According to author and Atlantic Monthly journalist Schlosser, around 10% of the American economy, and probably more, is built around illegal, underground enterprises surrounding drugs, pornography, and the exploitation of (largely) illegal immigrant labor. Youre not going to read about much of this in Newsweek or the Wall Street Journal, but as has become his trademark, Schlosser quickly builds a compelling, well-researched case that examines why each of these industries has not only existed, but flourished over the past 30 years, and is definitely on the rise in America.
He does it in the same style that made “Fast Food Nation“ so readable and credible, and the evidence presented defies one not to look at the way society as a whole has contributed to these enterprises, publicly denouncing, but privately supporting them.
In this excerpt from the chapter “The Underground,“ Schlosser explains the premise for his book:
“The three essays in this book shed light on different aspects of the American underground - and on the ways it has changed society, for better or worse. “Reefer Madness“ looks at the legal and economic consequences of marijuana use in the United States. Pot has become a hugely popular black market commodity, more widely used throughout the world than any other illegal drug. The enforcement of state and federal laws regarding marijuana guides its production, sets the punishments for its users, and suggests the arbitrary nature of many cultural taboos. Americans not only smoke more marijuana but also imprison more people for marijuana than any other western industrialized nation.
“In the Strawberry Fields“ examines the plight of migrant workers in California agriculture, who are mainly illegal immigrants. The state‘s recruitment of illegals from Mexico started a trend that has lately spread throughout the United States. Many employers now prefer to use black market labor. Although immigrant smuggling looms as a multi-billion-dollar business in its own right, the growing reliance on illegals has far-reaching implications beyond the underground, affecting wages, working conditions, and even the practice of democracy in the rest of society.
“An Empire of the Obscene“ traces the history of the pornography industry through the career of an obscure businessman and his successors. It describes how a commodity once traded only on the black market recently entered the mainstream, turning behavior long thought deviant into popular entertainment. Profits from the sale of pornography that used to be earned by organized crime figures are now being made by some of America‘s largest corporations. The current demand for marijuana and pornography is deeply revealing. Here are two commodities that Americans publicly abhor, privately adore, and buy in astonishing amounts.
Linking all three essays is a belief that the underground is inextricably linked to the mainstream. The lines separating them are fluid, not permanently fixed. One cannot be fully understood without regard to the other. The vastness and complexity of the underground challenge the mathematical certainties of conventional economic thinking. Hard numbers suddenly appear illusory. Prices on Wall Street rise or fall based on minuscule changes in the rate of inflation, the unemployment rate, the latest predictions about the GNP. Billions of dollars may change hands because an economic measurement shifts by one-tenth of a percent. But what do those statistics really mean, if 20 percent, 10 percent, or even 5 percent of a nation‘s economy somehow cannot be accounted for? America‘s great economic successes of the past two decades -- in software, telecommunications, aerospace, computing -- are only part of the story...
What happens in the underground economy is worth examining because of how fortunes are made there, how lives are often ruined there, how the vicissitudes of the law can deem one man a gangster or a chief executive (or both). If you truly want to know a person, you need to look beyond the public face, the jobs on the résumé, the books on the shelves, the family pictures on the desk. You may learn more from what‘s hidden in a drawer. There is always more to us than what we will admit. If the market does indeed embody the sum of all human wishes, then the secret ones are just as important as the ones that are openly displayed. Like the yin and yang, the mainstream and the underground are ultimately two sides of the same thing. To know a country you must see it whole.“
Yowser. Schlosser shows how good-old American know-how and ingenuity have been put to work for the betterment of pot, porn, exploitation, and excess, and draws fascinating parallels between underground and above-board operations. Especially effective is his putting a human face on the carefully researched numbers and socio-analysis through interviews and two case studies that back up his accusations of cultural malaise.
The questions he poses are tough, and the answers difficult. For example, why do we throw the book more harshly at growers of marijuana than murderers, and why does the system allow for poverty stricken Mexican laborers to be arrested, and then leave growers on their own to hire more? Schlosser believes that industries like pot and porn need to be made over ground and in the light of day instead of being the clandestine operations that they are, because only in that way can they be controlled. Many will undoubtedly challenge assertions like these, but what he really seems to be attacking is our hypocrisy as a society. And that is something that is hard to argue with.
“Black markets will always be with us,“ he writes. “But they will recede in importance when our public morality is consistent with our private one.“ Just as Schlosser did with Whoppers and Big Macs in his other books, he turns a glaring light on the dark side of our consumer appetites and throws down the gauntlet. The sight isnt pretty, and youll most likely never look at strawberries in the same way again.