Black Market

By Weinberg, Steve | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

Black Market


Weinberg, Steve, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


BLACK MARKET

Studying the economic, moral impact of the nation's underground economy

In the title essay of this book containing three linked essays, Eric Schlosser suggests readers obtain a map of the United States, then draw a circle encompassing Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. The region within that circle produces most of the nation's marijuana. Therein lies part of the important story chronicled by Schlosser.

A talented magazine writer, Schlosser hit big - and deservedly so - with his first book a couple of years ago. "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the Ail-American Meal," became that rare phenomenon - a well-conceived, well-researched, well-written, best-selling investigative book on an important topic of potential interest to almost every person who can read. Spin-offs by journalists in every locale seemed obvious, including the way fast-food restaurants and suppliers treated workers.

For his first encore, Schlosser presents another investigative book, this time about the underground economy in the United States. Fortunately, Schlosser is not a victim of the oft-invoked sophomore slump.

Like "Fast Food Nation," the second book is well-researched and well-written. Arguably the only poorly written portion is the two-word main title, which fails to capture the book's scope. The strongest part of this book, however, is the way Schlosser conceives it. He is a superb storyteller, which is all tied up in the way he conceives the issues he investigates.

A book about economic and moral impacts of the underground economy, no matter how important, could be dull. I have read previous books about the underground economy that are sleep-inducing, relying primarily on statistics and nearly devoid of human flesh. Schlosser avoids dullness by writing three connected essays about different portions of the underground economy - marijuana production/consumption, strawberry production/consumption and sex film production/consumption.

Human and paper sources

As with "Fast Food Nation," Schlosser travels extensively to see for himself. He visits marijuana-growing centers indoors and outdoors, from a secluded Indiana farm to a cramped New York residential apartment. He hangs out in the strawberry fields of central California, where pickers living in squalor stoop within sight of the millionaires who consume the strawberries being picked. He visits the suites and studios of sex film producers. An additional strength of Schlosser's research is his comfort on the documents trail, especially courthouses where trial transcripts provide telling detail. Few investigative reporters are equally comfortable with human sources and paper sources. Schlosser is one of those few.

In the first section alone, on the underground marijuana trade, here are some of the human and documentary sources used by Schlosser:

* The classic economic theories of Adam Smith.

* Contemporary academic studies of the underground economy, some published by university presses, some by government and quasi-government agencies such as the International Monetary Fund, some by private-sector think tanks such as the RAND Corporation.

* Census and related data from the U. …

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