Should you ever pay alcoholics in beer?

Via Eric Crampton and also John Chilton, here is the culture that is Dutch:

An unusual Dutch initiative aims to put an end to one of Amsterdam’s worst nuisances — those bawdy, loitering alcoholics — by employing them in a kind of street cleaning corps. The problem, though, is that the state-financed Rainbow Foundation behind the project pays the self-professed chronic alcoholics in beer for their labor.

“The aim is to keep them occupied, to get them doing something so they no longer cause trouble at the park,” Gerrie Holterman, who heads the Rainbow Foundation, told AFP, referring to Amsterdam’s Oosterpark, an apparent favorite haunt of the alcoholics. And at least some of the participants agree on the apparent benefits of the initiative. One man in the program named Frank told AFP, “Lots of us haven’t had any structure in our lives for years, we just don’t know what it is, and so this is good for us.”

In an interesting twist on “Nudge,” Eric comments:

I don’t know, but would be willing to bet, that most of these workers were consuming rather more than the equivalent of five cans of beer per day before they started in. The delivery is paced throughout the day so there’s no chance any of them get drunk. By delivering the beer as beer rather than as the cash equivalent encourages pacing things rather than having the workers spend it all on lower cost per unit binge at the end of the day. The FP piece turns pretty snide about the initiative, saying it’s enabling alcoholism. Looks a lot more like harm-minimisation to me.


The quesrion you have to ask is which is worse, the self destruction or the nuisance. My reading of nost societies suggests that the nuisance is what actually bothers society, people in general only claim to care about the self destruction so they won't look bad. Of course their are exceptions to this, but those exceptions are not the same people who created drunk tanks snd public loitering laws.

Bothers *some* people. Western societies have a pest fraction. That is, a portion of the public that busies itself policing the choices of others. If these drunks were minding their own business in a secluded area of the park, the pest fraction would go looking for them.

Yup. Either give them what they want, give them what they need, or leave them the hell alone.

Sometimes I think folks seek out the weakest elements in a society because they are the easiest people to boss around.

"Give them what they want", "give them what they need" ... it is always give, give, give with you people.

As for leaving them alone: certainly they want to be left alone when it is convenient for them. Then they want to be allowed to pester people. Until they are given what they want.

(The above is only partly tongue-in-cheek.)

I'll take partly!

If people are causing problems you address those problems. You don't excuse the pestering (or worse, intimidation, etc.) because they are homeless drunks, and you don't take it more seriously because they are homeless drunks. Honestly, I'd kind of like to lock up Girl Scout cookie parents right next to homeless beggars some days.

I'm good with you not giving a thing to any guy in the park, and I'm good with you making a law busing them out of town or locking them up if they're in the park overnight. Wouldn't choose #2, but I can understand it, and don't blame you. But this control freak plan just icks me out.

They aren't minding their own business in a secluded portion of the park: they are causing trouble. So your point is moot. Get off your hobby horse: almost everyone supports policing that reduces the trouble these people cause, especially if that also results in their increased health and chances of recovery.

So if the advocates say it results in increased health and chance of recovery and if "almost everyone" is for this sort of thing, I would have to be a monster to disagree.

Don't worry, people like me will never stand in the way of progress, as long as there are NGO staffing positions to be had and grants to win. Letting the police police criminal behavior and letting people make their own decisions about when and how they want to increase their own health and recover from their addictions is well out of vogue.

yes the public nuisance remains >> "bawdy, loitering alcoholics" become bawdy, loitering alcoholics with brooms

who supervises these drunks and decides whether they earned their beer each day

sounds like a social program Elizabeth Warren would luv

"bawdy, loitering alcoholics with brooms" .. a cynic might say that this is the Netherlands anytime in the last 2000 years.

That sounds roughly correct.

I did my part by paying a drunk in Boston $20 for dancing an Irish jig. The last I saw of him, he was being loaded into an ambulance on a stretcher.

Eric is a dope.

The essence of alcoholism is that once you start drinking, you need to get drunk, and stay drunk. He actually seems to think that if you give an alcoholic 5 beers over the course of the day, that's all he will drink. No. He will keep a bottle of vodka in his coat, and take several shots between each beer.

These people need help, not a further push into addiction. This is obscene.

How does it push them further into addiction? You've made a good case that the "pacing" idea is a lost cause, but if so then at worst their addiction is maintained as is, no better no worse. You're still left with the benefit that they're not loitering and the streets are clean.

If this initiative increases their access to alcohol, it at least has the potential to make their addiction worse.

One of the advantages of delivering the beer is that it will keep them drunk at home rather than out in public in the park. Keep it all locked up behind closed doors, how very Dutch.

If you give me 5 beers over the course of the day, I'm going to have about 15 more when I get off shift.

I can really see this going either way. Once someone has slid into alcoholism, perhaps if you just give them 5 beers a day they will just stay in the gutter, without getting actively worse, besides the very slow-motion death of their liver.

It might be a very good way to cheaply stabilize them at a low level of function.

I also wonder if knowing they will always be able to get alcohol each day reduces stress and uncertainty that may lead to drinking.

There are different strengths of beer, as well. We liberalized here in California. When I was a kid "beer" was weak an "malt liquor" was bad. Now we have "beers" ranging to 12% ... which has given us more flavor options, but also some needlessly strong brews. Paying an alcoholic in mild beer might not be so bad. Or as bad. Or something.

I love Tripels, but when your beer has the alcohol content of wine it becomes tougher to pace. What a conundrum!

This is where the Muslims probably have it right. They would round up the drunks and throw a big stone on them. The number of alcoholics in a human population is predictable. Ban alcohol and kill the drunks. Voilà! No more drunks in the park problem!

In all seriousness, alcoholism is a biological problem. We would not round up gay men loitering in the park and put them on a street sweeping detail expecting to modify their behavior. There's absolutely no reason to think the addict is going to "reform" through these coercive measures. Intolerance of alcoholics is really the last bigotry in western society. It's time to normalize alcoholism and treat it like other defects such as left handedness and red hair.

But by all means allow them 32 ounce soft drinks?

The problem is that it is exactly the same problem, reactions of a population to cheap or freely available carbohydrates.

Does that mean alcoholics can sue bars that stop serving them for civil rights violations? If you decide not to invite an alcoholic to your New Year's eve party, are you a heartless bigot who should be shamed and ridiculed?

No he is clearly arguing to return to my father's day when they would beat the left handedness out of you. As to the red heads, it is well known they lack souls...

alcoholism is a biological problem.

Recent research seems to point to PTSD as the major culprit. I like that theory because it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective -- life in the past was far more horrible than today in virtually every way. (Imagine seeing your family dying of smallpox around you, still alive while their skin is falling off and their guts are falling out).

I read an estimate a while back that in 1800s America, people drank something crazy like a bottle of whiskey every day on average. Don't know how accurate that estimate was, but it does seem people drank a lot more in the past. And I can't blame them.

I've known my fair share of drunks and addicts. None of them saw their family eaten by a saber tooth or carried off into bondage by a rival tribe. They had it pretty good by any reasonable standard. They just liked getting effed up.

Alcohol consumption was high in an earlier age because it was safe. In the 18th century, supplying workers with rum was a standard practice in America. In an age when it was common to be killed from drinking tainted water, drinking alcohol made a lot of sense.

I've never met an addict who didn't have issues besides addiction.

They didn't have cirrhosis in those days?

I like the research that says people who addictively consume sugar and alcohol are trying to suppress an overactive immune system, one inclined to autoimmune disease, heart disease from inflammation, etc.

O.k., there's no research, it's kind of just my theory. But I like it.

There's an old book called "Survival of the Sickest" that speculates that some physiological traits we consider all bad these days might have given an advantage to populations at one time, as long as those traits don't start killing you off until after your reproductive years are over, anyway.

I do think you can probably often find a reason why folks tend to one inclination or another, as long as you don't discount that every individual's reaction to and handling of their inclinations will be their own.

oh you're advancing the 'they are born that way' argument to condone abnormal behavior. dissagre

Z This is where the Muslims probably have it right.

So you've joined the pest faction and propose sharia law be applied to professional drinkers? So we can look like Tunisia?

Why are you prejudiced against Tunisians?

I am prejudiced against the current situation in Tunisia, not Tunisians. Does your pestilent Sharia law command, "Hate the sin, not the sinner"?

I don't see religion.

I think the expectation is to get them to modify their behaviour towards street cleaning and thus away from pestering people in parks. Paying them to clean streets seems likely to be effective.
And just because something is a biological problem that doesn't mean it can't be treated by behavioural modification. Physios treat people by training them to do exercises all the time. In the case of alcoholism, staying away from situations where you used to drink seems to be a key change.

Just give them Iphones and a fifth, I think that would work better than brooms and a beer.

Was this comment a dare to see how offensive you could be in one single paragraph without looking like a troll?

Islamophobia, homophobia, a total misunderstanding of the principles of addiction and a bizzare conviction that being a left handed redhead makes someone defective all in one go. Could you please say something misogynistic in your next comment so that I can win the full house?

My people normalized alcoholism centuries ago. We're very progressive.

There are a lot of functioning alcoholics out there. Many of these people are not going to be 'saved'. If this is a way for them to be useful, I'll allow it.

Interesting idea, thanks for sharing.

As an empiricist, I will only ask one question: what are the results?

Good question, would also interested in hearing about the results. I live near the park and haven't noticed any changes, still an awful park

The key word is chronic. Some cities are creating wet houses--places where alcoholics who have failed treatment and keep appearing at emergency rooms can stay. Wet houses permit you to have alcohol on premises. Much reduced costs to the community for the chronic alchoholic.

The key word is indeed "chronic". If they gave these folks 5 joints instead of beers, that would reduce (not supplement) their drinking. And their nuisances in the park would convert from loud boisterousness into stupid jokes and maniacal giggling.

So...treat chronic with chronic?

Probably yes, treat chronic with chronic.

Let me give you a a non-alcoholic example of treating chronic with chronic, and using a weakness as an element of self-control.

Imagine you are a chronic spender, and want to curb your spending habits. You can use spending as a reward for curbing spending:

Specifically, if you are a chronic spender, set a goal of $2k on your credit card, for example, and if you meet your $2k goal limit, give yourself $500 in free money.

This works if you have habitually been spending $3.5k a month.

Or, reward yourself with indulgent calories one time a week if you stay on your diet.

Both are examples of using self-control and "the chronic element" as a reward.

Heh. Good comment. Not where I was going though...

It's annoying when people who clearly have little experience with marijuana make broad sweeping pronouncements about it

You have no idea.

I've heard a lot of people say that access to cannabis would reduce drinking; it's sometimes touted as an argument in favour of legalising it here in the UK, on the basis that it might go some way toward healing our supposedly deeply unhealthy drinking culture. (We've got nothing on America, that's all I'm sayin'.) Now, I'm actually wholly in favour of the legalisation of cannabis, but I've never been sure how compelling this argument is. Can you link me to any studies that suggest it is accurate?

I recently moved, but I lived for nearly 8 years accross the Oosterpark in a nice canel house. During that period I visited this park at least twice a day, jogging, walking or biking. I know this group of alcoholics pretty well and I must say that most of them are nice people. They smell like beer and that's repulsive to me (I do drink, but only vodka), but in general these people are really ok. So I agree, this is harm-minimisation in a good way.

Crampton's observation reminded me of the MR University video on remittances and why they are sent in small amounts: the sender wants the receiver to save more per dollar received than does the receiver. Sending in small amounts enforces the sender's preferences to some degree.

If my city did this with meth instead of beer it would be the cleanest place on the planet.

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