We've looked at the High Theorizing previously, with Richard Longworth's Caught in the Middle providing that side of the story. Nick Reding's Methland: The Death and Life of An American Small Town, material for Book Review No. 13, focuses on the people coping with those big-picture changes. The people include government officials and law enforcement and social services and yes, the druggies and their suppliers. They live in and around Oelwein, Iowa, once home to the backshops of the Chicago Great Western Railroad, a line that perhaps should not have been built, whose St. Paul to Kansas City line via Oelwein lost its utility once Chicago and North Western was able to acquire a better route from the estate of the Rock Island Lines. The shops closed, the craft jobs left, and agriculture changes in a way not favorable to providing high-skill, high-paying jobs.
Thus the tradeoffs of life in the Farm Belt, including methamphetamines, emerge. On the one hand, productivity gains in food processing sometimes take the form of immigrant labor, not necessarily documented, and an industrial strength feedlot or packing plant keeps Your Town from becoming a ghost town. On the other hand, the migration routes for workers are also the trade routes for marijuana, cocaine, and methanol. Mr Reding steers clear of the pros and cons of drug prohibition, the better to focus on the principals of his story. Those packing plant jobs are stressful, something for which a strong stimulant might be a productivity-enhancer. Speed was widely used by troops in World War II, and one of the sources Mr Reding cites calls it "the all-American drug." That productivity boost comes at a long-term cost, however -- thus the second tradeoff. But it was relatively easy to cook up your own speed out of over-the-counter cold medicine -- that may have since changed -- and an industry offering people the opportunity to get through a grinding work day was the result.
There's a bit of High Theorizing for the industrial economist as well, in which the vertically-integrated food growing and packaging business becomes one in which cost-cutting leads to the de-skilling of packing and canning jobs and a quest for immigrant labor and an officialdom that winks at the Fair Labor Standards Act. Whether vertical integration means less opportunities to discover the prices of food products and agricultural commodities, a hypothesis Mr Reding endorses, actually remains a topic for future research.
(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)