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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sobering Vacation Reads 1: Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness

Greetings, Everyone; it's good to be back for yet another blogging stint.

I write this as I recover from my so-called vacation, which included being stranded in American and Canadian snowstorms for the better part of a week, missing connections, napping at airports and at motels reminiscent of a Coen Brothers movie, and sitting, in hostage-like setting, inside airplanes for hours with nothing to eat or drink as they de-ice. Life in San Francisco has not prepared me for such woes! But now, back in what Eddie Izzard refers to as "The Citeh", I'm happy to report that I had good books for company throughout these trying times.

One such book was Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (hardcover, 2003; paperback, 2004). Schlosser, author of the much better known Fast Food Nation, tackles three issues in this book: the growing and cultivation of marijuana, undocumented laborers in the Californian strawberry-picking industry, and an economic history of pornography. The book, while not unconcenrned with politics and morality, is mostly a critical examination of free market principles as applied to underground economies.

Schlosser starts with marijuana growers, providing a colorful description of what is, apparently, an inland American industry of staggering proportions. His interviews with growers, and with federal agents who spend their time tracking down vast (but well hidden) marijuana fields and in-home operations with heating lamps, expose a cat-and-mouse race culminating in prosecutions, and sometimes shockingly severe prison sentences.

The second part of the book reveals the practices of strawberry farmers, who acquire "partners" through the practice of sharecropping. Former pickers, invariably from Mexico, become "farmers" who come to find themselves deeply in debt, limited in every aspect of picking and selling their product, and facing all the legal risks transferred to them by the growers. Bringing into the mix abundant information about the special problems posed by the strawberry industry, but not forgetting the broader picture, Schlosser describes the interdependency of Californian and Mexican economies, and the variety of unsatisfactory solutions provided by policymakers, banks, and growers, to the problem of undocumented immigrants.

But Schlosser is probably at his best when he describes the rise, fall, and (brief) return of pornography king Reuben Sturman, who, as it turns out, ruled the American "empire of the obscene" for decades. It shows how dedicated tax investigators finally brought his empire to ground, ignoring the morality crusades fought by decades of FBI agents and state police forces, and focusing on tax evasion techniques. Schlosser's sophisticated account, detached and at the same time sympathetic to both sides, is a clever analysis of the emergence and workings of an industry which faces similar economic, moral and social issues as many legitimate enterprises do.

While the separate three essays are all masterful, Schlosser could have done a better job weaving them together in the book's final chapters. His introduction takes on Adam Smith's free market theories; however, he does not seem to advocate for intense regulation of illegal, or semi-legal, industries, but rather for "a few laws, strictly enforced". One theme that ties the first and third chapters together is the impact of criminalization on the prevalence and success of a market. Based on a variety of sources, and on lessons from other countries (citing, among many other sources, MacCoun and Reuter's excellent Drug War Heresies), Schlosser argues (perhaps not clearly enough) that decriminalization might lead to a brief rise in the popularity of drugs and/or porn, followed by a steady decline in their consumption. The second chapter poses a more complicated problem, to which Schlosser does not offer an express antidote. It does, however, draw attention to the impact of unrestrained markets, focusing on efficiency and profit as their sole dependent variable, on humane labor relations.

I enjoyed and appreciated Schlosser's discussion of criminalization of drugs and porn, which reminded me a lot of Troy Duster's classical work The Legislation of Morality, and of Elizabeth Comack's interesting discussuion of narcotics law in Canada. I'm sure, though, that some readers are much better versed than me in labor policy and might have some interesting take on the second part. In any case, if any of you still has a holiday journey ahead of them, you might consider taking this book with you. Me, I'm done with traveling for this winter; and, as Faith Petric says, "for me, the charm of traveling is fading, I confess."

Posted by Hadar Aviram on December 31, 2008 at 12:42 PM in Books | Permalink

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