Why We Can’t Reform Bad Policies

It’s the end of the semester, and like all professors at this time of the year, I am slogging through research papers and final exams, and complaining about otherwise bright students who can’t write a grammatically correct, properly spelled sentence. Or follow instructions. Or…

I’ll survive. (Although some students probably won’t…)

So long as their papers focus on the intersection of law and policy, I allow my students to explore whatever subjects interest them. For reasons I don’t understand, this often results in “waves” of papers addressing the same topic–in past years I’ve gotten several papers on the death penalty, or gun control, or euthanasia. This year, the favorites have been marijuana legalization and private prisons. (Students endorse legalizing pot; they object to privatizing prisons.)

The papers on private prisons compared inmate treatment, costs, oversight–the sorts of issues you would expect undergraduates to identify. But one of them also focused on a less-obvious consequence of prisons as business: lobbying by the “big guys” for more stringent punishments.

As the Washington Post recently reported

The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute….

[S]everal reports have documented instances when private-prison companies have indirectly supported policies that put more Americans and immigrants behind bars – such as California’s three-strikes rule and Arizona’s highly controversial anti-illegal immigration law – by donating to politicians who support them, attending meetings with officials who back them, and lobbying for funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Showing just how important these policies are to the private prison industry, both GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America have warned shareholders that changes in these policies would hurt their bottom lines.

My students are quite properly critical of a system in which the profit motive, rather than public safety considerations, drive criminal justice policy.

I haven’t the heart to tell them that we live in an era when most policies aren’t the result of democratic deliberation informed by evidence and expertise — an era in which public policies are increasingly determined by campaign contributions and well-heeled lobbyists whose primary concern is for the bottom line–and screw the public good.


Fraud and Waste

Candidates for office are notorious for promising to cut taxes and claiming that they will pay for them by reducing “fraud and waste.” Usually, this is bullshit; especially at the local level. Americans love to believe bloat exists in service delivery, but usually, the only way to pay for tax cuts is by eliminating services.

That said, a recent Congressional report has identified one way to save the federal government money by curtailing an activity that is actively harmful: funding tuition at for-profit schools of “higher education.” (Note quotes here.)

The Committee that issued the report was headed by Senator Tom Harkin. It hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. The report documents aggressive recruiting, exorbitant tuition, abysmal student outcomes, regulatory evasion, and taxpayer dollars pocketed as profit.

According to the summary of findings published by the New York Times, students at for-profit colleges are charged, on average, four times as much tuition as students at public universities, and eighty percent of that comes from American taxpayers. Furthermore, according to the blog Political Animal, “these colleges do an exceptionally crappy job of educating students.”

Retention rates are horrendous: the majority of enrollees, according to the Times, leave without a degree, but even those who earn a credential usually discover it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. And–perhaps the most telling statistic from a taxpayer’s point of view– students at for-profit colleges make up 13% of the country’s college students, but account for 47% of defaults on student loans.

Think about that next time you see one of those gauzy–and expensive–commercials for a college you never heard of.

The Obama Administration has tried to change the student loan system so that tax dollars cannot be used at most of these schools, but the effort–like so many others–has been met with fierce lobbying and obstruction. You might think that all of those politicians running for office on a platform of reducing fraud and waste would applaud this recommendation. After all, refusing to fund con artists would actually protect those who are currently getting ripped off, as well as saving tax dollars.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer, one of those rare “win-win” situations. But you’d be wrong.

And we wonder why Congress has a 17% approval rating. (Maybe the 17% attended for-profit colleges.)


Who Can We Trust?

The Indianapolis Star has been advocating rather forcefully for laws to tighten restrictions on the lobbyists who exercise increasing power at the Statehouse. The Star argues that such restrictions are necessary if we are to restore a modicum of trust in our legislative body.

 They’re right.

 My most recent book—“Distrust, American Style”—was an inquiry into the current American “trust deficit.” I learned a lot.

In recent decades, old-fashioned corruption and greed combined with regulatory dysfunction to undermine business ethics. Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, the sub-prime housing market meltdown—these and so many others are the stuff of hourly news reports. Many business scandals were enabled by failures of federal regulatory agencies; others were traced back to K Street influence-peddlers.

But it goes well beyond Wall Street greed and government incompetence.

Religious organizations haven’t been covering themselves with glory, heavenly or otherwise. Revelations ranging from misappropriation of funds to protection of pedophiles to the “outing” of stridently anti-gay clergy have discouraged believers and increased skepticism of organized religion. In that other American religion, major league sports, the news has been no better. High profile investigations confirmed widespread use of steroids by baseball players. An NBA referee was found guilty of taking bribes to “shade” close calls, and others have been accused of betting on games at which they officiate.  Michael Vick’s federal  indictment and guilty plea on charges related to dog fighting was tabloid fodder for weeks.

Scandals have even involved charitable organizations; a few years ago, United Way of America had to fire an Executive Director accused of using contributions to finance a lavish lifestyle, and other charities have been accused of spending far more on overhead than on good works.

In short, the institutions of our common civic life have seemingly unraveled.

Perhaps—as my more cynical friends believe—things have always been this way. But in earlier times, we did not have 24/7 cable news, millions of blogs and assorted broadcast pundits constantly telling us about it. If Americans are less trusting than we used to be, it’s no wonder.

Unfortunately, when citizens don’t know who they can trust, everything becomes fodder for suspicion and urban legend. Eventually, government grinds to a halt, and even the most routine tasks fall victim to conspiracy theories and fear-mongering. We are perilously close to such a meltdown in American civic life.

Our system of government was deliberately structured around the notion of checks and balances. The founders recognized that not all public servants would be trustworthy; their response was to create structures and competing power centers that would force accountability and transparency—to create a system we could trust, even when some people in that system weren’t trustworthy.

Perhaps the Indiana legislature is filled with the innocent do-gooders that Pat Bauer and Brian Bosma touchingly describe. But many of us have our doubts. The modest reforms supported by the Indianapolis Star would be a welcome step toward removing those doubts and restoring a measure of  trust in our governing institutions.