Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Ideology of Superman: Morning in America

This is Part 4 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–MORNING IN AMERICA–

The blockbuster comic event Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the DC Universe’s slate clean in 1986-1987, allowing writer John Byrne to rebuild the character from the ground up. Byrne stripped Superman down to his core elements, while simultaneously building up a large and strong supporting cast. For the first time since Denny O’Neil’s attempt in the 1970s, Superman’s power levels were reigned in. The Man of Steel was still strong, but he no longer boasted every conceivable power.

Byrne also shifted the Clark Kent-Superman dynamic, writing Superman as the alter ego for Clark Kent. Many previous interpretations had portrayed the bumbling Clark Kent as the mask and the strong, confident Superman as the true identity. Byrne reversed this, making Kent confident and successful, and emphasizing Superman as the “mask.”

Clark Kent was re-imagined as a more confident character.

Confidence was returning not only to Kent, but to America as well. Fed Chairman Paul Volker determinedly wrung inflation out of the U.S. economy, while large, simultaneous tax cuts and ramped-up government spending stimulated the stagnant economy (creating huge deficits in the process). Unemployment was dropping and the economy was picking up steam. It was, as Ronald Reagan proclaimed, “morning in America.”

Both Superman and the United States had weathered the turbulence of the 197os and emerged more self-assured, in a more stable environment. John Byrne’s new Superman universe would persist until the late 2000s, when DC’s latest blockbuster event, Flashpoint, would re-launch the character’s books. Tellingly, this same general period parallels the prolonged economic stabilization that followed the U.S.’s defeat of high inflation, and the ascendancy of Washington’s neoliberal consensus. (The neoliberal consensus, broadly, refers to general agreement during this period over issues like deregulation and the lowering trade barriers.) Both periods began in the 1980s and lasted until the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

Of course, this period also saw its share of changes. New creative teams would introduce or remove characters, and take the Superman books in different directions. Retcons (or “retroactive continuity” — essentially when a later comic book retroactively changes something about past continuity) were many and frequent. Likewise, American society would experience the AIDS crisis, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the contentious 2000 presidential election, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and much, much more. But all of these various events took place in the broader context of a political period ushered in by the Reagan presidency, and thrown into disarray by the War on Terror and the Great Recession (or, in Superman’s case, ushered in by Crisis on Infinite Earths and re-launched by Flashpoint).

In addition to restoring America’s confidence in itself, President Reagan also brought about a revival of nationalism. America in the 1960s and 70s confronted the uncomfortable truth that various social groups were excluded from mainstream society. This, along with the traumas of Watergate and the Vietnam War, fractured a sense of national identity. Reagan restored this vision of an average American identity — the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American, who is able to achieve the American Dream via an honest job. There was great pride in being an American.

At the same time, Mexican immigration was beginning to increase dramatically, leading to an immigration policy overhaul in 1986. As with other periods of high immigration, certain nativist, anti-immigration sentiments began to spread.

John Byrne turned Superman into a full-fledged American citizen.

And so, for the first time, Superman — whose story was always that of the assimilated immigrant — was made a native-born American citizen. To be sure, this new origin still retained immigrant underpinnings. Superman’s biological parents were still Kryptonian. But now, instead of an infant Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name) being rocketed to Earth, a developing fetus was sent in a “birthing matrix” (a futuristic baby incubator, of sorts). When the “birthing matrix” opened on Earth, Superman was born into the world, making him a full-fledged American citizen (thanks to the 14th Amendment).

Now, instead of being a story about an immigrant assimilating into American society, it became a story about the American boy discovering and studying his Kryptonian heritage, but still reaffirming his American identity. As Superman says in Man of Steel #6:

Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am. All that matters. It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me human!

This new origin was later retconned in subsequent stories, reverting Superman back to his immigrant roots, but it nevertheless stands as a testament to the strong sense of a revived American identity.

Continue on to Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.


The Ideology of Superman: Breaking Down the Old Order

This is Part 3 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World here (when the post is ready).
Read Part 6: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–BREAKING DOWN THE OLD ORDER–

Many factors shook American society through the late 1960s and the 1970s: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, oil shocks, the feminist movement, a new environmentalist movement, rampant inflation coupled with high unemployment, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation, and so on. The first of the baby boom generation (born in the late 1940s) were reaching maturity and causing shockwaves throughout society. Many rejected the traditional outlooks of their parent’s generation, endorsing the counterculture of the hippie movement.

Comics began to leave behind the outdated and outmoded Comics Code Authority. The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 featured a story arc in which the webslinging hero’s friend, Harry Osborn, is shown to be addicted to pills. The Comics Code Authority refused to give the issues its approving stamp, but Marvel ran it anyway. It sold tremendously well, condemning the Comics Code Authority to increasing irrelevancy.

DC dealt with various issues, including cocaine addiction, in its "Green Lantern" title.

DC also dealt with tough issues, most notably in its Green Lantern title, written by Denny O’Neil. That book constantly pitted Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) in a battle of ideologies against his friend and sometime partner, Green Arrow (Oliver Queen). The series addressed issues such as environmental protection, race relations, and, famously, drug addiction as Green Arrow discovered his ward, Speedy, was addicted to cocaine. And yes, countless others have noted the irony of a character named Speedy eventually being addicted to cocaine, so I don’t need to do so. But really, Green Arrow should have seen the writing on the wall with that one.

Superman’s world changed as well. The late 1960s saw new creative teams and a new art style mark a departure from the Mort Weisinger era (Weisinger edited the Superman comics during the 50s and 60s. He retired from DC Comics in 1970.).

The familiar elements of a Superman story changed drastically. An all-new supporting cast was introduced, new villains challenged the Man of Steel, new situations arose. As CBR’s Robot6 blog notes:

Before long, readers got to know his neighbors in 344 Clinton Street’s apartments, as well as various Kryptonians (like Supergirl, Krypto and the other Super-Pets, the Phantom Zone criminals, and residents of the Bottle City of Kandor).

Indeed, the revamped Superman titles added new characters of their own almost from the very beginning. Cat Grant, Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado, Maggie Sawyer, Colin Thornton, Ron Troupe, Jerry White, and Emil Hamilton all interacted with the existing supporting cast, and with each other, in various combinations.

Print journalist Clark Kent got a promotion when Galaxy Broadcasting System president, Morgan Edge, bought the Daily Planet and made Kent a TV news anchor. Big business was back in action, and deregulation was gaining steam. A Republican governor named Ronald Reagan was gearing up for a presidential bid to unseat incumbent Gerald Ford.

The 12-issue maxi-series "Crisis on Infinite Earths" rebooted the entire DC Universe.

The structure of a Superman story changed as well. Gone were the normality-interrupting gimmicks that defined the previous period. Now, stories were more character-driven. Writers were disassembling the status quo of Clark Kent’s world, albeit less violently than many of the social and economic forces challenging America in the real world.

American confidence was sinking, and with it Superman’s powers. Denny O’Neil’s brief stint on the comic saw Superman’s powers diminished by a third in a story arc entitled “Kryptonite Nevermore!” The description for the collected edition even says that “this story turned Superman’s status quo on its head.” The depowering would not last for long, however, as subsequent writers soon took to re-powering the Man of Steel for their own purposes, but Superman was no longer a static character replaying the same tired formula over and over again. His world was in flux.

Superman’s world would shift hugely one last time in the 1980s, and then settle into a new norm. The huge, company-wide crossover blockbuster event of 1985-86, Crisis on Infinite Earths hit the re-start button on all of DC’s properties, including Superman. The Man of Steel was de-powered yet again, his cast culled and revised, and his convoluted history streamlined, all marking a new normal.

It was morning in America.

 

Continue to Part 4: Morning in America here.


The Ideology of Superman: Defender of the Status Quo

This is Part 2 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–DEFENDER OF THE STATUS QUO–

The war would change everything for Superman, much like it would for the United States. Depression-era America was a body in turmoil, where societal ills were brought to the fore in the hopes that they could be redressed by a powerful government. But Post-War America was a booming society unified by a common enemy — first the Axis Powers, then the Soviets. The economy, stimulated by rapid mobilization for the war effort, was sprinting ahead mightily. Soldiers returned from the horrors of war intent on starting families, getting a good education through the G.I. Bill, and earning an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

These forces upheld a status quo that imagined all wrongs were already righted, all battles already won. Yet just below the surface, new, uncomfortable conflicts were roiling, ready to engulf the country.

For Superman, these were the days of the Comics Code Authority, a body established by the comic industry after Congress launched an investigation of comic books based on accusations (most prominently made by Dr. Fredric Wertham in his “Seduction of the Innocent”) that they were corrupting the youth. The Comics Code Authority set strict guidelines about which types of stories were acceptable. Authority figures could not be questioned. “Good” had to prevail. “Evil” was always punished. Moral ambiguity was a no-no.

A typical Superman comic from the 1950s and 60s involved a temporary changing of identity.

Gone was the social crusader of the Depression. Now, Superman upheld the status quo: one that was challenged (unsuccessfully) by various madmen every issue, and restored before the final panel. No changes were necessary, because the status quo was the ideal.

It was during this period that the famous description of Superman standing for “truth, justice and the American way” became nailed into the national consciousness. Recall that in his first appearance, Superman was simply a “champion of the oppressed.” Later, in the Adventures of Superman radio shows, the Man of Steel was described as a

…defender of law and order, champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice, who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice.

Noticeably absent is any mention of the “American way.” In fact, “American way” did not enter Superman comics until World War II, and was removed after.

In the 1950s, however, “American way” made its way back into the Superman mythos, by way of the Adventures of Superman television series. ComicBookResources.com’s “Comic Book Legends Revealed” blog has a good history of the “American way” phrase.

But, of course, Superman’s “never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way” had a clear purpose. These were the early years of the Cold War — a period defined by stark contrasts between an American “us” and a communist “them.” Americans were being blacklisted for having supposed communist ties or sympathies, and Senator Joseph McCarthy led the nation on a witch hunt for potential spies. Superman, as a proud American (he even clothed himself in the colors of the American flag), stood for nothing less than distinctly American ideals — “truth, justice and the American way.”

Another major difference between the Superman of 1938 and that of the 1950s was Superman’s power level. In 1938, Superman was super-fast, super-strong and could leap an eighth of a mile! Little by little, the Man of Steel gained more powers, like flight, heat vision and whatever else writers felt like adding.

By the 1950s he had become infinitely powerful, able to weather a nuclear explosion. Americans of the period lived in the shadow of the all-power bomb, frightened of a the possibility of an all-destructive nuclear war. And yet here, the American superhero, was smiling bravely in the face of nuclear holocaust, certain that he could handle anything such existential threat.

Lois Lane became more obsessed with marrying Superman than her career.

The post-war period affected Superman’s supporting cast as well. Lois Lane largely gave up her feisty pursuit of front page stories in order to court Superman (unsuccessfully). The workplace gains made by women during the war, when many able-bodied men were drafted or joined the service were erased as those same men returned to claim their jobs.

The economy soared, supported by the fact that all our major competitors’ industries were completely annihilated during the war. They turned to the United States, buying U.S.-made products as they recuperated. Emboldened unions demanded better benefits for a growing middle class, and American industry, with an effective global monopoly, readily agreed.

Wealth was spread more evenly among the various social classes, and many families could be supported on one income alone. Without a harsh economy or depleted labor force to support the need for women in the workplace, they participation in the workforce quickly dropped. Women who had taken up jobs to support their families during World War II were suddenly back at home. Rosie the Riveter was out. The Happy Housewife was in.

And so, Lois Lane too gave up her obsession with career and focused all her energies on tricking Superman into marrying her. She even got her own comic book during this period: “Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.” Even in her own comic, her worth was judged by her relationship to Superman.

But social change was just below the surface. Tellingly, many conflicts in the 50s and 60s involved identity crises. The main conflicts of many issues revolve around a character transforming into something or someone else entirely, either by their own volition or through some wacky turn of events. Often, some sort of Kryptonite (like Red Kryptonite) would temporarily alter Superman’s mind or body. But identity crises were not limited to the Man of Steel.

For instance, in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #91 (1966), Olsen infiltrates a group of delinquents by acting the part. Obviously, our Olsen could not be a member of this counterculture “motorcycle mob” (the kind of young men Wertham was convinced comic book immorality was producing), with their leather jackets and their disregard for authority figures. But for a bit, he could act the part, coming into direct conflict with Superman on the issue’s cover. (For more on the subject of identity crises during this period’s comics, see Grant Morrison’s new book, Supergods.)

Conflict was boiling up in America, ready to devour the rapidly deteriorating status quo.

Continue on to Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.


The Ideology of Superman: The New Deal Democrat

This is Part 1 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–THE NEW DEAL DEMOCRAT–

Superman, "Champion of the Oppressed."

When Action Comics #1 hit newsstands, America was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Although still nursing an isolationist foreign policy, U.S. domestic policy had shifted radically. An ascendant Democratic Party brandished the full force of the federal government. Without passing any judgment (positive or negative), it is safe to say that during this time unions were strengthened, social safety nets fortified, big business strictly regulated. This was FDR’s New Deal.

New Dealers were self-proclaimed champions of the common man, and Superman was no different. In fact, Action Comics #1 describes him as a “champion of the oppressed.”

This image may seem foreign to many people today who see Superman as the embodiment of the status quo, but Superman of the 1930s and 40s was a social crusader, in both identities. Muckraking journalist Clark Kent spoke truth to power in his job at the Daily Star (later, Daily Planet), while pining after Lois Lane. In another indicator of the times, Lois Lane was introduced as a gossip columnist who wrote “sob stories,” but desperately wanted to a real reporting beat. The ironic twist of the comic was that Lois Lane was “manlier” than bumbling, impotent Clark Kent, though Lane’s pursuit of true news pieces would inevitably lead to some sort of danger from which the masculine ideal (Superman) would need to rescue her.

Superman destroys slums so that the government will be forced to improve living conditions.

Not much escaped the super-crusader’s youthful eyes in those days. Though he could only jump an eighth of mile (a far cry from his later ability to fly), Superman had no trouble taking on wealthy mine owners for the lax safety standards they subjected their workers to, or slick businessmen who tried to co-opt the Superman image for profit. In fact, in Action Comics #8, Superman destroys a city’s dilapidated slums in order to force the government to rebuild better housing. Just before he does so, he tells a group of delinquent children: “It’s not entirely your fault that you’re delinquent– it’s these slums– your poor living conditions.”

As a product of the times, Superman was also something of an isolationist at first. A story spanning Action Comics #1 and 2 saw Superman taking on the fiendish military-industrial complex about 23 years before Dwight D. Eisenhower made the term famous in his farewell address. The complaints sound incredibly familiar: corrupt politicians, influential lobbyists, deceitful arms producers and manufactured wars. Who says Superman isn’t in touch with today’s issues?

Luckily for the fictional Americans of the late 1930s, Superman was around to prevent the United States from being needlessly embroiled in a conflict between two fictional (though perhaps European) countries.

Superman joins the war effort.

All for naught. America’s isolationist tendencies would crumble before the full force of the Pearl Harbor attacks. And even before that, President Roosevelt angled to help the Allied cause in any way possible, through programs such as “Lend-Lease.” And as America mobilized for war, so too did Superman. The July after Pearl Harbor, for instance, Superman was seen on the cover of Superman #17 holding a shocked Adolf Hitler and grotesque Prime Minister Tojo, the much-despised leaders of the Axis Powers.

Families across the United States bought war bonds, rationed goods, planted victory gardens, and build weapons to help the war effort. Superman assaulted Axis leaders on the covers of his comics.

American had entered the second World War.

Continue on to Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.


The Ideology of Superman: Introduction

I generally get the same reaction every time I tell people I think Superman is the world’s greatest superhero: Really? Superman? Something about the Man of Steel just does not seem to resonate with contemporary Americans. He’s too powerful. He’s too virtuous. He’s too one-dimensional. He’s too old-fashioned.

I happen to wholeheartedly disagree with these characterizations, but the perception is obviously there. Of course, the opposite is true for Batman. He is the grim, flawed human who is all too happy to ride the line. He is the night to Superman’s day. He is the old money to Superman’s working class upbringing. He is the philanthropic capitalist to Superman’s New Deal Democrat.

Superman first appeared in "Action Comics" #1.

Now, let me clarify. He’s not my all-time favorite (Richard Grayson (aka Robin/Nightwing/Batman), holds that distinction) — but he is definitely in my top 3, along with Grayson and Bruce Wayne/Batman. So, why do I say that Superman is the greatest superhero?

Well, for several reasons. First, Superman is the original superhero. The Greeks philosophized that every object had an archetype: something that was that object in its purest form. Superman is the archetype from which all other superheroes flow. Everything that defines the superhero genre (secret identity, superpowers, origin story, costume, recognizable symbol, creed) was born full-formed and functioning in Action Comics #1 (1938).

(As an aside, let me just say that some people will quibble with my inclusion of superpowers in that list, and cite Batman. But, for all intents and purposes, Batman is superpowered. If you don’t believe me, you can try leaping off of buildings nightly while running a billion-dollar company, nursing innumerable gunshot wounds, surviving countless explosions and somehow returning to peak physical condition after having your back broken.)

Superman’s wild success with young boys of the Great Depression prompted comic book publishers to rush out and create as many characters as possible, most just thinly veiled Superman ripoffs. So, it is not hyperbole to say that every single comic book superhero can be traced back to Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1.

Examining Superman comics can reveal a bit about our own society and culture.

If superheroes are America’s pantheon of gods, then Superman is surely Zeus. And the god description is strikingly accurate when considering Superman’s characterization. He is portrayed, essentially, as a savior figure. Like Moses, birth parents sent him away in a basket so that he might escape premature death, only to be found and raised in another culture, by another race. The 1990s really laid the savior metaphor on thick, when Superman died to save the world from Doomsday, only to later rise from the dead (with a mullet).

But most of all, Superman tells us about ourselves as a society. Comic books, like any other medium, reflect the period in which they were produced, and Superman has been around since the Great Depression. What the Man of Steel reveals about the United States deserves volumes, but we’re going to do a superficial survey in one lowly blog post. So strap in for a whirlwind tour of Superman comics at various periods of American history.

Due to the length of this particular piece, I have split it up into several posts.

Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).


The War on Our Border: Why Mexico is Important

The United States needs to have a serious discussion about Mexico and spillover violence from its war with drug cartels. Here’s why it matters and what can be done.

–WHY IT MATTERS–

Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, announced a war on Mexico’s drug cartels in late 2006. Since that time, at least 35,000 (and probably more) people have been killed. Corruption remains rampant, with the cartels often recruiting directly from police forces. A recent Time article by Tim Padgett reported that:

The corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates that Mexicans paid $2.75 billion in bribes to police and other officials last year. Meanwhile, 95% of violent crimes in Mexico go unsolved.

Drug thugs killed by their competitors are easily replaced. In a country where most workers earn less than $10 a day, the cartels have little difficulty recruiting new legions. The Chihuahua state attorney general estimates that close to 10,000 Mexicans work for drug cartels in Juárez alone, not least because even foot soldiers can earn hundreds of dollars a week as sicarios, or triggermen. It isn’t just the unemployed who get sucked into the war. If you have a pilot’s license, for example, you’re useful to a cartel, which makes you a target for rival gangs.

But the crisis is not confined to Mexico. Violence has spilled over into U.S. border states. An ABC article from March notes that:

The ambush of two U.S. special agents in Mexico last month, the December murder of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona by Mexican bandits and the beheading of a Phoenix man in October by Mexican cartel members are the latest signs that the drug-fueled violence has even become a direct threat to Americans.

Additionally, American drug, gun and immigration policy directly affects to both the cartel war in Mexico and the spillover violence in the border states. Guns smuggled in from the United States arm the cartels, with “70% of the guns seized in Mexico in the past two years” coming from the U.S. Drug use in the United States fuels demand for the cartels’ product, sustaining them and ensuring that they continue to operate in their U.S. market.

And defective U.S. immigration policy forces many regular, non-threatening Mexicans who are desperate for jobs to immigrate to the United States illegally. Previously, immigrants would turn to “coyotes” to help smuggle them across the border, but cartels have since gotten into the human trafficking business themselves. They charge illegal immigrants huge sums of money for a journey many immigrants don’t survive — often because the cartel members rape and murder them along the way.

All of these factors sustain demand for the cartels, and keep them economically strong: heightening demand for drugs and trafficking services, as well as producing a steady supply of weaponry. Stronger cartels keep Mexico mired in a state of corruption, violence and dysfunction that contributes to lower economic growth, which further contributes to higher levels of illegal immigration. It should be noted that Mexico has huge potential for growth, as a result of free trade agreements (NAFTA), and attracting foreign investment. But violence caused by the cartels creates a volatile atmosphere that is not attractive to investors or conducive to business.

–WHAT TO DO–

So far, the United States has taken some steps to address this issue. President Obama has expanded the U.S. border patrol and provided more funding for Mexican law enforcement, but these address mostly consequences, not causes. The administration did, in 2009, launch an initiative (“Operation Fast and Furious“) to track guns purchased in the United States back to the cartels. But it ended up losing track of many of these weapons, leaving them still in the hands of gangsters.

The Economist also notes several steps the Obama Administration has taken:

The administration has stepped up security co-operation with Mexico, deploying drones and American agents south of the border and allowing Mexican police to use American territory as a launch pad for surprise raids southward. It helped to organise a donor conference in June aimed at improving security in Central America. It is paying Colombia to provide training for helicopter pilots and police from Mexico and Central America.

The United States and Mexico are also working more closely together to speed legal trade across the border. Earlier this year Mr Obama at last allowed Mexican trucks to operate north of the border. And the two countries work together on many world issues at the United Nations, says Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador in Washington, who says the relationship is closer than at any time in the past 15 years.

Admittedly, addressing the sources of this problem does not seem politically viable in today’s partisan atmosphere — especially considering the issues at stake (guns, immigration and drugs). Nevertheless, I will present several brief policy options I think could help in the war against the cartels.

  • Gun Control.
  • Immigration Reform.
  • Reassessing Drug Policies

–GUN CONTROL–

Let me preface this section by saying that I support the right to bear arms — but that I do believe that it is within the government’s purview to regulate gun ownership. In the same way, government regulates automobile travel for the purposes of public safety. Especially when discussing spillover violence from Mexico, there is a direct correlation between firearm availability in the United States and the arming of cartels.

Several gun control measures might help on this front:

  • Strong background checks, to prevent guns from being sold to people who will funnel them to the cartels. Of course, I should note that this is not without its own limitations — one of which being the simple fact that cartels will try to enlist people who will pass such checks. Background checks may make it more difficult (or costly, if they are forced to pay more for agents who can pass such checks) for cartels to acquire weapons, but it will by no means make it impossible or implausible.
  • Requiring gun permits or licenses, and registering transactions at gun shows. Again, these measures would make it more difficult for cartels to acquire guns, and will provide law enforcement with more information with which to track guns that do find their way to the cartels, and gun traffickers. But they will not stop such purchases fully, either.
  • Assault weapons ban. This is a measure for which President Obama has voiced support. As a 2009 State Department travel advisory noted: “Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades.” [emphasis mine]

Such measures seem to have had an effect in California, which accounts for only 3 percent of guns smuggled to Mexico (and later recovered).

–IMMIGRATION REFORM–

As noted earlier, cartels thrive on the demand for human traffickers from illegal immigrants. Immigrants that, it should be noted, are willing to face potential raping and death at the hands of their cartel traffickers in order to find employment opportunities and a better life in America. Comprehensive immigration could, among other things:

  • Streamline the immigration process
  • Strengthen border patrol and law enforcement to crack down on cartels
  • Provide guest worker program

The guiding principle of immigration reform, as it relates to the cartel problem, should be to make the immigration system in America more responsive to changes in supply and demand for immigrant workers, as well making it more streamlined and efficient. This should lower the incentive for illegal entry to the United States.

And lowering incentives for illegal immigration could help focus law enforcement on fighting cartels, instead of draining precious time and resources to track and deport illegal immigrants — immigrants who, as workers, are adding to economic activity.

Also, reform can help lower illegal immigration by including immigration policies that promote Mexican economic development. (It should be noted that the number of illegal immigrations has decline recently, for various reasons including the recession, fallen Mexican birth rates, and economic development in Mexico). An Economist blog post advocates

…an EU-like common North American labour market, as well as expanded Mexican access to American colleges and universities. But I would happily settle for a large guest-worker programme that would make it much easier for Mexicans to legally live and work in America, as well as taking the risk out of cycling back home.

With incentives for illegal immigration lowered, a strengthened border patrol could focus their energies on violent criminals smuggling drugs into and guns out of the United States.

–REASSESSING DRUG POLICIES–

U.S. demand for cartel-provided drugs obviously helps keeps the cartels in business. The main policy options I would advocate here are drug prevention and rehabilitation programs.

They would relieve our overburdened court systems and overcrowded prisons. Such measures would approach drug use as the non-violent, or “victimless crime” that it is, rather than focusing on jail time and harsh punishments. For drug users, prison is not a huge deterrent anyway. A March 2009 report by the Berkley Foundation Drug Policy Programme in London notes that:

For problematic drug users, it is perhaps not surprising that the threat of
punishment will have a limited effect. Many suffer from other serious
problems and it can be argued that being punished is not an over-riding
concern for them. For example, according to the US government’s
Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 53% of drug
users have a diagnosable mental disorder. Many hard-core users in
inner cities already lead such high-risk lives on the streets that prison
is not perceived as a much riskier or more threatening alternative.

Shifting focus from punishment to treatment would not disrupt deterrence, because current prison sentences do not do much in the way of solving drug issues anyway. The report also says that “many users have been led to control or give up their drug use because the toll on personal relationships and home and work lives was too high and the rewards for quitting were attractive.” Supporting these factors with better treatment programs would help address drug issues and, in turn, decrease the demand for cartels’ services.

–CONCLUSION–

The Mexican government’s war with drug cartels should concern all Americans. Violence from the drug wars spills over the border into the United States, while U.S. drug and gun policy figure prominently into the supply and demand of cartels. Smart policy options work to decrease the supply of guns to the cartels while simultaneously working to decrease demand for the drugs and illegal immigration services cartels provide.

A stable and successful Mexico is in America’s best interests — both from a security perspective, and an economic one. And working to systematically weaken its drug cartels should be a priority for the United States going forward.

–SOURCES–

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1651508,00.html

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2080608,00.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/mexico-president-calderon-prods-obama-drugs-guns-violent/story?id=13047470

http://www.economist.com/node/18621268

http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2011/07/arms-trafficking

http://www.economist.com/node/18744547

http://www.economist.com/node/21528271

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2010/04/trade-offs

http://www.economist.com/blogs/lexington/2010/04/wrong_immigration

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/obameter/promise/289/promote-economic-development-in-mexico/

http://www.economist.com/node/16274535

http://www.economist.com/node/21526899

http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/23/nation/na-human-smuggling23

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=6960824&page=1

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/07/mexico-migration-and-growth

http://www.bucknell.edu/Documents/RecreationServices/Mexico%20Travel%20Advisory%20-%202-2009.pdf

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CDMQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.beckleyfoundation.org%2Fpdf%2FBF_Report_16.pdf&rct=j&q=drug%20use%20prison%20deterrence&ei=LlpkTr-kJOLX0QGthdisCg&usg=AFQjCNHFrLAJ5vvzGCYaXWbuNJ3anNDZmg&cad=rja

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CB8QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww-old.gov.harvard.edu%2Fstudent%2Frios%2FMexicanDrugMarket_Riosv2.doc&rct=j&q=cartels%20economic%20growth%20mexico&ei=n7NGTsr6PITcgQfKwJ3EBg&usg=AFQjCNFbq-goC75ieInetM5AAsDsyQtOzQ&cad=rja