Death and Taxes

These days, those of us who follow policy debates are suffering from overload: same-sex marriage, immigration policy, foreign policy—not to mention the re-emergence of pocketbook issues like collective bargaining rights—are generating lots of heat, if distressingly little light.

And then, of course, there are the perennial complaints about taxes.

Everyone, it seems, wants government to cost less–until someone suggests cuts to our particular sacred cows. In Washington, we see lawmakers eager to de-fund Planned Parenthood and NPR become livid when someone suggests cutting military spending. Here in Indiana, an eminently reasonable proposal by Governor Daniels and the Chief Justice to incarcerate fewer nonviolent offenders and save the billions of tax dollars that we would otherwise spend building additional prisons has been eviscerated by defenders of “law and order.”

In fact, the criminal justice system offers one of the best opportunities to save significant tax dollars, beginning with abolition of the death penalty.

People have different opinions about the morality of capital punishment, and I leave those arguments to ethicists and theologians. There are, however, some pretty compelling practical and fiscal arguments for abolition.

As a practical matter, years of scholarship have confirmed that capital punishment is not a deterrent. In 2009, states with the death penalty had murder rates of 5.2 per 100,000 residents; in states without, the rate was 3.9—a 35% difference. Police agree. In a recent poll, police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime; they also considered it the least efficient use of taxpayer money, and complained that it diverted money from more effective crime control measures.

Which brings us to the fiscal issues.

In 2010, Legislative Services analyzed capital punishment costs in Indiana, and determined that the average cost of a capital trial and direct appeal was 449,000–over ten times the 42,658 cost of a life-without-parole case.  In California, taxpayers pay 114,000,000 more each year than it would cost to keep those same offenders imprisoned for life. In Kansas, capital cases are 70% more expensive than non-capital cases, even including the costs of lifelong incarceration. In Texas, a death penalty case costs three times what it would cost to imprison someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.

Advocates of the death penalty often complain that the higher costs are a result of “interminable appeals,” but that isn’t actually true. Appeals do add costs, but a capital trial is very expensive. Cells on death row and extra staff cost more.

We could eliminate appeals and execute people immediately upon conviction. That would save money. Unfortunately, such a proposal raises another pesky problem we have with capital punishment—the fact that we convict innocent people. Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row because they were found to be innocent. These were not folks freed on a “technicality,” they were people wrongfully convicted.

One of those people will be in Indianapolis on April 14th. Randy Steidl will speak at the IUPUI Campus Center at 7 p.m. about the 17 years he spent on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Randy comes from a law-abiding middle-class family; his brother is a retired State Trooper. His story is troubling, to say the least: there was evidence of the sort of police and prosecutorial misconduct that—more often than we might like to think—accompanies the rush to solve high-profile murders.

As Steidl says, “If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.”

I guess that’s one of those “moral” arguments I said I wasn’t going to make.


Factoids to Ponder…..

As we prepare to lay off teachers, deal a body blow to Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide health care for poor women, further eviscerate civics education, etc., etc., etc.–a few things to ponder (h/t to Greg Kueterman):

  • A Tomahawk missile cost 569,000 in FY99
  • Factoring in inflation, they probably cost 736,000 =/- today
  • The U.S. fired 110 of these missiles just on Monday, or 81 million dollars worth
  • That’s 33 times the amount NPR receives in grants each year from the Corporation on Public Broadcasting.

Just sayin’……..


The Economics of Healthcare Reform

It’s getting so I hate to turn on the television, unless I’m watching something I have TIVO’d, and can zip through the commercials. On live TV, there is an ad that runs every few minutes declaring that healthcare reform will add to the national deficit and raise taxes. The ad ends by darkly warning that “America cannot afford” to reform healthcare.

Complex issues are never accurately addressed by slogans and bumper stickers, of course, but those of us who have actually been following the various proposals and arguments cannot help but be offended by the intellectual dishonesty of this particular 30-second spot. There are a number of proposals still on the table, for one thing, that would have different results. None of them currently would do any of the things this ad claims, for another. The Congressional Budget Office says that the version in the U.S. House would REDUCE the deficit by some 100 billion dollars over the next ten years.

Since I grit my teeth every time this particular bit of propaganda airs, I was gratified to see release of the following open letter from several of the nation’s most eminent economists.

Successful health care reform is vital to the nation’s fiscal and economic future. The legislation the House will vote on in the coming days will guarantee security of coverage, limit the costs of care, create incentives for improved quality of care, and set us on the path towards sustainable economic growth. In short, the House health reform legislation takes the steps necessary to promote our economic health.

Specifically, the bill:

  • Reduces the deficit by over $100 billion in the first 10 years, and continues to reduce the deficit in subsequent years, as judged by the Congressional Budget Office.
  • Takes initial steps to “bend the cost curve,” and thus might lead to even larger cost savings than official estimates suggest.
  • Covers nearly all American citizens and legal residents.

We urge House passage of the legislation, which provides a historic opportunity to realize the long-delayed goal of significant health care reform.


Dr. Henry J. Aaron, The Brookings Institution
Dr. Mike Chernew, Harvard University Medical School
Dr. David Cutler, Harvard University
Dr. Judy Feder, Georgetown University, Center for American Progress Action Fund
Dr. Dana Goldman, University of Southern California
Dr. Jonathan Gruber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. Len Nichols, The New America Foundation