Learning from My Students

We’re at that point in the semester when my students in Law and Public Policy are doing their team presentations–sharing the results of research via Power Points and mock debates. More than one of these presentations has taught me something I didn’t know. (This is one of the “perks” of the profession, actually–you learn a lot when you teach.)

One of the teams chose to research prison privatization, a subject about which I know very little.

They began by noting that private prisons were rare prior to 1980, that they became more common in the eighties, and that between 1990 and 2009, America experienced a 1600% increase in its prison population. Given the significant sums of money involved,  they wondered whether this dramatic increase in incarceration might be at least partially explained by contractual obligations to fill cells in those proliferating private facilities.

Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group dominate the private prison industry, and according to the students’ research, the industry is very profitable. (Corrections Corporation of America had a share price of $1 in 2000; in 2013 it was $34.34.) In one representative contract, in Tennessee, CCA was guaranteed an occupancy rate of 90%, a guarantee that required frequent moves of inmates out of public facilities and into the private ones. Both the guarantee and the frequent shuffling of prisoners are evidently common.

You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to recognize that inmates–large numbers of whom have not been convicted of violent crimes– are entitled to be treated humanely. The number of fines, lawsuits and investigations into the management of these facilities strongly suggests that the profit motive takes precedence over the provision of basic medical care, nutrition and even physical safety.

Where there’s profit, there’s usually politics, and private prisons are no exception.

In 2013, the Indiana General Assembly undertook to modernize the state’s criminal code. One of the original changes would have reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of pot; however, Governor Pence intervened, insisting that penalties for marijuana possession and dealing be increased rather than decreased.

According to a news article at the time,

 One proposed change expected to be voted on Thursday would make possession of between about one third of an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana the lowest-level felony rather than the highest-level misdemeanor. Indiana is eighth on the list of states where GEO does its spending, as it’s sunk more than $60,000 into state elections there. It specifically contributed $12,500 to the 2012 Pence campaign, which doesn’t seem like much without context. That contribution made GEO one of Pence’s top 30 corporate contributors, ranking in front of US Steel Corp, Caterpillar, and Koch Industries.

When prisons are profit centers, the incentives are all perverse. 

May Your Tribe Decrease

In a recent column, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post reported on a social science study that came to some surprising (and depressing) conclusions:

Up until the mid-1980s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion, as a study published last year by Stanford and Princeton researchers demonstrates.

It has long been agreed that race is the deepest divide in American society. But that is no longer true, say Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, the academics who led the study. Using a variety of social science methods (for example, having study participants review résumés of people that make both their race and party affiliation clear), they document that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”

Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of — and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes.

The tendency to live among people who share one’s general outlook was highlighted in Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and together with partisan redistricting–gerrymandering–it has resulted in the election of lawmakers whose only allegiance is to the deep-red or deep-blue character of their districts; that in turn has made it virtually impossible for “establishment” politicians to control them. The intransigence (and far too often, blinding stupidity) of these hyper-partisan warriors feeds the tribalism described in the study.

The authors of the study reportedly had no suggestions for how we might close the partisan gap.

In their great 2004 rant, The Urban Archipelagothe editors of The Stranger  looked at the electoral map and saw red and blue America as a rural/urban phenomenon–islands of blue floating in seas of red. They had lots of theories about why city folks were “blue,” and the whole essay is a good read, but if they are correct–and subsequent elections have confirmed the archipelago’s persistence–the ultimate remedy for our partisan tribalism may be demographic: the U.S. population has been migrating steadily to more metropolitan areas and hollowing out great swathes of rural America.

According to the theory, at least, neighbors are less likely to demonize each other.

Speaking of Crazy…..

There have always been paranoid people running around, but when did we start electing so many people who are, as they say, “lightly tethered to reality”?

Case in point: a few days ago, Talking Points Memo reported on a fiasco in Idaho, where a routine bill to bring the state into compliance with federal rules governing child support collections–needed in order to avoid losing $46 million dollars in federal money–failed because conservative legislators said it would have subjected the state to Sharia law.

State Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, a Republican from the small northern community of Cottonwood, raised the objection during the House Judiciary and Rules Committee hearing. She testified that the federal law Idaho was adjusting to incorporated provisions of an international agreement regarding cross-border recovery of child-support payments, the Hague Convention on International Recovery of Child Support and Family Maintenance.

None of the nearly 80 countries involved in the treaty — which the U.S. entered in 2007 — are under Sharia law. But Nuxoll and other skeptics said their concerns were valid because some nations in treaty informally recognize such courts. They added that the provisions of the deal wouldn’t leave Idaho with the authority to challenge another nation’s judgment, particularly if it were under hard-line Islamic law.

Idaho uses federal programs to process in-state and out-of-state child support payments, and compliance with the federal rules is required in order to continue doing so.  Without access to the federal tools, parents who are owed child-support payments will have no way to get those payments.

Apparently, Senator Nuxoll and her “black helicopter” colleagues consider hungry children a small price to pay for averting the imminent threat of a “Sharia law” which they couldn’t define if their lives depended on it.

Just shoot me now.

 

Show Me the Money…

Wasn’t “show me the money” a repeated demand in that Tom Cruise movie, Jerry MacGuire?

The phrase seems appropriate in light of recent news from Indiana’s budget mavens; according to several media reports, state lawmakers will have about $213 million less to spend during the next two years than they thought they would.

And why might that be? After all, we’ve been assured by our elected officials that Right to Work and similar measures would grow Indiana’s economy and fill our coffers, that the ability to hire workers for low wages (because we all know that’s what Right to Work was all about–low wages) would bring “job creators” in droves to our state.

It didn’t seem to occur to our economics-challenged lawmakers that people who work for less have less to spend and less to tax.

The General Assembly’s logic reminds me of the old joke about the business owner who bragged that he was selling more widgets than his competitors, because he had priced his below cost. When he was asked how he expected to make any money, he said he’d make it up on volume.

Low wage workers don’t pay a lot of taxes, and widespread reductions in disposable income translate into less business for retailers and other business establishments, so the amount of tax paid by those businesses is also less than it would otherwise be.  

Nor has Indiana seen the promised influx of new enterprises. Businesses tend to gravitate to places that can offer a high quality of life, and low-tax states like ours can’t compete with places that can spend more money on schools, transportation, parks, public art…. When you don’t have any natural amenities–seashores, mountains, great weather–the absence of those niceties is really noticeable.

You’d think our lawmakers would notice that constantly chasing the lowest common denominator hasn’t worked, but they’re doubling down. This session, it was repeal of the Common Construction Wage.

We’re circling the drain, while our “frugal” lawmakers wonder why they can’t show us the money.

 

Real World Choices

In 1980, I was the Republican candidate running for Congress against Andy Jacobs, Jr..

Andy was an enormously likable and popular guy, who consistently won in a Republican district.  I never failed to make the point that the most important vote he cast was for Speaker of the House. If voters preferred that the GOP (which then included lots of fiscally-conservative, socially moderate, sane folks) control Congress, they needed to cast their votes accordingly.

It wasn’t a very persuasive argument. People like to believe that individual lawmakers (and Presidents, for that matter) can make more of a difference than they really can. And in all fairness, in 1980 there were a lot of officeholders in both parties who worked across the aisle.

That was then. Paul Krugman recently summarized where we are now.

There has never been a time in American history when the alleged personal traits of candidates mattered less. As we head into 2016, each party is quite unified on major policy issues — and these unified positions are very far from each other. The huge, substantive gulf between the parties will be reflected in the policy positions of whomever they nominate, and will almost surely be reflected in the actual policies adopted by whoever wins.

Krugman goes on to list the vastly different political priorities of today’s Republicans and Democrats, and to offer some reasons for what he calls the greatest partisan polarization since the Civil War.

My own shorthand–my own “litmus test” is simple: I’ve given up voting for the “best candidate,” or even for the “lesser of two evils.”  I vote for the candidate whose party is currently pandering to the least dangerous special interests.

We know who calls the shots in the party of Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. Even if a slightly less rabid nominee emerges, he (it is very unlikely to be a she) will owe his soul to the theocrats and plutocrats of the very far right.

That’s damaging enough in Indiana, as we’ve seen. But it’s truly unthinkable at the national level; among other things, the next President is likely to fill several Supreme Court vacancies.

You don’t have to be thrilled with the Democrats, or a fan of Hillary Clinton (to be candid, I’m neither), to understand your real-world options.