Eric Schlosser on the Underground Economy

Eric Schlosser is most famous as the author of Fast Food Nation. I recently finished another of his books: Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, which is about three sectors of the underground economy: drugs, undocumented workers, and pornography, all viewed from a business and public policy perspective. Here is Wikipedia’s current summary of its three chapters:

Chapter 1: Reefer Madness, Schlosser argues, based on usage, historical context, and consequences, for the decriminalization of marijuana.

Chapter 2: In the Strawberry Fields, he explores the exploitation of illegal immigrants as cheap labor, arguing that there should be better living arrangements and humane treatment of the illegal immigrants America is exploiting in the fields of California.

Chapter 3: An Empire of the Obscene details the history of pornography in American culture, starting with the eventual business magnate Reuben Sturman.

Here are three passages that I found especially interesting, including the historical origin of marijuana laws in xenophobia and how boring pornography can be:

  • The political upheaval in Mexico that culminated in the Revolution of 1910 prompted a wave of Mexican immigration to the American Southwest. The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a “lust for blood,” and gave its users “superhuman strength.” Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this “killer weed” to unsuspecting American schoolchildren. Sailors and West Indian immigrants introduced marijuana to port cities along the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans newspaper articles associated the drug with African Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes, and underworld whites. “The dominant race and most enlightened countries are alcoholic,” on prominent critic of marijuana argued, expressing a widely help belief, “whilst races and nations addicted to hemp … have deteriorated both mentally and physically.” Marijuana was depicted as an alien intrusion into American life, capable of transforming healthy teenagers into sex-crazed maniacs. In 1914, El Paso Texas enacted probably the first local ordinance banning the sale or possession of marijuana; by 1931, twenty-nine states had outlawed marijuana, usually with little fanfare or debate. [pp. 19-20]
  • The Clinton administration largely abandoned efforts to enforce the obscenity laws, discontinuing the policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations. [p. 202]
  • Larry Flynt’s theory–that legalizing porn will eventually reduce the demand for porn–is not as outlandish as it may seem. That is exactly what happened in Denmark a generation a go. In 1969 Denmark became the first nation in the world to rescind its obscenity laws, an act taken after much deliberation and study. According to Vagn Greve, a former director of the Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology at the University of Copenhagen, when Denmark’s obscenity laws were overturned, there was a steep rise in the consumption of porn, followed by a long, steady decline. “Ever since then,” Greve told me, “the market for pornography has been shrinking.” Porn sales remain high in Copenhagen mainly because of purchases by foreigners. Greve’s colleague at the institute, the late Berl Kutchinsky, studied the effects of a legalized pornography in Denmark for more than twenty-five years. In a survey of Copenhagen residents a few years after the “porno wave” had peaked, Kutchinsky found that most Danes regarded porn as “uninteresting” and “repulsive.” Subsequent research confirmed these findings. “The most common immediate reaction to a one-hour pornography stimulation,” Kutchinsky concluded, “was boredom.” [pp. 203, 204]