Hidden pursuits: the shadow economy - Book Review

Hidden pursuits: the shadow economy - Book ReviewWHAT DO MIGRANT strawberry pickers, marijuana growers and Internet pornography users have in common? According to Erie Schlosser, they are all part of America's black market economy, a massive system that contributes little to the tax base but keeps many Americans in business.

Schlosser, who skewered the meat industry in Fast Food Nation, takes a look at what Americans spend money on, and why or how they hide it. He begins by examining the growing of marijuana, a crop he believes is the nation's second largest after soy beans. Americans smoke more marijuana and imprison more people for marijuana possession than any other nation in the industrialized West. Schlosser, in this his strongest and longest section, takes a point of view: the imprisonment of nonviolent drag dealers is not winning the drug war, and massive injustices are committed in sentencing.

In a system that rewards those arrestees who can turn in others, the ones at the bottom of the system are often the ones who get the most severe punishments, since they have few resources and little information to trade. Mandatory minimum sentences mean that the "mule," who acts as a delivery person, is punished with the same severity as the person financing the entire deal. And any" goal of uniformity falls apart in the differences between state and federal practices. Schlosser describes a capricious system in which a Michigan resident caught with the amount of marijuana found in one large joint is prosecuted in federal court and receives a sentence of 14 months in jail, whereas the penalty from a state court would be only a $100 fine.

Furthermore, those with access to private lawyers are treated very differently from the poor. Strange laws allow the government to seize the property of those who deal in drugs--with erratic enforcement and results. In one extraordinary story from Glastonbury, Connecticut, a federal prosecutor known as the Forfeiture Queen seized the home of grandparents in their 80s, who had owned their home for 40 years, after their 22-year-old resident grandson was caught selling marijuana. Prosecutor Leslie Ohta argued that the grandparents should have been aware of what was happening in their home. But when Ohta's own 18-year-old son was caught selling drugs from his mother's Chevrolet Blazer as well as from home, Ohta's family lost neither the car nor the home.

The strict enforcement of increasingly tough drug laws has resulted in a massive federal prison population that grows by 10,000 a year, while prisons grow more dangerous, overcrowded and less likely to be places of rebabilitation. Schlosser's stories of young men who go to jail for growing marijuana in between their rows of corn put a human face on the drug traders who, it turns out, look much less like the South American drug lords in the action movies and a lot more like struggling farmers.

Underground economies are nothing new in American history. Schlosser reminds us that the prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933 led to the growth of organized crime and the rise of an underground economy that constituted about 5 percent of the gross national product. Later, during wartime rationing, 5 percent of the country's gasoline and 20 percent of its meat were purchased through the black market, so that by the end of the war, he estimates, Americans were not reporting 15 percent of their incomes. Strict laws and government control, often encouraged by churches, have a history not of thwarting the use of forbidden products but of driving that use underground and pulling those profits out of the tax base.

When other countries copy us, the results seem similar. In the drug war, England has followed America into positions that put it at odds with the rest of Europe. So today, despite having the most punitive marijuana laws in Europe, England also records the highest use among young people--higher than the Dutch, who can buy marijuana legally in a government-approved coffee house.

Americans seem to have two faces on the marijuana issue. We use privately, and we criticize publicly. But the tide may be turning on the issue. Since 1998 Americans in eight states have voted to permit the medical use of marijuana. Decriminalization, long associated with the liberal left, now has its conservative supporters, including William E. Buekley and former Secretary of State George Shultz. A recent poll found that 67 percent of Americans oppose dewing marijuana for medical use, and 61 oppose the arrest and imprisonment of nonviolent pot smokers.

"Drug abuse should be treated like alcoholism or nicotine addiction," Schlosser says, "'These are health problems suffered by Americans of every race, creed and political affiliation, not grounds for imprisonment or the denial of property rights. A society that can punish a marijuana offender more severely than a murderer is caught in the grip of a deep psychosis."

While I wish that Schlosser had engaged the dangers of marijuana use more seriously, he acutely describes the dangers of the war on drugs. As a pastor, I have seen the effect of strict sentencing measures on families of young people who have made a bad mistake and been caught. For the most part I see the legal system ensnaring young users in a justice system more successful in hardening criminals than reforming them. Furthermore, the maze of drug testing may catch someone who got high on vacation three weeks ago, but not someone who drives the school bus while drunk. The churches should have a voice in this debate, since they are often part of cleaning up the mess that "reefer madness" leaves behind.

COMPARED TO marijuana, strawberries seem like a wholesome crop, lint the strawberry fields have their own shadowy story. The strawberry is "risky and expensive to grow but it can yield more revenue per acre than virtually any other crop except marijuana," Schlosser says, reminding us that "nearly every fruit and vegetable found in the diet of health-conscious, often high-minded consumers is still picked by hand." In this case, the strawberry industry seems to bite the hand that feeds it.

Growers can most efficiently cut their costs by underpaying workers or simply keeping them off the books. The enormous numbers of illegal immigrants who do the picking are unlikely to report their bosses" abuse to the IRS or the Labor Department. The fruits of immigrants' labor go to the large growers, while the pickers' economic life rots.

Is there no upward mobility for farmworkers? Schlosser exposes the false promises of sharecropping, in which a middle-aged picker might be invited by the grower to become a "partner" or a "farmer." These sharecroppers end up as unfortunate middle men, who no longer receive wages but instead are promised a share of profits that may never materialize. They also assume debt and responsibility for the hiring and legal status of their workers, thus shielding the companies.

A picker named Felipe who turned sharecropper ended up after 16 years $50,000 in debt to the grower and $5,000 in debt to the IRS. He told Schlosser he is ready, to return to picking, saying, "They use us all as slaves." While some sharecroppers earn enough to become growers themselves, others end up malting less than they would as farmworkers paid minimum wage.

For those who want to eat strawberries in good conscience, Schlosser commends the working conditions at Driscoll, Naturipe, Sweet Darling, CalBeri and Coastal Berry. Returning to his old chomping ground of Fast Food Nation, he reminds us that healthy choices in eating for individuals should be healthy for the community as well. Not all growers treat their workers poorly, but as long as some do, as long as immigrants are exploited, underpaid and kept off the books, we should all be watching what we eat.

In the book's final section, Schlosser turns from watching what we eat to watching what we watch. Again he focuses on the American heartland. He tells the story of Reuben Sturman, a Cleveland comic book salesman and son of Russian immigrant grocers, who built such a fortune through discreetly wrapped mail-order products that at one point he controlled the pornography industry.

In the 1970s Sturman lived in a mansion in Shaker Heights, dressed like a banker and was honored by the YMCA. In the end, it was not obscenity laws that got him into trouble but the black market. The IRS discovered a host of hidden Swiss bank accounts. After decades of investigation and trials, in 1992 Sturman finally went to jail where he died alone, having recognized decades earlier with his mail order business what today's Interact pornographers have grasped so well: in a society that publicly punishes obscenity; as pornography becomes easier and more anonymously attainable, people's appetite for it will grow, as will the profits.