Wednesday, September 16, 2015

To Pay Paul

Mass incarceration is not just (or even mainly) a response to crime, but rather a perverse form of social spending that uses state power to address a host of social problems at the back end, from poverty to drug addiction to misbehavior in school. [...] And even as this spending exacts a toll on those it targets, it confers economic benefits on others, creating employment in white rural areas, an enormous government-sponsored market in prison supplies, and cheap labor for businesses. This is what the historian Mike Davis once called “carceral Keynesianism.”
Alex Lichtenstein. “Mass Incarceration Has Become the New Welfare
Whenever we talk about a program that "doesn't work," it's always useful to understand how much money goes into it, and where that money goes once it leaves the program. Because in the end, Bad Ideas and never simply Bad Ideas. They are ideas that are bringing benefits to someone. Those benefits may be short term, with nasty longer-term consequences down the road, or that they may be inordinately expensive for their overall size, but they are benefits nonetheless, and acting as if they aren't doesn't do us any good.

To the degree that prisons are, as The Atlantic's series on mass incarceration notes, often placed in rural white communities, they become economic engines for those communities - and likely the only real source of both "good jobs" and significant tax revenue in the immediate vicinity. And given that most communities aren't exactly keen to give up businesses from their local area, the people in those communities are likely to be upset if moves are made to close down, or even scale back, a prison in the area. And no politician who wants to remain in office can afford to be seen as willing to flush jobs down the toilet - especially when the beneficiaries will be distant "others." And while wealthier communities may marshal the forces of Fear for the Children and simple NIMBYism to keep prisons from setting up shop in their vicinity, but when people are desperate for jobs to halt the slow demise of their towns, affluent communities' lack of commitment to "economic justice" becomes a boon.

Despite the fact that the United States has often seen itself as a prosperous land of endless opportunity, the fact is that, in very real way, there has never been enough to go around, and so for those who have done the best to do as well as they have wanted to, someone else needed to pitch in. The wealth that has been built through most of American history has been taken from someone else - whether it was Native Americans who lost their land to White settlers due to either broken treaties or flat-out theft, Japanese-Americans who had their property stolen while they were forced into internment camps or Black Americans who overpaid for real estate during and after Jim Crow. It's a pattern that repeats itself time and again, aided an abetted by the ease with which we look back on the perpetrators and call them villains. When we call those who benefit at the unfair expense of others out as evil, we become sensitive to the idea that we may be doing the same. Which creates an incentive to see the world as we currently inhabit it as "fair." So we turn a blind eye to the conclusion that: "Mass incarceration actually causes crime." Instead there is a perception that the decision to break the rules of society somehow exists in a vacuum, and that the only factor that has any bearing on it is the "moral character" of the person who chooses whether or not to break the law. And when a D.C. pastor asserts that: "There are pathologies to address, and one word for addressing them is 'respectability'," internet commenters are quick to seize upon that as proof that deep down, Black people know that their calls for reform are cynical and dishonest, and that White society has been blameless.

And so it continues. The concept of loss aversion tells us that people fear losses more than they anticipate an equal gain. And to change our criminal justice system to avoid the damaging effects that it has means certain and immediate losses to people who feel that they cannot afford to lose anything, in exchange for a gain that either will go first to someone else, or may never materialize at all. Somehow, we are going to have to change that, if we are going to bend the long of history more towards justice in the present, rather than in the indefinite future.

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