on June 10, 2003
Eric Schlosser returns in his second published expose' on three different underground economic topics, each an essay originally released in Rolling Stone Magazine. The three essays on marijuana, illegal immigrant workers, and pornography constitute this opus on America's underground economy which accounts for what Schlosser and others believe is 10 percent of the whole American economy constitute "Reefer Madness."
While not nearly as in depth as his first book "Fast Food Nation," Schlosser does more muckraking on topics that not only interest readers who know little about these underground economies, but can also keep the readers attention with experiences and biographies of participants in the underground economies.
I truly think that Schlosser went far more in depth to exhume scarce facts in "Fast Food Nation," while only briefly over-viewing these three topics in "Reefer Madness." To get to the point... it would have been better if "Reefer Madness" was Schlosser's first work instead of "Fast Food Nation - He obviously set the standard for himself too high with his first work.
Schlosser does an excellent job not only presenting these three essays, one leading into the other through prose vignette, but offers a preface of ideas to help set up the reader before the presentation of the three essays. Referencing points from Adam Smith's "On the Wealth of Nations" for the current reigning market system, Schlosser sees what many others refuse to see... Everyone has his or her vice and there is money to be made from this market!
Schlosser finishes "Reefer Madness" with personal points of view and his own ideas on these three portions of the underground American economy and how things about them can be progressively dealt with, and even legalized!?!?!
Eric Schlosser is currently working on another investigative report unfolding the secrets of the American prison system - I am not sure when this work will be released.
"Reefer Madness" is an uneven examination of the American underground economy. Mr. Schlosser does not attempt a comprehensive examination -- notably absent are software piracy, music downloading, prostitution, offshore banking and gambling --but appears instead to have selected three topics that, presumably, might help sell copies for his publisher. (Such are the perils, apparently, of having to follow up the classic "Fast Food Nation".)
The first section is dedicated to illegal drugs. Mr. Schlosser does a very good job savaging the contradictions of legal and illegal drug policies in this country. In only 64 pages, the author provides background, statistics and case studies that make for very compelling reading. His conclusions are consistent with what most reformers have been arguing for some time. The draconian laws and failed policies of the so-called 'War on Drugs' are so out of step with mainstream American thought and practice that Mr. Schlosser's sly rewrite of a John Lennon anthem resonates with power: "this war is over, if you want it." This devastating critique was my favorite of the three essays, by far.
The second section on illegal labor is a scant 34 pages long. It is focused on the plight of strawberry pickers in California. Mr. Schlosser's keen powers of observation and solid research methodology combine to produce a scathing critique of the inhumane conditions that many migrant farmworkers endure. But by focusing on such a thin slice of the American labor market, it may be difficult to judge the validity of the author's generalized recommendations about rectifying labor abuses nationwide.
Personally, I was disappointed that the third section on the porn industry was as lengthy as the other two combined. The story was mostly a history lesson and biography centered around Reuben Sturman, who the author shows was primarily responsible for growing the porn industry through most of the post World War II era and who tirelessly defended it against its enemies. But while Mr. Schlosser's article makes it clear that porn was officially repressed for many years in the U.S., today that no longer seems to be the case. Consequently it doesn't seem to provide much support for the author's theme of the contemporary state of the underground economy, although the story was certainly interesting and extremely well-written.
In the end, one wishes that Mr. Schlosser had been able to fully develop these stories into three separate books. The stature that the author has gained as a result of "Fast Food Nation" guarantees that his views have power, but I'm afraid that diluting the subject matter probably takes away some of the punch. That's too bad, because in my view the drug laws and the labor laws, in particular, badly need reform.
Here's hoping that Mr. Schlosser's publisher gives this talented writer the opportunity to produce another gem on par with "Fast Food Nation" the next time around. But in the meantime, Mr. Schlosser's fans can get a quick fix by reading this entertaining but slighly disappointing book.
on May 30, 2003
After reading the fantastic book Fast Food Nation, I'm willing to read anything that Eric Schlosser publishes. When I heard what the subject matter was for his new book (pot, porn, and illegal labor) I wasn't that interested but I wanted to find out what Schlosser had to say. In the introduction, Schlosser writes that the book is made up of three essays that are mostly unrelated, but these essays were tied together with the idea of the American Underground Economy which pervades the book. Reefer Madness is Schlosser's attempt to show how large the underground economy (meaning, non-taxed and illegal money) is in America. Schlosser discusses the laws and the social conditions that have allowed these things to occur.
The first essay is on Marijuana. Apparently, marijuana is America's number one cash crop, but it is illegal to buy, sell, grow, or possess any amount of marijuana in America. Schlosser gives the history of marijuana legislation and reveals the severity of the punishments regarding marijuana violations (even compared to murder). This essay looks at the applications of marijuana laws throughout United States history. It highlights some of the absurdly harsh penalties given for first time convictions of even trace amounts of pot; this essay also shows the disparity in verdicts for the children of politicians compared to the poor. There are comparisons with the drug laws of other nations and a discussion on the health risks and health concerns regarding marijuana. Very interesting essay.
The second essay deals with illegal labor in California. Specifically, the essay is on the illegal labor in the strawberry industry. This is the shortest essay of the three, but it does a good job in explaining the rise of migrant labor since the 1970's and why farm companies would use this labor. Surprisingly, most of America's strawberries are grown in California and at least half of the labor provided is illegal. The conditions that these workers (from Mexico) live in is horrible and the labor itself is one of the most physically demanding work that one can do on a farm. Illegal labor is becoming a larger and larger sector of some industries as these men (mostly) will work for significantly lower wages just so that they can have work. This essay had more of a human story to it and was more emotionally involving than the Marijuana essay. However, this essay didn't seem to have the societal import that the discussion on marijuana law did.
The third essay focuses on pornography. Schlosser does not touch on the morality side of the pornography issue, but instead deals with the economics of porn. Like the other two essays, this one details the history of pornography in America and happens to be the longest of the three essays. Pornography is big business and the U.S. government has been cracking down on the industry on an off for years. For many years, the leading figure in the industry was one man, Reuben Sturman. The legality of porn is constantly in question and at the base are the very hazy obscenity laws. Much of this essay is about Sturman, his rise to lead the industry and the attempt to convict Sturman.
Any one of these essays could easily become a full length book and would be very interesting individually. Taken together, the tie that binds them is not very strong and the transition between the essays feels a little jumpy. This is an extremely interesting book and one that I am very glad that I read. Individually, these are excellent essays, but when taken together, they lose some of the narrative force that Schlosser excels at. This is worth reading, without question.
on April 22, 2003
This book should be required reading for all the law and policy makers in this country. In plain, simple language, the author puts forth scathing attack on the wars on drugs and porn, and informs us of the often-ignored plight of migrant workers. He also gives the reader an idea of the immense size and scope of the underground economy in this country. An excellent book.
on November 29, 2006
Don't be fooled by the title. This is not some hippie counter culture drug book. It is a beautifully written scholarly examination of the underbelly of the American Society.
The main theme of the book is centered around the underground economy. The author argues, by examining the underground economy of any society, one can see a more accurate and telling picture of the society as a whole. Just as individuals have public and private personas that are often in conflict, so can a society. The book focuses on the American culture and legal system.
It is broken up into three essays: first an examination of the history of marijuana use and the war on drugs; second, an examination of the treatment of migrant workers; finally, an examination of pornography and obscenity laws.
The threads tying these seemingly disparate subjects are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, but always telling. By examining how the American society deals with these issues, one can draw clear corollaries to better understand how we deal with other controversial issues facing our nation including abortion, abuse of government powers, privacy, the war, etc.. It is the examination of the rationality (or lack there of) of our policies regarding these three topics, and the ethics with which those policies are implemented, that we are left with a scathing commentary on the seemingly schizophrenic nature of the American culture and value system.
Drugs, pornography, and cheap immigrant labor are three areas of known controversy when it comes to the buying and selling of goods and the government's attempts to regulate these economic activities. Yet all three of these areas represent growing, thriving components of the national economy. This latest book by Eric Schlosser examines these three segments of the economy, and while it provides some good insight in some areas, it misses the mark in others.
In the first chapter, the author talks about the fallacies and misleading information about marijuana and how the failed war on drugs has caused countless American tragedies while doing absolutely nothing to stop this very lucrative business from continuing to thrive underground. Many people have been unnecessarily searched; had their property seized under false pretenses; and sometimes have even been killed by the drug police. Schlosser correctly points out these many travesties of the drug war, and he concludes the chapter by stating that the only logical resolution to the problem to legalize the product and tax it.
The chapters on the pornography industry and migrant workers are not quite as good, but they still have some good points to make. Schlosser talks about the frustration faced by illegal workers who want a job and often give in and work in the strawberry fields of California for very low wages. They have no recourse because they are here illegally. And with the pornography industry, Schlosser seems sympathetic to those who are prosecuted for engaging in consensual activity. However, in these two chapters, Schlosser isn't very clear on what should be done to solve the problems. After the chapter on immigrant workers, all Schlosser can do is blame the free market for the problem. The situation is, of course, much more complex than that. The real issue is what to do with migrant workers. If they had full rights and if employers were held accountable for their actions, there wouldn't be a free market problem. It almost seems like Schlosser just threw this in because he couldn't think of any other way to address the issue. With the pornography chapter, Schlosser correctly states that morals cannot and should not be legislated so he manages to provide a little more guidance than he does with the migrant workers problem, but he doesn't say much beyond that.
To help give this book a more humanistic side, Schlosser speaks directly to some of the people involved in these underground markets and he includes direct quotes from many of them. This is a good idea, in my opinion, because it helps the reader gain a better understanding for what is going on and what the people involved are thinking as they involve themselves in these illegal activities.
Black markets, while illegal and unethical, comprise a large part of the U.S. economy. There is very little that can be done to eliminate them completely. But we, as a nation, can make some moves that would minimize the negative impacts of these underground economies. "Reefer Madness" does a decent job in showing how much damage can result when business is forced to go into hiding and he does a fair job (although incomplete) in showing what can be done in some instances to lessen the impact of the black market. These activities will never disappear, but there are many things we can do to keep the problem from getting worse, as "Reefer Madness" correctly points out.
Eric Schlosser returns after "Fast Food Nation" with more interesting and researched material. He has the thoughtfulness of keeping his personal opinions out of his work and presents the facts.
The black markets in America today, though a significant part of the economy, functioning in free-market form, exist everywhere. However, they don't seem to get much media coverage. This review is in regards to the portion of the book focusing on Marijuana. For example, the local television media in Seattle has repeatedly stated over the years, though seldom, that Washington state's number one export is not Apples but Marijuana. So, why the hysterical legislation, laws, Feds, and police presence regarding it. It's number 1 because there's a demand, and there will always entrepreneurs to supply a product that people want. Schlosser also examines the War on Drugs. No one can argue today, that it has even been minimally successfully.
One example of the failed war on drugs in addition to price increases and violence, is the case of an Ohio man. Mark Young is now serving life in prison without possibility of parole for participating in a minor marijuana deal. In a comparison, you could approach someone, say a mother walking with her children, and blow her head off with a shot-gun and serve less time in America in most states. Whether in a moral, legal, or economic sense, we live in a nation that has simply lost most of its' common sense.
One of Schlosser's solutions to reducing the sweepingly negative societal negative effects are decriminalizing marijuana. Interestingly, he doesn't support the government regulating and taxing it. Many proponents of decriminalizing Mary Jane believe they can reduce or retract Marijuana laws by giving the government a motivation to do so: more revenue via taxes, and, allowing the government to regulate it. And, regulation = control. All this would do would give the government the impetus of taking more money out of citizens' pockets. Imagine, how high those taxes would be, considering green-13 is a "sin" and would be under the guise of "sin taxes," like cigarretes and alcohol. The government would also control who gets to grow it, how they can grow it, where they can grow it, where they can sell it, and how much they can sell it for. Like farming in America today, can you imagine large Corporate Marijuana growers? These newly government appointed bureaucratic corporate fat-cats would have lobbyists on their behalf, dig for federal subsidies, loans, federal land, and who knows what else.
Schlosser is one of the nation's most insightful and effective writers in contemporary America.
on May 12, 2003
I am somewhat disappointed by this book. Mr. Schlosser approached his first book 'Fast Food Nation' with a clear argument as a thread for his investigations; Fast food is bad for American's health, and undermining to their values. An interesting argument defended with creativity and terrific research. In contrast I can't seem to find the argument behind this book.
First, a brief synopsis. 'Reefer Madness' consists of three essays about different elements of America's underground economy, marijuana, migrant labor, and pornography. The central argument of Schlosser's book appears to be that each of these markets are underground, and that they are big - at least I think. He never really tells us. From there it's hard to see what point he's making.
In the marijuana piece, Schlosser argues that marijuana is a lucrative business, that the product is in high demand, and that marijuana laws are arbitrary, unfair, illogical, and in many instances inhumanely cruel. All true and well argued, but so what? Schlosser does a good job outlining the scope of the breath of the problem (though, it wouldn't kill him to footnote his facts as he goes along) and then simply stops and writes another essay. A much more interesting piece might have continued the investigation of the marijuana issue asking questions such as who are the users of marijuana, what purposes and whose interests do punative marijuana laws serve, what do marijuana distribution networks look like, not just in the midwest where the product is created, but in central cities where the product is consumed?
The second essay is about the use of migrant laborers to grow strawberries. Again, Schlosser does a nice job outlining the size of the problem, but again it's not clear what he is arguing? In the first essay he seemed to be arguing that marijuana is a desired commodity, and that we should decriminalize its production and use and let the 'invisible hand' of the market give consumers what they want. In the migrant labor essay, Schlosser seems to be arguing exactly the opposite. Here the government has essentially decriminalized the use of cheap Mexican labor by California agriculture to deliver strawberries and other labor-intensive crops cheaply to market. Schlosser demonstrates how many domestic growers exploit this labor to increase profits, and indeed they do, but again what's the point. This is essentially the same free market exploitation Schlosser was recommending for a decriminalized marijuana market. Why is the free market good for a product that gets you high, but bad for one that makes a yummy desert? Further, who does Schlosser think is going to do the grunt work of marijuana production in the event it is decriminalized? Isn't it reasonable to assume that some of this work would be done by migrants? I think it is, and I also think it's reasonable to expect Schlosser to make some of these connections between his essays for us. Unfortunately he doesn't, so his book serves more as reference than analysis.
The final essay discusses the mainstreaming of pornography, and is out of place against the others. Unlike pot and strawberry picking, porn is neither illegal nor agriculturally based, and the essay suffers for it. An area of strength in each of the prior essays is Schlosser's documentation of laws regarding the subject, as well as fascinating though superficial and entirely too short discussions about the way the products are produced. This essay has neither, and much of its material has been covered better, more fully, and with a more original spin in other sources. The only thing porn possibly has to do with the other essays is that it was once illegal, and that it makes for a titillating subject due to its so-called underground nature.
Anyway, you get the picture. This book is thoroughly average and unfinished. Each topic represents an enormous subject area. In 'Fast Food Nation' Schlosser took one subject and covered it comprehensively to great effect. Here he takes three subjects and covers each superficially. Schlosser has the potential to be an important nonfiction writer in our time, but he's just not trying hard enough here. Each of these topics deserves at least the treatment he gave Fast Food, and probably more. As they stand each of these essays leave you sadly unfulfilled, sort of like fast food.
on June 6, 2003
1. This book is not as strong in research, documentation or overall in-your-face persuasiveness as Fast Food Nation.
2. This book was compiled and expanded from three essays previously written by the author for the Atlantic Monthly. (He's currently writing a book on the US prison system and I think this was to get another book out between FFN and that one)
3. The three articles ARE DEFINITELY related. But it requires more thinking on the part of the reader. It's not laid out quite as clearly as FFN:
Marijuana, illegal immigration and porn. Pot and Porn laws are mercillessly enforced and broadly condemned by politicans, yet have been shown over and over to be of no real social harm at all. Huge amounts of money wasted that could be used to fight real problems or create real benefit. Illegal immigration, on the other hand, is a horrible social disease that is swept under the rug and in practice even encouraged.
The common thread is hypocrisy. The common thread is taxpayer money going to waste. The common thread is lives ruined for no reason by unnecessary AND lives ruined because necessary action wasn't taken. The common thread is the that the actions of the government are not based on what's good for the society. They seem to cater to the irrational whims of public opinion. And the result is *sinister.*
4. This is a fascinating and powerful point, but it's not made as clearly as it could be.
5. This book is nonetheless very much worth reading. If for no other reason than it's great cocktail party chatter to be able to talk about the porn mogul that only insiders know about.
6. If you read this book, keep thinking about it after you put it down. It pays dividends.
When looking at the title of Schlosser�s newest work, one�s first response has to be �how did he manage to cover sex, drugs, and cheap labor all in a single book?�(some might even say he couldn�t have covered their own personal experience with all in a single book). The answer, as one might have assumed, is simple�sketchily. A look at America�s underground economy, the editing begins immediately with the decision to limit such an analysis to these three gargantuan topics�clearly there�s a lot more going on in the shadow economy-- just ask the folks at RIAA.
Any one of these topics would have been enough for an entire book, so if Schlosser is to be criticized for skimming through the information (which he does), it�s hard to see how, once the original decision for the book was made, he could have done otherwise. The look at cheap labor, for instance, is only a few dozen pages. The section on �drugs� is really only focused on marijuana and the laws surrounding it, and even these are occasionally tossed out more as lists than in any sort of more reflective analysis. The section on pornography is longer, which might lead you to think it�s more in depth, but just as with the drug section, Schlosser narrows his field and focuses more on a single pivotal figure in the development of pornography as a mainstream business. Its general history, modernization, feminization, incorporation, etc. are mentioned, but all too briefly. Finally, anyone who has read any recent lengthy article on any of these topics will probably not find much (beyond the individual figures themselves) new here. Even the context of the underground economy is not particularly original, as all three are oftentimes analyzed in just that context in their own right (how many articles on pot does one see that doesn�t mention the estimated amount of money spent on growing or consuming it?). And that context is weakened somewhat by the section on pornography. After all, when The Greatest Hits of Nina Hartley is being distributed daily by AOL-Time-Warner or the Marriot and Larry Flint is running for governor of California, just how underground is this business?
That�s the bad. The good, and there is a lot of it, is just what one would expect from the author of Fast Food Nation. The prose is highly readable and extremely lucid. The research is well-documented, effective, clearly explained, and (mostly) seamlessly interwoven into the stories. And the personal stories (a man sentenced to life for being a middle-man in a pot deal, the long-time attempt of the federal government to indict porn purveyor Reuban Sturman, along with others) lend a sense of humanity, realism, and intimacy to the discussion, which all too often remains on the abstract level in most analyses�so many people in prison, blah blah blah. Schlosser rifles off the statistics as well, but he grounds them in the stories of real people, and that is what makes this book at least somewhat effective, despite its sketchy nature.
Anyone coming to this from Fast Food Nation is probably bound to be disappointed and one wishes his publisher had convinced him (or agreed to allow him) to do a single book on each topic. Anyone not coming to it with preconceived high standards set by the author himself, and just looking for a readable, quick, informative look at each and any of these could do a lot worse.