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Economics From Underground

Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness

Eric Schlosser's new book, Reefer Madness, is about America's black market and it seems to resemble that very thing it seeks to understand. Like the black market, Reefer Madness is full of shadowy, slightly hidden things you will find appealing, but, also like that market, Reefer Madness feels incomplete.

From the start, Schlosser makes it clear that he is interested in the black market because he believes you can't understand America without it. Although no one knows for sure, estimates generally put the size of America's black market at about 10% of the total economy, a number roughly equal to $650 billion in 1994. Schlosser argues that in a nation where stock prices can plummet if a company fails to meet earnings expectations by mere cents per share, or where fractional changes in economic statistics such as the unemployment rate can drive political policy, the black market is of vital importance. It is in this spirit that Schlosser, in three essays, investigates the underground economies of marijuana, migrant farm labor, and pornography.

Schlosser's first essay addresses the underground market in marijuana, examining its history, how it is grown, how it is sold, and how the government prosecutes its use. Two things are most striking about Schlosser's examination: America's irresistible obsession with marijuana, and the wild contradictions surrounding it. An example that sums up both is that punishments for marijuana possession range from a fine to the death sentence, yet in any given year only about 1 percent of those arrested for marijuana related crimes are prosecuted. Schlosser does an excellent job of revealing the drab banality behind America's largest cash crop by bringing to life the all too average people who buy, sell, and use marijuana. The essay is capped with an argument that America should liberalize its stance on marijuana, including eventual decriminalization.

Schlosser next examines migrant labor in California, America's leading agricultural producer. This essay reveals the poverty these migrant laborers are forced to accept (some rent cars to sleep in for the night) and explains why they call strawberries the fruit of the devil. Citing historical facts, Schlosser makes a strong argument that a combination of legislation and unionization could alleviate much of the ills migrants are forced to bear.

Like all three essays, this one is very good on reporting the facts, but it lacks humanism. Whereas the essay on marijuana brought to life the people behind marijuana, the migrant laborers feel a little less real. This, coupled with the fact that this essay is less a debate than a heaping of outrages, makes it less compelling overall.

The last essay is about pornography in America and consists mainly of the life story of the father of American porn, Reuben Sturman. Being a biography, this essay is completely different from the other two, yet it works in a certain way. Sturman's story hits many of the major points of the porn industry's history: the relentless repression in the 1950's spearheaded by J. Edgar Hoover, the transformation of pornographic movies from single seat, coin operated mini theaters to a booming industry that produces films at a rate of 1 per day, and the expansion of the industry to include toys, games, books, and clothes.

The drawback to this essay is that it is quite top-heavy and, although we get an excellent view of Sturman's life, illustrations of the daily lives of porn peons and other porn entrepreneurs are largely circumscribed. Additionally, it is never made clear exactly which parts of the porn industry, an industry whose goods are taxed and are openly sold in stores across America, fit into the underground economy.

Reefer Madness begins with an implicit promise to tie together the lose ends of three underground economies and synthesize meaningful conclusions about America today, but it is a promise that is only halfway fulfilled. Certainly Schlosser's reporting is excellent, and he brings together the information necessary to draw such conclusions, but the conclusions themselves are lacking. Overall, Reefer Madness is a tantalizing, if slightly unorganized, look into an all too often ignored part of America.

Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market
by Eric Schlosser
Houghton Mifflin Co; ISBN: 0618334661
Hardcover: 320 pages (May 2003)

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