“Me under a lamp post, why I got my hand closed? Cracks in my palm, watchin’ the long arm o’ the law.”

Prior to becoming an east coast rap icon, Sean Carter aka Jay Z sold crack. While many in his situation would regret what they had to do to get by, Jay Z boasts about his drug dealing days in many of his songs. And why wouldn’t he? Of the thousands of drug dealers who are currently and formerly peddling dope, his success story makes him one in a million. How many drug dealers end up starting their own record labels, or clothing lines, or doing anything productive with their lives? It’s no wonder Jay Z feels like a god, often referring to himself as Hova.

H to the Izzo

Most drug dealers never get to make records, instead they can be found rotting away in one of the many prisons scattered across this country. When I first saw the chart on Wikipedia’s page devoted to American prisons, I did a double take. The amount of prisons being built in America have grown astronomically over the past 30 years. If that weren’t bad enough, a sad fact that doesn’t get much media attention is that on a per capita basis America has one of the largest incarceration rates in the world–higher than Russia, higher than China. The nitty gritty details don’t get much better:

  • The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980.
  • In 2000, 22 percent of those in federal and state prisons were convicted on drug charges.
  • Only 49 percent of sentenced state inmates were held for violent offenses.

So who pays for all of this? If you are an American, not running from the IRS, the answer is you. At an average cost in 2005 of $23,876 dollars per state prisoner, it is the hard working Americans like you and me that are paying for millions of our fellow citizens to rot away in a cell.

US on the ropes, financial system about to fail, and like a bunch of dopes, we lock our talent up in jail.

Just Say No

For obvious reasons society places a stigma upon drug dealers. No mother or father ever wishes for their child to end up on a street corner pushing product, yet someone inevitably ends up filling the spot. Like most Americans, I held the view that drug dealers were nothing more than society’s pariahs. All this changed when I stumbled upon the chapter in Freakanomics dedicated to drug dealing. A video summary can be found here.

A common mistake is to lump drug dealers into the same category that their customers fall into: lazy and unmotivated. As I learned from Steven Levvitt’s research of a Chicago based crack cartel, the leaders of this group were anything but lazy.

When I saw the picture of Jay-Z and Warren Buffet hugging each other, it dawned on me that drug dealers are as savvy as any Fortune 500 businessman. As a child Warren Buffett bought soda in bulk and sold individual cans to his friends at a profit; Jay Z sold crack. While both had incredibly different childhoods, they are now hugging each other on the covers of magazines.

The only reason Jay Z is hugging the old man and not someone else is that he was fortunate to have never gotten caught and savvy enough to parlay his sales experience into hip hop and later fashion. And Jay Z isn’t the only one, the late Eazy-E did something similar ten years before. Such killer instinct is why you see these celebrities on magazine covers, but what about the rest of society’s drug dealers?


If given the proper opportunity, better direction, perhaps a mentor, inner city youth have the potential to be the next Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. The only problem is that they are caught in an urban jungle of poverty where a flash in the pan lifestyle looks like the only strategic exit. So we either lock them up in jail or hear about them on the evening news.

This is a lose, lose. At a time where skilled jobs are becoming more scarce in this country, and deficit reduction is on the tip of every politicians tongue, why are we building more jails? Consider the case of Louisana, which has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the union. America’s welfare system falls under constant scrutiny yet nobody ever talks about how our hard earned tax money gets spent on locking up our own people. How can you be pro business and not balk at subsidizing the detainment of millions of your potential working capital?

I’ll be the first to admit there is no quick fix to the issue I’ve raised. Like many of America’s problems, inner city poverty is not the result of a single political decision. Rather, the end product we see today represents the result of a variety of events and actions that took many years to develop. Of course, the challenge this issue represents should not be viewed as a deterrent. The green movement in America first started by drawing awareness and I see no difference here.

Let’s not forget that my generation–those in their 20s and 30s–played a major role in electing Barack Obama. When I thought of writing this article the lyrics from Tupac’s changes came to mind: “And although it seems heaven sent / we ain’t ready to see a black President.” Sadly, Tupac never witnessed Obama’s election, but by 2008 America was ready for a change. If we ever want to reverse this nasty trend we are seeing, more changes must happen. It will be our job, the job of our generation, to change the rules of the game so that more talented Americans like Jay Z rise to their true potential: hugging old rich white guys instead of ending up in their prisons.