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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Quick! A shirt and a sandwich! Melons and a hat!

by John MacBeath Watkins

Let's compare a couple of charts, shall we?

(chart from Wikipedia)

It's easy to see why bookstores are having a hard time. Not only were those charts easy to find, the other stuff you can get quickly is amazing.  I've just watched one of my favorite films, and one of my favorite lines in it is "Cousin, you're back at last! But what a state!  Quick! A shirt and a sandwich!  Melons and a hat! Stockings!"

As an experiment, I plugged the title of this post into a search engine, and lo and behold, up comes the entire screenplay of The King of Hearts. Before the internet I'd have had to search a fairly large library to find the screenplay, and I might have found it untranslated, in the original three languages. I suppose that has something to do with the spellchecks that insist I've not written internet right unless I capitalize it, like it was a proper name, or I was writing about God. It's as if you'd be taking technology's name in vain.

But why is that such a good line? The film is about the insanity of war, as revealed by the reaction of the inmates of an insane asylum to it. That line has a hallucinogenic absurdity to it that takes us to a metaphorical war, the war on drugs, which increasing numbers of people are saying is over, and the drugs won.

One consequence of the drug war is that we have 25% of the world's prison population, and only 5% of the world's total population. This is tremendously expensive. And it has a great deal to do with our drug laws and their enforcement.

It seems to have escaped the notice of most Americans that the easiest and cheapest way to cut the crime rate is to make more things legal. The political solution is to hire more police and lock more people up for longer periods of time, which might be an efficient way of dealing with the problem if our prisons were really good at getting people to stop committing crimes.

But in fact, it seems that the people who have the easiest time getting out of a life of crime are those who don't get caught, don't get a prison record that keeps them from getting a good job, don't learn what our prisons have to teach. The Stanford Prison Experiment showed back in 1971 how prisons only bring out the worst in people, regardless of which side of the bars they are on. We've responded to this knowledge by putting more and more people behind bars.

We now have guards' unions lobbying for longer prison sentences because that's how they get job security. We have private prison companies that benefit from these policies as well. We have police corrupted by drug money in a most peculiar way -- property forfeiture laws have made arrests so lucrative for police department budgets that in some cases, such as the notorious Tenaha, Texas, scandal, police have been allegedly using the laws to take property from innocent people.

Of course, there will always be corrupt police. And biased judges, bad restaurants, etc. The problem is that the drug war puts so much power in their hands and so much wealth within reach. Tenaha might have been known for a speed trap in a more innocent age, but the drug war has increased their power, and in economic terms, the rent they can gain by abusing it.

With budgets straining, perhaps we can take another look at the money we're spending on this and come up with a more sensible arrangement. Take another look at the charts above. The crime rate started to decline when the baby boomers passed peak age for criminal activity, spiked again as crack flowed into neighborhoods and gangs fought violent turf wars, and has been declining since. If the crime rate were falling because incarceration was increasing, we would expect to seen a steady decline as the incarceration rate increased. Now, we'd like to think the incarceration rate has something to do with the decline

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