It’s an urgent situation, because Professor Goffman’s book shows clearly that the microeconomics of a life on the run are grim indeed.

This is the closing paragraph of Tyler Cowen’s excellent piece, “The Financial Hazards of a Fugitive Life,” New York Times, June 1, 2014 (print). Tyler’s article is a review of Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.

Although, as Tyler notes, Goffman doesn’t highlight the drug war, Tyler does:

The book can be read as an indictment of the war on drugs, though Professor Goffman doesn’t stress this implication. People who run afoul of drug laws face economic burdens and losses of liberty that are extremely destructive and go well beyond the risk of a prison sentence. The author refers to the American ghetto as “one of the last repressive regimes of the age.” Current drug laws have helped to create and maintain these social structures without appearing to have done much to limit substance abuse.

An excerpt from Goffman’s piece, “The Fugitive Life,” in the New York Times the same day:

A few weeks after Eddie turned 14, an officer stopped him outside the corner store, patted him down and found a nickel bag of crack in the lining of his jeans. When the officer reached for his handcuffs, Eddie fled, losing the officer in the alleyways. In the escape, Eddie scaled a fence and landed badly. He walked into his grandmother’s house panting and clutching his right forearm, the bone exposed. I had been sitting with his grandmother that afternoon and saw Eddie come through the door.

Back to Tyler:

For all the recent talk of a surveillance state created through the National Security Agency, an oppressive low-tech surveillance state has been in place for decades — and it’s been directed at many of America’s poorest people.

As every friend or relative becomes a potential informant, cooperation plummets and life degenerates into a day-to-day struggle to remain outside the reaches of the law. Professor Goffman offers a chilling portrait of tactics used to encourage relatives to turn in possible lawbreakers: For example, the police may tell mothers that if they don’t report their errant men, the authorities will yank their children, a threat that may be backed by a charge of harboring or aiding and abetting a fugitive. “Squealing” thus becomes more likely. A community becomes divided between those who are on the clean side of the law and those who are not. And trust breaks down in personal relationships.

On December 4 last year, President Obama said:

I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American.

He went on to advocate more government programs rather than getting rid of one government program: the war on drugs.

It’s tragic that so many people who care about inequality want to get more equality by forcibly taking from the wealthy rather than ending destructive government programs. So many pundits write about the top 1%. They need to care more about the bottom 1%.