The Ethics of the Highest Bidder

This was the final piece that i wrote in response to a prompt for the book Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser. Its a piece that documents the underground economies, not from a moral view but from an economic view. He tries to show the contradictions and inherent problems that exist therein.

P: How does Reefer Madness represent the ethos of America? Consider the main principles of the American character and use specific evidence from the text to illustrate your thesis.

The democratic process is one of the more prominent aspects of the American ethos. The views of the many are applied to the whole, allowing the majority to have their needs met. We support our positions with study and science, drawing conclusions from experiments and statistics. It is easy to assume that our government’s regulation and rules on the economic body would follow suit, but Eric Schlosser shows us another situation altogether in his book Reefer Madness. A large portion of the American people and many scientific experiments are opposed to the imposed regulation of the underground economies, marijuana, undocumented labor, and early pornography. Schlosser casts a peculiar light on the government, allowing us to see a system that allows people to take advantage of others, targeting and seizing their property, avoiding fair labor laws, and ultimately padding their bottom line. We see a system of policy that punishes people in a counterintuitive way, sending people to jail for life sentences for marijuana when incomparable crimes are getting lesser sentences. We see a system that tries to save us from ourselves, protecting us from the perceived obscenity of pornography and the tainting abilities of marijuana. Through imposing belief, regulation, and continuing to allow immoral behavior in and around our economic system Americans are stereotyped as being willing to take advantage of others in order to secure their own personal gains, and we see through this book it is clear that we are continuing to allow the immorality to continue.

Although it is true that Americans care about the environments and conditions of its workers, it is also the case that they do not want to be bothered by it, or see it outside their bedroom windows. We are quite interested in making sure that those we care about are taken care of, but when we have to look at the conditions and environments of those who allow us to have cheap goods work under we quickly lose sight of reality. With the strawberry fields in the middle of California it would be impossible for the migrants that we depend upon to be able to work here and not live here. Contrary to this fact, we impose regulation to keep the migrants out – “instead of providing low income housing, local authorities have declared states of emergency, passed laws to forbid curbside hiring, and bulldozed many of the large encampments” (106). Agriculture is dependent upon the migrant workers, without them making money in the business is extremely difficult. In 1951 the Commission on Migratory Labor brought the living conditions of these migrants to the light, calling it “virtually peonage,” and stating that they were “routinely exploited by their employers, who could maintain unsafe working conditions, cut wages, or abruptly dismiss them with little worry of reprisal” (99). We then see a situation where people were given the chance, by raising the price they paid by a measly five cents, to improve these conditions, and this was turned down.

Americans want cheap goods. We raise our children to believe that while they cannot get something for nothing, they should be interested in getting everything they can for as little as possible. This rule imposes a stress on the domestic market. The agriculture industry pushes their labor prices as low as minimum wage allows and even then still has problems with competition. In some circumstances, farmers have issues with staying out of the red zone. In order for less successful farmers and sharecroppers to pad their margins, they employ immigrants and pay them sub-standard wages, often below the minimum wage fair labor laws but certainly below the prices that citizens and residents ask. These immigrants accept these prices and send the money home to their families who are able to live above the poverty line back home. Immigrants are unable to fight for their rights because of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as well as bad labor unions practices. The INS “used to round up and deport illegal immigrants in California immediately after the harvest,” helping farmers avoid paying them and avoiding their ability to impose higher costs on the state (96). Schlosser also shows us that the attempts of farm-workers to form unions have been broken up by the farmers, and those invested in the farmers, in dirty ways. The agricultural industry is not opposed to taking advantage of people, and actually makes an effort to do so through sharecropping, a form of indentured servitude. Sharecroppers are leased plots of land and have a number of obligatory requirements upon them, forcing them to deal with the farmer for any of their needs, and absolving the farmers of the legal responsibility of hiring or taking care of the farm workers by being the ones to hire migrants. Farmers often take advantage of this by giving the sharecroppers sub-standard prices for their goods, “on days when the market price for strawberries was $8.75 per box, Felipe sometimes received $7, $5, or $1.74 for his boxes,” – then the farmers turn around and sell them for a larger profit in the open market (87). Sharecroppers are unable to get out of this situation because of the unavoidable debt that accumulates as their work continues. Some sharecroppers have the ability to sell a portion of their goods as they see fit, and often do at roadside markets.

Americans want to have the freedom to purchase all goods, including marijuana. Unfortunately, they are unable to do so because our government is convinced of its role as patriarch, saving us from ourselves. Marijuana is a good that Americans have grown nearly since our nation was founded, but in recent decades has become illicit. The conservative views of immorality and disgust have been accepted as right, in spite of the science supporting the other side. One commission argues that “in the range of social concerns in America, marijuana does not, in our considered judgment, rank very high” (23). Farmers, faced with bankruptcy and repossession, take to the production of marijuana in the midst of their cornfields, chancing upon long prison sentences in the event they are caught. Dealers are often left holding the bag, as we are shown with Mark Young who is only interested in being able to smoke it freely. Mark Young received a life sentence because he refused to give up the next man down the totem pole; his role was as a user and that he brought two people together, not even a dealer. This is in contrast to sentencing of violent offenders which is much lighter and shows the delusion of our government’s regulation, believing that drug dealers and users are worse offenders to that of violent offenders. Schlosser points out a problem that imprisonment of drug offenders poses, “The number of drug offenders imprisoned in America today – more than 330,000 – is much larger than the number of people imprisoned for all crimes in 1970” (57). It is impossible to ignore the governmental focus on imprisonment. It is also important to note that the extended prison terms do little in regards to stopping people from using or dealing marijuana, since Mark Young went out of his way to purchase and use marijuana in jail and even when he was later released he continued to do so when he had parole mandated drug tests.

Americans want to be able to purchase pornography as well. Reuben Sturman stood up against the judicial system and the absurd laws that were imposed upon his chosen business. Pornography was fought on grounds that it was obscene and lead to the corruption of women, as declared by the Meese Commission. A second, contradictory, commission later reported and overturned the Meese Commission’s results, declaring that “there is no warrant, for continued government interference with the full freedom of adults to read, obtain or view whatever material they wish” (134). This is another instance where politics and conservative views were accepted and scientific and experimental results were trumped. Thankfully, the legal standards have never been strictly defined and they have as yet been unable to outlaw its purchase. Business is controlled by a straightforward concept – if there is a market for it, let it be sold. Pornography and marijuana are two very strong markets that people have been spending increasingly larger amounts of money in, so it would seem obvious that these industries be open, and free to be sold.

Americans want to accumulate as much financial wealth as they can. The production of and distribution of Marijuana and porn are two very profitable industries. Sturman was able to create an empire out of peep booths and adult magazines – “An average-sized store earned at least $2000 a week from its peep booths, and a large store could easily earn five times that amount” (130). Marijuana is even more profitable, boasting that “a bushel of manicured marijuana [sells] for at least $70,000” (35). The regulation of marijuana is less about allowing everyone to make money than about allowing the pharmaceutical industry to do so. With the illegality of Marijuana, and being compelled to take drug tests at most mainstream jobs, it follows that the pharmaceutical industry would be making money. On the other hand, the regulation and laws being imposed on the pornography industry allowed Reuben, and later Adam & Eve, to take up a monopolistic position in the industry by driving out all of the competition. This is contradictory to a second concept of good business practices – competition breeds industry and keeps costs down.

As we have seen, the American ethos is not in sync with governmental policy and regulation. When contrasted with control over the people, it follows that our government ignores our democratic process and scientific study and process for what they see as being the better choice. Clearly, our ethos can be seen in the way we buy and sell goods, but that is not the entire picture. While our commodities are a reflection of who we are, “Our desires are now expressed in all sorts of other ways. And our government will become truly democratic when it acknowledges that complexity” (221). Our capitalistic and economy centered view creates a number of contradictory situations that we much take into account, but the truth remains that we cannot be truly free until we have the ability to buy, sell, and produce as we choose. The American people have shown that despite of the immorality, tough living and working conditions, laws and regulation, arrests, prison sentences, taxes, deportation, fines, terrible working conditions and spam blocking efforts, we intend to continue buying these goods.