In your first book, FAST FOOD NATION, you exposed the practices and history of the fast food industry, an incredibly visible and popular aspect of our society. Why did you decide to write about the underground economy next?
I wanted to write this book on the underground economy before I wrote FAST FOOD NATION. It didnt work out that way, and in retrospect, I think the two books appeared in the right order. FAST FOOD NATION was an attempt to look behind the cheery façade of Americas service economy. REEFER MADNESS goes a step further, looking at some of the highly lucrative but much less publicized services that Americans seek out.
In both books, you seem to be focusing on the last twenty-five to thirty years of American history. Is that a coincidence?
The book Im writing at the moment, which is about the American prison system, covers roughly the same period. The three books are linked in many ways, and without sounding too pretentious, I view them as a trilogy. The United States has undergone some fundamental changes in my lifetime. Im trying to offer an alternative history of the last thirty years.
How big is Americas underground economy? What factors in American history led to its growth?
Nobody really knows how big our underground economy actually is but most economists agree that its vast. A conservative estimate would be perhaps 9 to 10 percent of our gross domestic product. Thats about $1 trillion. A number of factors encouraged the rise of the underground: the growing traffic in illegal drugs, the increase in illegal immigration, and various economic hardships that encouraged people to work off the books. Most of all, I think, the size of the underground reflects a widespread sense of alienation in America.
In what ways is the average law-abiding American affected by it?
The average law-abiding citizen is affected by the underground every day. You pay higher taxes when your neighbors not paying his. You earn lower wages when illegal immigrants enter a job market. And the illegal drug trade is responsible in one way or another for much of the nations violent crime.
Why did you decide to focus on sex, drugs, and illegal immigrants?
These three subjects seemed a useful means for exploring the larger themes of the underground. Marijuana is a black-market commodity, a common weed now worth more than gold because of the harsh drug laws. Illegal immigrants are black-market labor, and their plight illustrates what can happen when employers exert unchecked power over their workers. And the recent history of pornography in America offers an interesting case study of how a deviant black-market commodity can enter the mainstream.
Why the title REEFER MADNESS?
There is a deep element of unreason in our culture. We tend to swing wildly between extremes. We grow more pot than any other country, smoke more pot, write more songs about pot and yet have some of the worlds toughest marijuana laws. We also have some of the toughest obscenity laws in the Western world but watch more porn and produce more porn than any other country. Although Reefer Madness was the title of an old movie about how marijuana can drive teenagers insane, I think it has a broader meaning, too.
What is the prevailing attitude of the American public toward marijuana today? How about the attitude of our government? What factors do you think shape these attitudes?
American attitudes toward marijuana vary tremendously. A lot of kids now think smoking a joint is just the same as drinking a beer. But other people think that smoking pot is dangerous and morally wrong. That sort of thinking pervades the Bush administration, which has launched a nationwide crackdown on marijuana. Its remarkable how attitudes toward pot are usually based on its symbolism as a countercultural, outlawed intoxicant and not on its actual harms or effects.
Do you think marijuana should be decriminalized? Who would benefit most from decriminalization? What would be the biggest danger if marijuana were decriminalized?
I think marijuana should be decriminalized immediately. Everyone would benefit, even people who never have and never will smoke pot. The billions of dollars currently being wasted in our criminal justice system by locking up pot smokers could be used to prosecute much more serious crimes. I dont see any dangers whatsoever from decriminalization. States that have decriminalized pot dont have higher rates of pot use. I guess the biggest risk would be that if common sense prevailed in one area of government, it might spread to others. I dont know how much common sense the federal government can withstand.
Why has the illegal immigrant workforce become so large in this country? What are the effects of this growing workforce on the workers themselves and on the rest of the country?
There are more illegal immigrants in the workforce today because employers have been allowed to pay them lower wages and exploit them. If the nations labor laws were strictly enforced and the minimum wage was increased to a decent level, the black market for labor would shrink. The rise of this black market has lowered wages at the bottom of our society and made working conditions much worse.
How important or valuable is the strawberry business? Why is illegal labor important to the industry?
The value of our strawberry crop is exceeded only by that of our apples, among the fresh fruits produced in the United States. The strawberry industry is huge and since every berry has to be carefully picked by hand, the industry requires armies of poor workers at harvest.
Why do you think the plight of immigrant workers goes so unnoticed? In what ways is the government involved in helping or hindering the situation?
If todays migrant workers were blond-haired and blue-eyed instead of being dark-skinned and Latino, the American people would never tolerate their exploitation. We would not stand for it. You cannot separate the current mistreatment of migrants from our longstanding racism toward Mexicans. The government has traditionally sided with growers, not farmworkers. The former can afford to make large campaign donations; the latter cant.
How has Americas perception of pornography changed throughout history?
American attitudes toward porn have changed more in the last thirty years than in the previous two hundred. People were sent to prison in the early 1960s for selling material much tamer than what HBO now shows on a typical night.
Historically, what has been the governments role in regards to sex? What is it now in the United States? What do you think it should be?
The nations obscenity laws give the federal government enormous power to crack down on things it doesnt like. The Bush administration has promised a renewed crackdown on pornography, and well see how successful it is. I think the government should let adults read or view whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes with the exception of child pornography and violent pornography.
Is all of Americas sex industry within the underground economy? Why are some things considered legitimate and others not?
Prostitution, the largest sector of the sex industry, remains part of the black market. Some of the nations leading hotel and cable companies, however, are now earning millions from porn. They view it as just another profitable form of entertainment. The obscenity laws leave much of porn in a poorly defined gray area. Its legal until a jury decides that its not.
What can the ordinary person who is outraged by the issues you raise in your book do?
The first important step is to become aware. The next is to make your views known. Speak out, work to change unjust laws, vote for candidates who dont peddle old lies, refuse to give your money to companies that exploit their workers. Ive written about a lot of depressing subjects, but its left me feeling oddly optimistic. Things dont have to be the way they are.