Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner


April 1st, 2011 · No Comments

One of the pluses of travel these days is that it affords me the opportunity to catch up on reading. (The parents in the audience know well that young’uns page-rate down by quite a bit.) On this latest Texas trip, when I wasn’t busy finagling my way into a remote immigration detention facility, I stole some hours to plow through Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness.

This was an unusual pick for me, mostly because I was already familiar with a good deal of the content. The book is essentially a collection of three expanded magazine pieces, all of which deal with different aspects of America’s underground economy. The first one, about the marijuana trade and its consequences, holds a special place in my heart: I read it back in college, when it first appeared as a two-parter in The Atlantic Monthly, and was so taken with the reporting and writing that I began thinking seriously about getting into the non-fiction game someday. I had also previously encountered parts of the book’s third section, about the porn industry, when my old employer U.S. News & World Report ran one of Schlosser’s stories about the topic.

But Reefer Madness was still well worth the read—in part as an object lesson on how to use reporting in the service of narrative, but also because of the nifty way in which Schlosser ties together the strands with thoughtful commentary. This conclusion, from the middle section about migrant farm labor in California, really got my mental gears cranking:

We have been told for years to bow down before “the market.” We have placed out faith in the laws of supply and demand. What has been forgotten, or ignored, is that the market rewards only efficiency. Every other human value gets in its way.

This, I think, is the central tension in much of the left-right debate these days. Schlosser’s sympathies obviously lie with the former, though I believe he’s more of a centrist than most folks believe. The latter faction, meanwhile, argues that allowing the market free reign ultimately enables those at the bottom to slowly ascend over the generations. But Reefer Madness makes a convincing case that such mobility is more fantasy than reality, primarily because the game is rigged; the cycle of indebtedness upon which the labor market depends means that the rising tide lifts only a handful of boats.

Where I find myself most in agreement with Schlosser is in terms of our skepticism about philosophies that demand no deviation from core principles—no matter how much evidence piles up to the contrary. Both humans and history are complex, and so, too, should the systems that govern our behavior. This line nails it:

My own views tend toward suspicion of all absolute theories and a strong belief in thought that knows its limits.

What Schlosser is ultimately advocating for is something near-and-dear to Microkhan’s heart: that we trust human judgment above inflexible systems of thought.

Apologies for the brief intellectual digression, which I reckon is very non-Microkhan-ish. Back to your regularly scheduled programming soon, with upcoming posts about the pig economy in Papua New Guinea, lighthouse development in Mozambique, and the pitfalls of electing coroners.


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