Cheever on AA and Money

By Susan Cheever 09/16/11

In our profit-obsessed age, Alcoholics Anonymous exists in a parallel universe. But the bang it gets for its limited bucks makes many pricey rehabs seem like a real racket.

AA,s Founders Ruled Early On Tthat Money Wouldn't be an Obstacle to Membership

Public opinion about the state of the nation has fluctuated wildly with every move of the stock market. Money seems to have become the measure of our self-worth; the more cash we have the better we feel about ourselves and our future. Unfortunately, the nation is currently suffering through the most serious recession in 75 years, with astronomical unemployment rates and record income inequality. The "greed-is-good" maxim popularized by Michael Douglas in Wall Street  has been exposed as an empty hoax. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and America's once-vast middle class struggles just to hold on. None of this makes recovery any easier for alcoholics and addicts. While state-sponsored and non-profit rehabs like Phoenix House and Cri Help continue to provide treatment at fairly affordable rates, the cost for a 30 day stay at a rehab costs patients an average of $30,000 a year. Pricier rehabs charge their clients $100,000 for a 28-day stay.

In this money-mad era , Alcoholics Anonymous' attitude toward the almighty dollar is not only anachronistic—it's downright revolutionary and seemingly crazy. While our corporations pay politicians to preserve their tax breaks when times are flush, and bail them out when they threaten to go bust, AA embraces “the principal of corporate poverty,” as co-founder Bill Wilson wrote in the 12 “traditions” that serve as the organization’s by-laws.

AA refuses to take money from anyone who is not a member. It also dramatically limits contributions that individuals can make to the organization: members can contribute a maximum of $3,000 a year and a single $3,000 legacy in a will. “Whoever pays the piper is apt to call the tune,” Wilson wrote—and unlike most contemporary homily-quoting pundits, he meant what he said. Bill Wilson may have been a Christian, but he realized that money was power, and power had the capacity to corrupt an organization built on egalitarianism.. His single-minded goal was to protect the spiritual values of AA while ensuring its political survival.

Both Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, AA’s co-founders, were  Yankees from Vermont and their typical thrift and common sense are evident in the traditions. Dr. Bob died in 1950, but Bill was determined to write the traditions. In spite of crippling depression, he spent every day in the studio he had built for himself up the hill from the house where he and his wife, Lois, lived in Bedford Hills, NY. The book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was published in 1953.

As for profiting off its intellectual property—the crown jewels of any corporation—AA declines to do so. In 1993, after bringing a few lawsuits against companies that illegally adopted the trademarked AA logo of a triangle within a circle, the organization’s policymakers resolved the problem in the classic AA way. Rather than go on wasting scarce resources in litigation to control and profit from their trademark, they simply surrendered  it. Now any group promoting AA-style recovery is free to adopt the AA logo.

Most people don’t go to AA thinking about money except as collateral damage caused by addiction. Desperate, at their wits' end, they go because they want to stop drinking. Yet at almost every meeting a basket is passed for a suggested donation—in New York City, it's $2. Each meeting must be able to support itself—to pay the rent and other expenses—or it has to stop meeting, and many do. “We are self-supporting through our own contributions,” Bill wrote in the Traditions.

The General Service Board “suggests”—no requirements here—that meetings send in 40% of their income to help with administrative expenses. In New York City, for instance, those administrative expenses include the office at 475 Riverside Drive, which is staffed by volunteers and 11 paid workers, including an archivist. Many meetings don’t send any money, and that’s fine. When a meeting secretary walks off with the treasury, or skims money from the collection box, the crime is usually met with a shrug of the shoulders. “I figured he needed it,” said a meeting chairman recently when informed that this was happening. When I mentioned this to a staff member at the General Service Board, he laughed. “We don’t punish,” he said. “But the group might try to keep that from happening again. Treasury secretary is an elected position, after all.” 

How can this  system work as well as it does? Since it was founded in 1936, AA> has expanded to well over 100,000 groups, with over 2 million members, worldwide, according to a recent 2011 AA estimate based on self-reporting by individual groups (there are, of course, no formal membership lists). Unlike many more flush organizations, the fellowship generally runs like clockwork: Meetings are regular and on time, phones are answered, literature is printed and sold.

His spiritual creed has helped the organization navigate brilliantly in a super-material world—and with a cost-effectiveness that puts the high-margin rehab industry to shame. In a time when the financial meltdown has left Wall Street richer than ever as Main Street staggers under the weight of its debts, the fine fitness of Alcoholics Anonymous at the ripe old age of 75 shows that bucking the trend to accumulate as much capital as possible can offer not only security but a rich and generous life.

Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.