On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

I got a review copy of this book by Alice Goffman a while back, and have been meaning to review it, but the multiple demands for Piketty reviews, responses, rejoinders to rightwing critics etc make it highly unlikely that I’ll get to it. So, I’ll just say that it gives some amazing insights into the way the War on Drugs is fought on the streets of US inner cities.

20 thoughts on “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

  1. It has to be very inefficient criminalising and incarcerating so many people: an enormous cost with no production of anything; only the destruction of lives. So much for the much-vaunted efficiency of capitalism.

    I wonder if anyone calculates net actual GDP? Net Actual GDP might be;

    GDP minus the justice system budget, minus the defence budget, minus the costs of replacing all accidental and deliberate destruction of fixed assets, minus the medical costs re the accidental and deliberate damage of people minus the activities of the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate sector, minus the imputed costs of all negative externalities including medically irremedial social and physical damage to human beings.

    Thus, it would be interesting to know what the real net actual GDPs of nations were. Certainly our economies are in reality much smaller than the nominal or even “real” numbers claim.

  2. GDP has a lot of problems when you look at it closely. The number means something but maybe less than it is touted to mean.

  3. I read once a comment once in a book by a non-economist to the general effect that GDP (or perhaps it was GNP) was not a measure of how much is produced but rather a measure of how much trouble was gone to in producing it. I referred to this comment in an online discussion and somebody with professional training and experience as an economist agreed and added as a specific example that a loaf of bread produced in the old Soviet Union counted for more in the GDP statistics than a loaf of bread produced in, say, the USA, because of the greater expenditure of effort and/or resources in producing it, even though the Soviet loaf, as bread, for somebody who actually ate it, was of lower quality.

  4. The war on drugs is an absolutely abhorrent policy. In the US there are proponents for the war on both sides of politics but I suspect it will end when the Republicans decide to support an end. That would certainly happen if libertarian Rand Paul won as a Republican president but I have a hard time seeing it happen soon any other way. Although it has already effectively ended in regards to cannabis in the states of Washington and Colorado due to citizen initiatives (direct democracy).

    In Australia there are three parties that support the full legalisation of cannabis. The Sex Party, the HEMP Party and the Liberal Democrats. At best they can make some noise on this issue. And I doubt there will be much debate beyond cannabis until that issue is settled. It’s going nowhere until one of the major parties change their tune. The ALP, the Liberals and the Greens are all prohibitionists.

    New Zealand is also worth watching as they attempt to introduce some science into the process of regulating new recreational drugs. Hopefully they will ultimately make this retrospective to already prohibited substances.

    All up the war on drugs is a stupid piece of public policy that seems set to persist. And at the moment we seem determined to extend the logic of prohibition to tobacco with increasing black market activity as over taxing continues to bite and crazies call for an all out ban. The whole issue makes me very despondent. It is not only immoral it has nasty consequences that go well beyond those that use or would use these substances.

  5. The war on drug users is and always has been a war against the self medicating classes, the lumpen-proletariat, the educated working classes, the organic intellectuals and organic poets, the marginalized, the disenfranchised from birth, but above all it has been a war against the working masses of the West. In the East the state had the human and political sense to provide Vodka or its equivalent. That’s why the West has won the ideological war on freedom – the West has always had better drugs.

    Marcuse got it right with ‘Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud’ (1955) and better still ‘One-Dimensional Man’ (1964). The war on drug users is in fact a war on those who find their material and spiritual conditions of their (our) existence unendurable without the their (our) drugs of choice.

    The war against drug users is nothing less than the criminalization of non-conformism of the subjectivity.

  6. With the introduction of laws and policies which prohibited the import and use of opium, taxation income the government had previously been earning from opium imports was redundant. A customs report in 1908 noted that “it is very doubtful if such a prohibition has lessened to any great extent the amount bought into Australia.”[3]

    Desmond Manderson, an expert on the history of Australian drug policy, has asserted that from this time forward, Australia’s drug policies have been more dictated by international relations and a political need for moral panic than any concern for health and welfare (Manderson, 1993).[3]


  7. Manderson argues that Australian drug laws had racist origins

    So when I started to research this, I went back and I looked at the archives and I tried to find out what was behind all of this. And I looked up ‘opium’: nothing there. I looked up ‘drugs’: nothing there. I looked up ‘addiction’: nothing there. And eventually, suddenly I looked up ‘immigration’ and that’s where the drug laws were. There was this file note which said, ‘Immigration, Chinese, use of drugs.’ And that’s where the drug laws came from. In Australia, as in other places in the world, including America, for example, the reason that it was opium suitable for smoking that was prohibited had nothing to do with the kind of drug it was, had nothing to do with the dangers of the drug itself; it was because of who used it.

  8. @rog
    I have seen the same point argued (perhaps I read the same source; I can’t now recall).

    Expanding on the reference to ‘other places in the world’, I have read specifically that the origin of the US ban on heroin was associated with anti-black prejudice, and the origin of the US ban on marijuana with anti-Mexican prejudice; and the harsher approach in the US to crack than other forms of cocaine must again be associated with who the users are.

  9. @Terje

    I suggest as a general rule that “sin” taxes should be applied to recreations which have a risk cost/financial cost (personal or public) or have a negative externality. However, the tax rate should be calibrated either to cover the calculated costs or to avoid incentives to develop a black market whichever is the lower tax.

    Regulations are needed for poisons and drugs. Any drug is a poison at the wrong dose or when contra-indicated. Again, the minimum of regulation should be enacted for reasonable public safety and especially for the safety of minors. The devil will be in the detail of course. We should avoid criminalising consumption and focus on criminalising production of “unsafe” drugs.
    Drugs might be deemed unsafe according to type, purity or level of adulterants. Taxes would have to be paid at manufacture and also GST levied. Many prosecutions might turn out to be under tax law under this set-up.

    Some drugs and self-administration routes (eg. hypodermic needles) might still have to be proscribed or controlled. But what I envisage would look like Australia relaxed a bit further, nothing like the war on black people, er um, I mean the war on drugs in the USA. (NB. We wage war on black people here too so it’s no good me just pointing the finger at the USA in this case.)

  10. ikono — sin and unsafe are better off going into the waste bin, rather than being protected by quotation. Educate, provide opportunity, ensure the dose doesn’t easily make the poison — then get the government out of adult’s recreation.

  11. Tobacco causes far many deaths, and probably also far more extensive damage to health short of death, than any other drug (illegal or legal). In this country, tobacco products are now heavily taxed and all advertising, including at point of sale, is banned; not even advertising in the form of attractive packaging is allowed, with health warnings required instead, and the government also pays for extensive advertising of the health risks. But sale, purchase, distribution, and use are not illegal. That’s how it should be.

  12. Drugs follow entrenched poverty, as does other forms of corruption, in the big cities. It is inevitable as day follows night, unless public policies are enacted to disperse poor people across the country, instead of concentrated in suburbs within the big cities; of course, such a policy is pretty abhorrent, and certainly doesn’t address the central issue which is the entrenched poverty itself. If you can’t feed yourself or your family, but can be a drug runner in the neighbourhood and make enough to stay alive, the options are pretty limited from that perspective. Illegality of drugs has the unfortunate consequence of then causing systemic criminality among people whose principle crime is living in entrenched poverty. Breaking the cycle won’t happen through toughening up the penalties for use of/dealing in drugs, as the economic circumstances dictate the necessity of finding sources of income, the alternative being starvation and homelessness. Crazy.

  13. In Western Australia, the government have effectively banned e-cigarettes. I have no idea how effective smokers find e-cigarettes, but from a non-smokers point of view, they are vastly superior. No butts, no smoke, no stink.

    I’m no libertarian, but on drugs, I’d prefer to see legalisation, with regulation. Products to be sold with full disclosure of ingredients, and regular testing to ensure this. Education so that users now the risks. And taxes to pay for this, and any anticipated health costs. Advertising prohibited.

    Otherwise it just seems as though we are discriminating against those who don’t find alcohol, nicotine and caffeine aren’t their cup of tea.

  14. I suggest as a general rule that “sin” taxes should be applied to recreations which have a risk cost/financial cost (personal or public) or have a negative externality. However, the tax rate should be calibrated either to cover the calculated costs or to avoid incentives to develop a black market whichever is the lower tax.

    The implication from that position regarding a drug such as tobacco is that excise should be reduced 95%. The revenue raised from the tobacco excise is greater than what raised from the Medicare levy. It is also twenty times greater than the public health costs incurred due to smoking. Smokers are being bludgeoned way beyond what can be rationalised by a tax to internalise externalities. It is driven by a puritanical creed not a rational approach to policy.

  15. @TerjeP

    Please support your reasoning with credited costings not assertions. If the costings are correct I would agree. Please use costings from several credible source(s).

  16. @TerjeP
    When I had my heart attack twenty years ago my greatest risk factor was smoking so I tried to calculate how much revenue I had contributed due to my addiction, in the fond hope that I had already paid for my medical care.
    I hadn’t. Not even close. And I was a heavy smoker (~70 a day).

  17. It is an interesting question the real costs of smoking on the health system. I believe $31.5 odd billion dollars was quoted by Nicola Roxon back in 2011 when talking about the plain packaging a few years back. Of the $31.5bn, $19.5b was attributed to the “psychological costs of pre-mature death”. Hardly a grey area at all. A study in the Netherlands “Lifetime Medical Costs of Obesity: Prevention No Cure for Increasing Health Expenditure” found that the overall lifetime medical expenses were highest for healthy individuals. This was attributed to longer lives and that the latter years typically involved the highest medical expenses. I dont know if taxes on smoking pays for the direct costs, and agree that the “sin taxes” are as good a ways to raise money as the GST.

  18. I think the major contribution to health costs from tobacco taxes is that it reduces the number of people who smoke.

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