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The War on Drugs is war on the poor

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To The Editor:

If you want to see pure free-market trickledown capitalism at its Ayn Rand-ian finest, look to the drug trade. No unions fighting to get more of those corporate profits into the pockets of the street-level slingers. No government regulations requiring warning labels for any negative health effects brought on by the product. You have your suppliers and your drug lords, your Ghetto Galts, if you will, providing the product and the jobs, letting a little money trickle down to the corner, and if the slingers and hoppers that actually push the dope and make the money don’t like it, they can go work at Burger King (if BK is hiring).

Think I kid? Read “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets,” by Sudhir Venkatesh, who lived with a Chicago drug gang while researching for his doctoral thesis and wrote a sociological portrait of life on the street, also summarized in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s “Freakonomics” in a chapter titled, “Why do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?” Venkatesh found that the vast majority of street-level slingers make less than minimum wage, with no benefits (obviously) and a far greater likelihood of ending up in the can or the coffin than ever becoming one of the few that rise up and become a rich drug lord.

The drug trade, with its riches for those at the top and suffering for the actual dope sellers and users, is the perfect illustration of capitalism left alone, bowing only to the god of the invisible hand. Because, while capitalism is a fantastic economic system for creating wealth, it is terrible in and of itself at equitably allocating resources. It needs to be backed up with and surrounded by social safety nets, with educational access, health care and rules that help put more money in the pockets of the poor and middle class, the people who do most of the spending that keeps the marketplace humming. But since the Reagan administration, says former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich in his great new documentary “Inequality for All,” unions have declined, revenue has increasingly gone to those at the top, and workers, who are just as productive as they were in the union-strong 1950s, 60s and 70s, are compensated less and less. With shrinking compensation, those regular workers have less spending power, leading to lower revenues for businesses that depend on a middle class customer base (most businesses), resulting in a reduced workforce, which in turn means less bargaining power for those lucky enough to still be employed and forced to stick with bad jobs rather than join the ranks of the ever-growing unemployed, a percentage of the population that in real terms, accounting for those no longer actively searching for work, is now between 10 and 15 percent of working-age adults.

This cycle hurts everyone except those at the top, the CEOs that pocket all the leftover money not being paid out to a bargaining power-bereft workforce, and the investment bankers getting rich betting on the very failure of the American economy. This trickledown capitalist economy is built for them, and frankly, those 10 to 15 percent at the bottom are no longer needed to keep this top-heavy capitalism running. Is it any surprise, then, in a society that worships capitalism as if it were a god, that those 10 to 15 percent that capitalism leaves behind, many inner city residents, turn to the pure capitalism of the drug trade, the only real economic option open to them?

While the purveyors of trickledown economics, the CEOs and bankers and their courtier enablers in Congress, run scot-free, not everyone goes unpunished for the economy’s downturn. Instead of treating the inevitable drug trade as a public health issue, instead of decriminalizing and getting the rehab centers up and running, the government treats it as a criminal problem through the useless and immoral War on Drugs. As David Simon, creator of The Wire, the greatest American television show ever, bluntly states, “We pretend to a war on narcotics, but in truth we are simply brutalizing and dehumanizing an urban underclass that we no longer need as a labor supply. The drug war is a war on the underclass now. That’s all it is. It has no other meaning.”

Sean Pidgeon

Morristown

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