin Newsom, advocated defunding shelters as a way to divert all of that funding into housing. So you start to see a pattern here, which is that these really are threats to basic civilizational institutions. First they defunded the psychiatric hospitals and let everybody out. Then they defunded the shelters and said people can sleep anywhere. Now they’re defunding the police and trying to close all the jails and prisons.
A lot of those folks probably should have gotten rehabilitation, but that’s not what’s happening. People are just being let out without any conditions.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. So what’s the end game of this? What’s your take on that?
Mr. Shellenberger: Well, I think that Americans do need to grow up. One question is, is this the end of Western civilization? It’s where we see the attacks on the pillars of civilization occurring. Radical left has been attacking psychiatric hospitals. It’s been attacking the police. It’s been attacking universities as a place of free inquiry. It’s seeking censorship.
Often, it’s journalists demanding the censorship of alternative media outlets, whether it’s Epoch Times, or Joe Rogan, or me demanding censorship. So there’s an attack underway on the main pillars of Western civilization. And that’s really scary.
So one question is, is that where this is all headed? Or are we headed towards the situation where conservatives and liberals just all live in different states and we’re not really a single country anymore? I find that terrifying and disturbing.
I have a lot of faith in this country because we do have an ability to remake ourselves. We all thought that America was dying in the 1970s. It came back in the 1980s. I think we all felt like America was in real trouble when the Iraq war was going badly and George W. Bush was president. Then, we had a great recession, and we came back. So I do think that America has the potential to come back. We’re still unique and special among nations.
China’s slipping further and further into totalitarianism. That makes the United States more attractive for immigrants and for others. But I do think we have to rescue a sense of national identity. I think this hypersensitivity to racial identity, sexual identity, gender identity, and other identities is a response to the fact that there isn’t a strong national identity.
I also think it’s a response to the fact that traditional religions have been in decline for a long time. It’s also a function of the fact that social media has accelerated and intensified many of these trends. It’s made people more neurotic, more needy, and psychological, thus reverting towards pretty terrible personal and political behaviors.
I do quote Senator Patrick Moynihan, the same guy that raised concerns around the disillusion of the family in the 1960s. He said, “The central conservative insight is that culture determines the fate of a nation. But the central liberal insight is that politics can intervene in that culture.” So intervention becomes quite a theme of this work and I think of my work.
I’ve been trying to make “Apocalypse Never” and “San Fransicko” interventions, first and foremost, in the culture. Talking to Epoch Times and Joe Rogan, just doing these podcasts, it’s been a real pleasure to be able to just talk about these ideas and surface them.
Because I do think that when reasonable liberals look at victim ideology and they realize that it’s just as dumb as it sounds—the idea that whole groups of people are victims, and that’s the end of the story and that is really terrible psychologically, it’s very disempowering—I do think that has a big impact.
We need a different political formation. I say formation because I don’t know if we need a third party, or if we need one of the parties to change its agenda. But what I end up advocating is something that is not obviously liberal or conservative. I do think we need a shelter-first policy that means you can’t camp out anywhere you want. That’s not okay. It means you have to build enough shelters.
I do advocate for universal psychiatric care. Our current system of psychiatric care is a mess. There are gaps in the system. If you get out of drug treatment, we don’t have an obvious place for you to go. A lot of those folks get out of treatment and go right back to the street, and some of them overdose and die because their tolerances have dropped.
Other people get out of prison and they have the same problem. We don’t have a really functioning psychiatric care system. At the same time, we have a lot of duplication—people paid to do the same thing for different groups of people, a lot of overlap. That system has to get fixed.
I’m proposing a new agency to handle it at the state level with a hierarchy that reports directly to the governor. A CEO of something that we’re calling Cal-Psych. It would oversee six regional directors who would oversee powerful case workers who have the power to get you the particular care that you need. So if you overdose from drugs or you’re arrested multiple times, Cal-Psych will get you the residential care, the psychiatric care, the rehab that you need.
When I look at that package and I talk to … First of all, we tested it with voters and it polls at 70 to 80 percent support. I interviewed the top psychiatric advisor to the governor who’s very famous. He was the head of the National Institute of Mental Health. I also talked to people on the center-right with Manhattan Institute and other organizations.
I found broad agreement on this vision. I even found some agreement on the radical left with the need for involuntary psychiatric care for people that are psychotic. I found support on the radical left for more shelters. Mostly from people that were not just ideologues, but also worked with the people that we call homeless.
So I do have some confidence that the culture is changing. I think we’re in a big backlash right now against wokism, against cancel culture. I do think that the culture is ready for some sort of new political leadership with a new policy agenda that can really address these problems.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating to hear this opportunity for some bipartisanship or multi partisanship, if such a thing exists. This is an area where there is broad interest across the political spectrum, however you conceive that, in some solution.
You just reminded me of something that you mentioned in the book, which is that there is this radical leftist ideology in play, but there’s also civil libertarianism, [where] you can’t impose anything on anyone’s freedom. It’s like the combination of these things that actually creates the big issue and how to deal with that.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes, that’s right. When you interview conservatives who identify as either libertarian or as classical liberals, one of the things that’s so striking is that many of them are also people that have a strong faith. That faith tradition often has some sort of value around discipline or hard work or propriety.
Something that is more of the Old Testament values, for lack of a better word, that balances out that libertarian attitude. What we have in progressive cities is what one of the characters in my book calls left libertarianism. You could also call it anarchism. But I think that victim ideology is really the key because I think that even for classical liberals or libertarians, your rights end when they start to infringe on other people’s rights.
So, people have a right to their city. People have a right to walk down the sidewalk and not have to move into the street because there’s a tent there. They have a right not to see somebody injecting heroin in front of them. They have a right to not have people defecate publicly.
These are all rights that we have as residents of the city. So, the real attack comes from this kind of extreme victimology, which suggests that it would be wrong to enforce the laws against certain groups of people. So, yes, to some extent, I think it’s a radicalization of libertarianism, but I think the best way I have found of characterizing it is as something more like a radical victim ideology.
Mr. Jekielek: You call it a religion of sorts, like it’s something deeper than ideology or a replacement where you mentioned the decline of traditional religions.
Mr. Shellenberger: You’ve got it, yes. I describe this wonderful psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, out of New York University. Jonathan Haidt argues that most faith traditions, most religions have six core values. He had argued that what progressives had been doing is emphasizing one of them, which is the value of caring, of compassion.
I spent a bunch of time on this. I think he was onto something, but where I try to advance his theory in this particular case is what I see progressives doing is actually redefining each of those six values around victims. So, to give you a sense of it, one of those core values according to Jonathan Haidt is sanctity. There’s some idea that certain things are sacred in society.
Adherence to victim ideology or victimology as a religion is also viewed … They have a view of sanctity, but their view of sanctity is defined differently. So victims themselves are sacred. The traditional view is of the body as sacred. A lot of religions have the view of the body as sacred, and we have different rituals and rules around the kinds of foods that we can eat. Well, that exists as well, but it’s different.
So for example, according to victim ideology, the sanctity of the body is not violated by heroin or by drugs as it would be for traditional religions. It is violated by the system or the government.
If a traditional conservative would say, “You’re defiling the body. You’re destroying your body’s sanctity by the use of these hard drugs,” a progressive would say, “Nope, that’s autonomy. And what would violate that sanctity of the body would be the government intervening and arresting somebody for doing that.”
So that is a kind of libertarianism. But again, it’s particular to people classified as victims. It does not apply, for example, to a so-called privileged person, and their right to not wear a mask for example. That explains why the progressives can be so authoritarian and anti-freedom when it comes to things like mask mandates, and yet so demanding of freedom and liberty when it comes to the right of a person to use whatever drugs they want.
Mr. Jekielek: Talk about Jonathan Haidt’s work a little more. One element that you didn’t mention as we were talking but you do mention in the book is the coddling element—the coddling in education and upbringing and how that’s shaped things. I think if you interject that now, we get the whole picture, right?
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes. There is a way in which all of what we’re describing is just a continuity of increasing laxity and codding of kids that really starts as we go from working on the farm, to being in the city. It was a pretty gradual process in a lot of ways.
A lot of people look at the period after World War II, where baby boomers were particularly coddled by their parents. But you start to see anxiety about spoiling kids and coddling kids in the 1930s and even earlier. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is an expression that comes from a long time ago out of an anxiety around people spoiling their kids too much. It’s just gotten more and more intense over the years.
I even had a very progressive person that I know who’s a teacher, complaining to me that he was being punished by his principal for having disciplined a child for having engaged in deeply inappropriate behavior in the classroom. The idea was that that child was, if not a victim, then uniquely fragile and should not be disciplined. So, the rise of coddling culture.
I also see behind the opioid epidemic, this idea that any amount of pain should be responded to with very heavy drugs. One of the things I learned in the Netherlands is that they just didn’t have an opioid epidemic in most of these European countries. Why? Well, because if you had some pain, their first response was not to just give you an opioid prescription. They were much more conservative in prescribing opioid pills.
Of course, we overprescribed opioids from the 1990s to around 2010. We then cracked down on overprescribing opioids. A lot of those folks then turned to heroin. A lot of those folks are now using fentanyl and dying. The bottom line is, we also needed psychiatric care.
So you do need—particularly if people are being overly coddled—some regulation of these really powerful drugs to say, “Do you really need an opioid? Or maybe you’re just unhappy. Maybe you need an antidepressant, some therapy, or some counseling. Or you just need to exercise a few times a week to improve your brain chemistry or whatever it is?”
So there is a part of it that is uniquely American and that we have such a manic, intense character. We also lack the kind of psychiatric and mental health care systems that European countries have.
I think we’re also suffering from just decades of coddling and not balancing that need to both unconditionally love our children—which I believe we should do—but also have real consequences for bad behavior and then proper rewards for genuinely extraordinary, remarkable and beneficial behaviors.
Mr. Jekielek: I can’t help thinking that the idea that pain, any pain at all, is bad, right?
Mr. Shellenberger: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: And we know that’s not true, even though we wouldn’t wish pain on anybody.
Mr. Shellenberger: You can see the society. Right now, the hottest self-help movement is stoicism. Stoicism is just a philosophy that says just that. It says, “Look at your suffering as an opportunity to become stronger. Look at the pain as a chance to become a stronger person.”
The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, is famous for saying, “That which doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” That’s a stoic mentality. It’s basically been demonized by many progressives as a way to justify cruelty, but of course it’s not. It’s just acknowledging that life is really hard.
I mean, all of our lives. It doesn’t matter how good your life is. Everybody’s life is full of moments of pain and suffering. Even people with very privileged lives experience pain and suffering.
I think we need to tell our kids that. We need to expect that they’re going to have pain and suffering, and that they will develop character by overcoming the pain and suffering with some amount of dignity, and by taking responsibility for what they do with that pain and suffering since the pain and suffering, to a large extent, is inevitable.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I think that’s a perfect place to finish up. Michael Shellenberger, it’s such a pleasure to have you on again. We’ll have you back for sure.
Mr. Shellenberger: Thanks so much for having me on.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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