Tuesday, April 11 2006
This evening Gretchen and I drove across the Hudson to Bard College to see a lecture by Eddie Ellis, a former Black Panther rounded up by the FBI's COINTELPRO program and imprisoned for 23 years on a bogus murder charge. Gretchen has been a volunteer English tutor in Bard's Prison Initiative at New York's Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison 50 miles to the southwest, and most of the people in the audience tonight were other participants in that program. Ellis (who looks and sounds as if he is the survivor of a partial medical throatectomy) gave a fact-heavy (though very general) overview of the state of our criminal "punishment system" (that was the term he used). The grand theme of his lecture was that our prison system is a symptom of a serious misallocation of resources in this country. According to Ellis, 75% of the people in New York State's prison system come from just seven bad neighborhoods. If some of the enormous financial resources used to isolate those convicts could be directed into, say, their neighborhoods to make them less horrible places to live, all sorts of benefits would result (including a huge decrease in crime). Ellis says that we spend 150 billion dollars every year on our prison system (similar to what we're spending in Iraq) and that in New York we spend more on prisons than we do on schools. That seems to say all that needs to be said about priorities. (I often joke with Gretchen that I'm happy to pay school taxes because it educates kids and keeps them from breaking into our house. But it sounds like we're spending less on forcing knowledge into their heads than we are on forcing penises up their assholes. They don't call it a penal system for nothing.)
This got me to thinking about what I'll call the Great American Problem, a problem that keeps leading Americans to make bad decisions in diverse areas of policy stretching from environmental to foreign policy to medicine to (in this case) economic policy. The Great American Problem has origins in the way our nation formed, as a great virgin wilderness where any man could make it so long as he (and his wife) worked hard enough. This mindset, along with Manifest Destiny, "American Exceptionalism," and other ideas formed in those simpler times lie at the core of the modern conservative movement, a powerful political force whose thinking colors a wide swath of American philosophy, including that of so-called liberals and progressives. For the purposes of this discussion, the element of this thinking that I find so corrosive is the one concerning Adam Smith Capitalism and the "invisible hand of the market." Conservatives feel that there is no form of financial imbalance that cannot be solved by the market. If all markets were completely free and all resources were privatized, so their thinking goes, then we would find ourselves suddenly living in a utopia. Let's call this paradigm "Capitalist Maximalism." It's an extreme view, but it's utterly mainstream in the United States, where for the past fifteen years conservatives have been touting the demise of the Soviet Union as vindication for even the most ill-considered of their theories. As an indication of how mainstream Capitalist Maximalism became, remember that Bill Clinton was rather fond of signing deregulation bills, bills that have destroyed radio and led to the rise of functional monopolies unprecedented since the 19th Century.
There are plenty of problems with pure markets, monopolies being one of the most obvious. As with most philosophies built on weak foundations, the supposed benefits of Capitalist Maximalism vanish the moment one takes into account the full nature of the system it attempts to describe. For a polluting factory to be beneficial under Capitalist Maximalism, the air and water must be "free" and the there must be no financial accounting taken of the value lost with the degradation of the surrounding environment. Similarly, withholding aid to the citizens of failing states seems like a shrewd act of Capitalist Maximalism until one takes into account the enormous military costs (all of which we completely socialize) of invading those countries and setting them straight once their troubles slam into our skyscrapers. Finally, and most relevant to the issues raised by Eddie Ellis, is that we can imagine ourselves free marketeers for allowing the cold hand of the market to punish those who choose to live in bad neighborhoods, but ultimately we're paying the cost of any trouble that results; we've completely socialized the cost of incarcerating the many who, in desperation, turn to crime in those neighborhoods. In other words, it's not Capitalist Maximalism at all!
So why not pay for better schools, parks, theaters, art centers, and the like in bad neighborhoods? Because Americans are short-sighted. For Joe Sixpack Reagan Democrat in the suburbs, giving impoverished people hope, opportunity (or anything at all) smacks of unfairness. "I work hard and pay my taxes, so why is all my money going to pay welfare queens?" The only form of socialized cost for which they're willing to shell out is the one of last resort, after crimes have been committed. Then the taxpayer insists that his money pay for the most punitive prison conditions constitutionally possible (God bless anal rape!). He's perfectly happy with the continued building of prisons and probably couldn't be persuaded that doing so costs more than policies that would have prevented many of the crimes in the first place. For the average taxpayer, it's all about "fairness," but the populist demand for it is ruining our public policy. Not only does it fill our prisons with poor black men from the ghetto, it fills our hospital with patients having expensive acute conditions, and it has the potential of ruining our military and federal budget with endless war.
After the lecture and inevitable question and answer session (how soon we forget the naïvité of the Great American Sophomore!), Gretchen and I drove to the Red Hook Curry House to take advantage of their Tuesday night buffet. The place was in the process of closing, but they let us in anyway. (It only takes about five minutes to fill up completely on Indian buffet food.) On the way out Gretchen and one of the Indian guys were chatting about customers, and whether or not they are mostly nice or mostly jerks. The Indian guy said that most people really are nice, but that it doesn't take many jerks to spoil a crowd. He compared it to putting a drop of urine in a bottle of milk.
That simile reminded me of a little rhyme that some of my playground friends used to recite when I was a kid. It went like this:
Me play joke.
Me put pee-pee
In your coke.
On the drive home the discussion of that rhyme led to a discussion of the "song" upon which its meter is based, the one that goes:
This old man
He played three
He played knick-knack on my knee.
"Wait just a minute!" Gretchen cried, "Doesn't that sound kind of dirty? What is 'knick-knack' and why is it being done on my knee by an old man?" This led us to come up with other couplets such as:
This old man
He played eight
He played knick-knack on my taint.
This old man
He played thragina
He played knick-knack on my vagina.
This old man
He played infinity
He played knick-knack with my virginity.
These are the sorts of goofy conversations Gretchen and I have on a regular basis, and they always give us a prolonged (and occasionally painful) bout of hearty laughs.
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