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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Three Essays In Search Of A Book

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

This, the follow-up to the bestselling Fast Food Nation, is Eric Schlosser's exploration into America's underground economy, in which he looks, specifically, at the drug trade, illegal immigration, and pornography. The shadow economy is enormous, so large that no one is sure exactly how big it is, although, as Schlosser points out in the introduction, the Austrian economist Friedrich Schneider calculated in 1997 that by 1994 it made up 9.4% of national GDP, some $650 billion. The explosive growth of illegal activity, and its very profitability, has permeated American society at every level, from the street corner drug dealer in a city slum to the massive agricultural conglomerates driving profits up by employing legions of impoverished Latin American migrants.

The book is set out as a set of three essays on specific events and places, with introductory and concluding chapters anchoring on either side. The first part is on the drug business, where Schlosser looks at marijuana, by far the nation's favorite illegal intoxicant. Schlosser concentrates on the case of Mark Young, an Indianapolis man sentenced to life without parole in 1992 for introducing a buyer and a seller of seven hundred pounds of marijuana grown on a nearby farm. Government prohibition has acted like a tariff on marijuana, allowing American farmers to compete successfully with foreign growers in major marijuana-producing nations like Mexico and Jamaica. Indeed, the huge potential profits that the drug offers, as well as how easily it is cultivated, has meant that marijuana cultivation within the continental United States has exploded over the last several decades, despite the enormous governmental resources devoted to attacking the drug trade ever since President Reagan declared his war on drugs.

Despite the image of domestic marijuana cultivators as being laid-back hippies in Northern California, most of the cannabis grown in the continental United States is produced in the 'heartland', in a band from Kentucky to Michigan and west to Nebraska and Iowa, with particular centers of cultivation in Illinois and Indiana. At the same time as Ronald Reagan was expanding anti-importation efforts at the border, the rural Midwest was experiencing a major crisis, as land values and foreign demand for American produce imploded. Thus, many Midwestern farmers turned to marijuana cultivation to make ends meet, exactly the same motivation that drives farmers in countries like Bolivia and Afghanistan to grow coca and opium. Schlosser talks to growers and the DEA agents that pursue them, shining a light into a world that is mostly ignored by the media and the average American, because when most Americans think of the illegal drug trade they think of young black crack dealers in housing project hallways, not middle-aged white farmers in the Midwest.

What Schlosser is really good at as a writer is being able to talk about specific events involving specific people in specific places, maintaining a narrative about them, and then easily moving out into a consideration of the wider social, economic, and political trends that influence the events under discussion. On this level, each of the three parts of the book work brilliantly. As self-contained discussions of the issues at hand, Schlosser does an excellent job of providing not just an engaging narrative of the particular tale he is telling, but also filling in for the reader the necessary background of the stories, the historical, economic, social, and scientific facts at work within the different sectors of the underground economy.

The second main section of the book has Schlosser considering illegal immigration by visiting the strawberry fields of California's Santa Maria Valley. Here, the job of picking strawberries is done by Mixtec Indians from Mexico's Oaxaca state. Strawberry harvesting is labor intensive work, because the fragility of the fruit has made mechanization difficult, entire crops can be lost overnight, and prices can vary tremendously from year to year; these three factors help ensure that the strawberry industry is one of the most heavily reliant on illegal migrant labor within the whole Californian agricultural sector. Unlike other parts of the United States, in California agriculture has never been dominated by small family farms. Almost from the earliest days of its annexation from Mexico, Californian agriculture has been characterized by the industrial scale of operations, and this phenomenon has always been reliant on migrant labor (at various points Japanese, Chinese, Anglo-Saxon, and Mexican). Yet by the post-war period the era of enormous migratory labor movements seemed to be ending, with the number of migrant agricultural workers in the United States dropping from an estimated 2 million in the 1920's to a low point of around 200,000 during the height of Cesar Chavez's organizing for the United Farm Workers union in the 1970's. With mechanization spreading throughout the industry and decent wages, working conditions, and benefits on offer to workers, the era of Steinbeckian exploitation seemed to be drawing to a close. Then, union-busting legislation enacted by the Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson in the 1980's and 90's shredded much of the progress made and, under the guise of allowing employers access to the 'magic of the market', revived wide-spread agricultural migration. With the enormous savings in wages, payroll taxes, and benefits that employers could make through employing illegal migrants, it became a race to the bottom. As ever, many of the Republican politicians who could be counted on to hit the nativist heart strings in speeches were instrumental, in the real world, in creating the conditions through which demand for illegal labor could soar.

Today, California's agricultural economy is locked into place. The markets have worked their magic to the degree that, in a fiercely competitive industry where key players are more likely to be branches of vast publicly-owned conglomerates than local operators, the wages and benefits on offer are simply too low to attract anyone besides the most desperate. And in California the most desperate workers are virtually all illegal immigrants from Latin America. The success, at least from a business perspective, of this model in agriculture has seen it spread throughout the low end of the American economy. With over ten million illegal immigrants in the United States, why pay Americans a reasonable wage and benefits in construction, domestic work, or many other service industries when there are literally millions of desperate people in the country who will do it for much less money and are far less likely to cause a fuss over conditions? This is why I find it so perplexing that many liberal/progressive voices, when asked about illegal immigration, fall back on "jobs Americans won't do/bringing wonderful diversity" arguments. The wages on offer simply won't provide for an American family, and surely progressivism should be devoted to ending economic exploitation within our borders, a task made virtually impossible by our unwillingness to effectively control illegal migration by going after the employers who use it to enrich themselves. Furthermore, at the local level uncontrolled illegal migration puts tremendous strain on communities, with local taxpayers picking up the education and health bills for the workers who are driving down the bottom line for Wall Street. Ah, multiculturalism and the Democratic Party's cynical hunt for votes within the Latino community (to say nothing of the Republicans bowed knee before the economic imperatives of Corporate America, their constituents' opinions be damned).

This is, for me, the best part of the book. Tightly constructed around a core of important historical and economic information, with an excellent range of interviews and local narrative details, it is the stand-out section of the book. Unfortunately, it is only thirty-five pages long, somewhat perverse when the final section of the book, on pornography, is over a hundred pages long. This is where, I feel, Schlosser failed with this project. For me, the three parts do not really hang together into a comfortable whole. This is especially true of the third part, "An Empire of the Obscene", which I personally would have radically cut. Clearly, given the amount of space devoted to it, and the lingering, loving detail into which Schlosser goes, this was the section of the book that he most enjoyed writing. Fair enough. Yet it does not seem to sit that easily with the other two sections for the simple fact that, today, pornography is, except for the most extreme stuff like child porn and bestiality, not part of the illegal economy, but a legal if often shadowy industry. Yet I suppose that Schlosser's idea for including it is to show how an entire sector of illegal economic activity can draw itself aboveground, blinking in the light.

The third section looks at the life and career of a man named Reuben Sturman from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Who? Precisely. Reuben Sturman was the man who, virtually single-handedly, turned pornography into a semi-mainstream business.

"Reuben Sturman was a former comic book salesman who'd turned a small Cleveland magazine business into an international media conglomerate boasting hundreds of companies in North America, Asia, and Western Europe - a virtually integrated enterprise that produced films, videos, and magazines, that manufactured peep shows and sexual devices, that operated wholesale warehouses and retail stores. A business rival once complained that Reuben Sturman did not simply control the adult entertainment industry; he was the industry." (p. 112)

This third part was definitely the weakest link of the book for me. The case of Reuben Sturman, and how he built his empire through vertically integrating his operations to maximize profits while continually beating off all obscenity charges before being taken down in an income tax sting, is certainly pretty interesting, yet it was probably better as a stand-alone article in the New Yorker. In contrast to the two previous parts this section seems a bit flat, lacking in the on-the-ground reportage that gives so much flavor to the sections on drugs and illegal immigration, consisting as it does mostly of a reconstructed narrative of Sturman's rise and fall. Although Schlosser does, as in the other articles, still pull back to describe the wider historical, cultural, and economic trends at work, it suffers from what seems, after the two previous sections, to be an overly extensive focus on Sturman. Perhaps it is the length of the piece, and perhaps it is because it is the topic that interests me least, but I feel that this section simply does not work as well as the other two. It is too long, and the writing lacks some of the vibrancy and immediacy of the two previous pieces.

Overall, I would say that, while I enjoyed this book, it is hardly an essential read. Worth getting from the library.

|| RPH || 6:02 AM || |