Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reefer Madness

Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market
310 pages
© 2003 Eric Schlosser

What do pornography, marijuana, and migrant labor have in common? They're all factors in an underground economy, a vast web of cash-heavy transactions barred (or limited) by laws and social mores, but which generate substantial wealth for those willing to risk criminality.  Reefer Madness contains thre seperate exposes on these subjects by the author of Fast Food Nation, followed by a conclusion which attempts to tie them together and glean some general lessons about the black market. Although the three don't quite fit together as well as Schlosser might hope, each piece is well worth considering on its own, pointed as well as entertaining.

Although "An Empire of the Obscene" is something of an oddity (pornography isn't illegal),  the preceding sections ("Reefer Madness" and "In the Strawberty Fields") address subject alive and well in American politics today. All three mix colorful history and contemporary exposition which reveal both fascinating trivia and lessons about the specific subjects and the black market in general. The underground economy is not marginal, and its size should concern us not because of potential tax revenues lost by corrupt porn kings like Reuben Sturman, but because they fundamentally alter the rules that everyone else plays by. The use of undocumented workers in California, for instance, keeps food prices artifically low and stifles innovation by allowing companies to be dependent on cheap labor, just as the American south stagnated based on its use of slave labor. Considering the conditions migrant workers are forced to live in, the comparison to slavery is most apt.  Despite the long-term consequences of allowing this behavior to go on -- tolerating it because it keeps food cheap -- the US government's attitude toward companies that seek out migrant labor is far too lenient. In other cases, the government is far too heavy-handed. This is the case with marijuana; Schlosser covers our bizaare obsession with it, which far exceed the concern the facts would merit we have. In what other nation can a person receive a lighter sentence for murder than selling a largely harmless drug?  Considering the US's economic woes, decriminalizing the drug would go a long way in freeing up police and prison resources that could be better used elsewhere.

Schlosser believes that a study of the black market can teach us about the market in general -- and namely, impart the lesson that Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' is not always one of providence. It is one, in fact, that can lead to great abuses (like exploitation of migrant labor). What they excel in providing us outside the bounds of the law tells us secrets about ourselves; that we have a 'deep psychosis' regarding marijuana, for instance, and that Puritanical rejection of sexuality is out of line with human nature. Reefer Madness is a call for sensibly-informed moderation, although it misses one point certainly worth mentioning, that foolish laws, or the lack of laws when they are crucially needed, saps the public's respect for law in general.

Choice quotations:

We have been told for years to bow down before 'the market'. We have placed our faith in the laws of supply and demand. What has been forgotten, or ignored, is that the market rewards only efficiency. Every other human value gets in its way. [...] No deity that man have ever worshiped is more ruthless and more hollow than the free market unchecked. [...]  

p. 108

Black markets will always be with us. But they will recede in importance when our public morality is consistent with our private one. The underground is a good measure of the progress and health of nations. When much is wrong, much needs to be hidden.

p. 221

Off the Books: the Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, Sudhir Venkatesh
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser

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