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June 10, 2008

James Q. Wilson guest-blogging on Volokh about incareceration

I am very pleased to see noted criminologist James Q. Wilson guest-blogging over at The Volokh Conspiracy, and so far he is talking mostly about incarceration.  Here are his first few posts:

Based on these posts, I continue to find Professor Wilson's analysis of prison costs and benefits a bit too pithy and summary.  In his first post, Wilson makes astute points about mass incarceration tending to be a more "democratic" response to crime, but I wish he would grapple with the reality that voters often do not completely appreciate the economic, social and human costs of very long incarceration terms. 

There really should be little doubt that locking up en masse any collection of persons who seem likely to commit crimes will surely reduce crime (outside prisons) somewhat as a matter of pure probabilities.  But whether mass incarceration is worth all the costs (and how we can identify a tipping point as to the effectiveness of prison expansion) is the big question that Wilson and most pro-incarceration advocates never fully deal with.

June 10, 2008 at 09:52 AM | Permalink

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"I wish he would grapple with the reality that voters often do not completely appreciate the economic, social and human costs of very long incarceration terms."

I wish more academics would grapple with the reality that most academics do not completely (if at all) appreciate the human cost of crime.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 10, 2008 11:10:24 AM

Kent
Unless you and others subscribe to the view that some people are born to be criminals (in spite of the fact that it is society, or rather a subset of society, who determines what is and what is not a criminal act), then the first priority of any administration and legislature is to tackle the causes of crime and the rehabilitation programs that will modify future behavior. Slamming a steel door on people is the least positive course of action that can be done - and the least worthy. The human cost of crime IS great - much greater than you are prepared to admit. Wilson's "a more "democratic" response to crime" is a red herring - no advance in fact on the barbaric practices of popular judgment in the Roman gladiatorial arenas.

Posted by: peter | Jun 10, 2008 11:42:00 AM

Kent--I was blown up by Timothy McVeigh. I had a close friend so brutally murdered, along with two of her small children, that I got to re-live it all again when a two-part made-for-tv movie was made about the killings and about the crime and the ignorant investigation and prosecution that followed them. I've been mugged, burgled, and defrauded more times than I'm probably aware of. I've served on the board of a major state victims' organization. Please do not tell me that those of us who know the research on the costs and benefits of incarceration and its alternatives "do not completely (if at all) appreciate the human cost of crime." It's because I do that I resist the insistence that it's best to lock anyone and everyone up in the face of all the findings that victimization and crime are brought down better for most offenders and most offenses by alternatives to incarceration. Use prisons to keep the incorrigible stored away until they can't do any additional harm, however long that is, but use the more effective options for those whose behavior can deterred in other ways. Use the money saved from those options to put back into more effective crime and victim prevention, such as the law enforcement that states like New York emphasize rather than prison to get crime down even more than states that use prisons. Professor Berman didn't deserve your comment, and neither do the rest of us who feel just as strongly about the need to keep others from suffering the fates we have as you do. We just might really have functioning brains after all.

Posted by: Michael Connelly | Jun 10, 2008 11:58:43 AM

Slamming a steel door on people is the least positive course of action that can be done - and the least worthy.

On what basis do you make that value judgment?

Posted by: Steve | Jun 10, 2008 11:59:31 AM

Kent, that's an eye-rolling statement. The question, quite obviously, isn't one of appreciating the human cost of crime, but of appreciating it enough to seek ever better solutions. Your comment indicates your time of query is finished. You've decided the best answer is currently in place, and in tip-top working shape, making all further discussion superfluous.

Posted by: Ilah | Jun 10, 2008 12:01:43 PM

"Slamming a steel door on people is the least positive course of action that can be done - and the least worthy."

"Slamming a steel door" is the second most effective means of preventing those who have chosen to commit a crime against another person from committing another one, at least against anyone on the outside. (Death is the most effective, of course.) Nothing else comes close. Protecting the innocent is the most worthy function of government.

Tackling the causes of crime is important, too, but there is no agreement on what the causes are or what programs can best address them. The political left believed it had the answers in the Great Society, and it was a catastrophic failure.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 10, 2008 12:02:40 PM

Kent does demonstrate the point well that some folks are indeed just plain beyond hope, and that any effort made to change them is a waste of time.

Thanks for making the case, Kent. Your selflessness is amazing.

Posted by: Bill Arthur | Jun 10, 2008 12:43:39 PM

"I wish more academics would grapple with the reality that most academics do not completely (if at all) appreciate the human cost of crime."

Kent, you have as little clue as the next priveleged man as to the "human cost of crime." You talk with a few victims here and there, go to a conference with Judge Cassell, and then fancy yourself an expert. Ask those who suffer the brunt of crime (the poor, largely minority folks) whether increased incarceration is the appropriate means to dealing with crime, particularly with drug crimes. The obsession of the so-called "victims rights" folks with incarceration stems more from a pathology, a sadistic need to punish, rather than any concern for the financially poor mothers, grandmothers, daughters, and men that live in the inner cities.

Posted by: John | Jun 10, 2008 1:10:59 PM

Michael,

My comment was directed to those academics who display a lack of appreciation of the impact of crime on victims. It was not directed to "those of us who know the research." That is a different, although intersecting, set of people. Dr. Wilson, for example, is in the second set but not the first. If you are also, then the comment was not directed to you.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 10, 2008 1:33:22 PM

Peter: Searches for the "root causes of crime" are foolhardy and meant only to assuage the conscience of the left. We do have strong predictive correlations with one of the most prominent being birth to a unmarried, teenage mother.

Posted by: mjs | Jun 10, 2008 2:04:26 PM

Kent
Since you pride yourself on your familiarity with the research, perhaps you should re-acquaint yourself with this report by The Sentencing Project

Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship
This report was written by Ryan S. King (Research Associate), Marc Mauer (Executive Director) and Malcolm C. Young (Executive Director, 1986–2005) of The Sentencing Project.

"Conclusion: Implications for a Responsible Public Debate
During the last 30 years of incarceration growth, we have learned a great deal about the financial and social costs and limited effectiveness of incarceration on crime rates. While incarceration is one
factor affecting crime rates, its impact is more modest than many proponents suggest, and is increasingly subject to diminishing returns. Increasing incarceration while ignoring more effective approaches will impose a heavy burden upon courts, corrections and communities, while providing a
marginal impact on crime. Policymakers should assess these dynamics and adopt balanced crime control policies that provide appropriate resources and support for programming, treatment, and community support."

Please don't tell us it was written by a politically "left" or "liberal" group. Most of us can think beyond the politics of Justice. 2.3 million American citizens deserve better than to have their plight trivialized by statements such as " "root causes of crime" are foolhardy and meant only to assuage the conscience of the left.", as proposed by mjs.

Posted by: peter | Jun 10, 2008 2:17:48 PM

Most of us can think beyond the politics of Justice

What does that even mean? You're like a bad poet with internet access.

Posted by: | Jun 10, 2008 2:40:37 PM

Look, Kent, incarceration is too damned expensive and is used too broadly because of the utterly unfounded assumption that we can identify those for whom it is appropriate and those for whom it is not. Almost every country on earth uses it less than we do, and most have lower crime rates than we do. Until that magic bullet allowing us to see the future and predict who will commit more crimes and for how long they'll do it, arrives, you're really just an idealogue, not a problem solver.

Remember, there's a trade-off. Money spent on incarceration is stolen from alternatives that are substantially more effective. If you incarcerate too much, you can't investigate or prosecute as much crime. If you incarcerate too much, you can't spend the money on preventing lead poisoning among poor children. If you incarcerate too much, you can't give as much drug treatment. If you incarcerate too much you can't improve education, especially for slow learners. People like you are doing an enormous disservice to our country by funneling the taxpayers' money into a dead-end solution. It's time for a more thoughtful approach, and I expect we'll be getting one soon, thank God.


Posted by: David in NY | Jun 10, 2008 2:45:07 PM

Look, Kent, incarceration is too damned expensive and is used too broadly because of the utterly unfounded assumption that we can identify those for whom it is appropriate and those for whom it is not.

That's just ridiculous. Perhaps there's some fuzziness at the edges, perhaps the country's drug policy is way off, and perhaps some sentences are just too high, but is it actually "unfounded" to suggest that society can identify people for whom incarceration makes sense. I think it's appropriate for violent criminals at the very least. Do you disagree?

It's time for a more thoughtful approach, and I expect we'll be getting one soon, thank God.

Not from you, apparently. Is this another one of those "Barack Obama's touch heals the sick" comments, or do you have something serious in mind?

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 10, 2008 2:49:39 PM

"Perhaps there's some fuzziness at the edges,"

The "fuzziness" is at the core. A good number of those incarcerated are in prison for non-violent offenses. Most all would agree that those convicted of violent offenses should be imprisoned.

"Justice Department surveys show that 52.7% of state prison inmates, 73.7% of jail inmates, and 87.6% of federal inmates were imprisoned for offenses which involved neither harm, nor the threat of harm, to a victim."

http://www.cjcj.org/pubs/one_million/onemillionexec.html

Posted by: John | Jun 10, 2008 3:34:19 PM

" "Slamming a steel door" is the second most effective means of preventing those who have chosen to commit a crime against another person from committing another one, at least against anyone on the outside. (Death is the most effective, of course.) Nothing else comes close. Protecting the innocent is the most worthy function of government."

Um...wow. Referring only to those who commit crimes against persons is moving the goalposts of the discussion, but let's permit that to pass and look at the underlying argument. To achieve your results--preventing future crimes of those convicted of at least one crime--we shall have lifetime incarceration for all crimes against persons. To do any less, according to the clipped simplicity you presented, endangers the public. I know you wouldn't want to be bothered with such a trivial question but...just how much would that cost?

As for what else may come close... We don't know. I'm not aware of research done comparing lifetime incarceration to programs permitted equal funding and support. Perchance--and I'm just guessing here, mind--there simply hasn't been a multi-billion program to which incarceration can be compared.

Posted by: Ilah | Jun 10, 2008 3:40:24 PM

now the strawman of lifetime incarceration for all crimes has been knocked down and pummeled, perhaps you'd like to address what Mr. Scheidegger actually said.

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 10, 2008 4:02:00 PM

"As for what else may come close... We don't know."

Actually, we might. Didn't Levitt say we could achieve crime reduction with net reductions in incarceration by transferring money from prisons to increased police presence? That way we can reduce the human cost of both incarceration and crime.

Posted by: RW | Jun 10, 2008 4:23:38 PM

It is not up to the government to preemptively control its citizens so that they do not commit crime. It is up to people to control THEMSELVES to conform to the law and not to cheat, rob, bully, etc. their neighbors. When they are unwilling to do that, the fault does not lie with the rest of the world.

Kent: For your utter failure of compassion, barbaric judgmentalism, and intolerance of the "marginalized," go to the blackboard and write one thousand times, "Give Peace A Chance."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 10, 2008 4:32:21 PM

It appears to be possible to obtain agreement that it is appropriate to incarcerate a dangerous offender (a habitual violent offender) and it is also appropriate to incarcerate other habitual offenders when there is little prospect of rehabilitation. If those were the most important criteria used in sentencing the prison population would be much smaller.

It appears there is general skepticism about rehabilitation and we have overcompensated by assuming that rehabilitation does not occur. We have compounded that error by reduced funding or elimination of programs that increase the likelihood of rehabilitation. At the same time we have increased number and size of the barriers to reentry and we are seeing very high prison return rates as a consequence. In other words we have a self-fulfilling-prophesy.

I think it is possible to find a first-time-nonviolent drug offender in a federal prison but it does not appear to me that there are very many in state prisons and I think one of the factors is the failure of the probation system primarily caused by overloading. One too many probation violations results in a revocation and a new prison admission. If the public loses confidence in the probation system overuse of incarceration is the consequence.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 10, 2008 4:35:13 PM

Kent Scheidegger doesnt need me to defend him here, but the nastiness of the responses is beyond the pale. When people rip on me, I'd say I probably deserve it. I don't take many prisoners here, and so I don't expect any quarter. But Mr. Scheidegger's posts while forceful are respectful and well-thought out. All he is saying is that when we don't have criminals, particularly violent criminals, serve considerable stretches in the pokey, there is a serious serious risk to completely innocent people. Mr. Scheidegger obviously is one who thinks that imposition of such risks is not a good idea. That seems a reasonable point of view, and it's also reasonable to note that many many people who advocate what I would call the "be nice to criminals approach" do not appear to care a whit about the results of policies designed to make criminals serve less time.

Do making these points really warrant the calumny?

Posted by: federalist | Jun 10, 2008 4:55:44 PM

"Perhaps there's some fuzziness at the edges, perhaps the country's drug policy is way off, and perhaps some sentences are just too high, but is it actually "unfounded" to suggest that society can identify people for whom incarceration makes sense. I think it's appropriate for violent criminals at the very least. Do you disagree?"

I think you are right that reduction in violent crime is an appropriate goal for incarceration, and I agree (I think) with the other poster that incrceration to reduce non-violent crime is generally inappropriate. I would prefer the term "life-altering" to "violent," because there is non-violent crime (like dealing heroin or multi-million dollar thefts of pension funds) that destroys lives, and "violent" crime, like an unarmed bank robbery or a bar-fight, that often does not.

The problem is that people do not always repeat the crime they last committed, so if we really are trying to reduce violent crime, there is no substitute for combing through the empirical data with a fine tooth comb in order to figure out how to predict it. One underutilized measure is probably age, but we ultimately need to decide whether incapacitation is really what we are trying to achieve here, or whether we are going to remain wedded to concepts of retributive justice that produce nothing but psychological benefit. If I thought there were good reason to believe that a stone cold murderer were not going to re-offend, or were likely to commit only shoplifting offenses, I would have no problem with letting him out of prison no matter how awful his offense of conviction. By contrast, if I thought that a shoplifter were likely to become the next Ted Bundy, I would have no moral problem maxing him out.

Mr. Otis, evidently, is understandably unwilling to embrace utilitarian theories of justice like this. Lots of decent people share his views, but let me pose him this hypo:

Pick whatever number you think is an appropriate budget for the United States to devote to the criminal justice system. Double it and assume you can spend it on any combination of police presence and prisons that you like. Now, suppose that I am right and there is a point (hereinafter, “tipping point”) where prison does not reduce violent crime as much as added police presence. Finally, suppose you have decided that “its not up to the government to preemptively control its citizens so that they do not commit crime” and consequently choose to invest the dollars after you reach the tipping point in incarceration rather than police presence.

In this hypo, the consequences of your (hypothetical) actions (and, yes, those of the criminal too, but all events have more than one cause) is that someone has been violently victimized who didn’t have to be. Tell me what you would tell that victim if you could find them. “It’s not my job to prevent crime, only to respond to it?” That might be true in your capacity as prosecutor, where you don't really get to allocate money between cops and prison, and are accountable to executive and legislative direction. But, above, you seem to be speaking to the broader legislative question.

People are responsible for the consequences of their actions. That goes for policy-makers too.

Posted by: RW | Jun 10, 2008 5:08:11 PM

first priority of any administration and legislature is to tackle the causes of crime and the rehabilitation programs that will modify future behavior

I'd like to agree with this, but I just don't think the outcome studies support the notion that rehabilitation works on a large scale. I suspect some folks will claim we don't spend enough money on rehabilitation programs - but why would we want to spend money on programs that don't seen to work. Sure, some programs work on limited populations that are carefully screened, but when we're talking about policy matters, seems we need better evidence of efficacy.

Now, there may be a great moral imperative that we SHOULD develop better rehabilitation programs. As Prof. Berman suggests, there's a human cost to locking people up. But I think we also need some honesty here when we talk about the current state of rehabilitation research.

Posted by: Steve | Jun 10, 2008 5:09:08 PM

The idea that it is not up to the government to preemptively control its citizens so they don't commit crime is interesting.

An increasing percentage of citizens are being convicted through sting operations conducted by law enforcement. Frequently a crime never takes place but the prosecution goes forward. These sting operations involve lying and bullying on the part of law enforcement.

How does this behavior increase respect for the law, or respect for out justice system? To use the language of the prosecutor - where are the "bad choices" being made.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jun 10, 2008 5:09:11 PM

I took David's comment to not be so much that "Obama heals the sick" so much as the crushing landslide following him will open up the statehouses to people who aren't so worried about appearing "tuff on crime" so much as utilizing a more full arsenal of corrections tactics and strategies. The simple fact of the matter is that what we're doing now is not working out so well and we cannot build ourselves out of the predicament. Maybe "lockin' 'em all up" feels good in an Old Testament kind of way, but the human cost of what we have criminalized is not born by the victims alone.

Posted by: Mark | Jun 10, 2008 6:19:51 PM

beth curtis:

Any criminal who cares to can take his entrapment defense to the jury. As you probably know, not many do, because juries see through it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 10, 2008 6:59:54 PM

RW:

"If I thought there were good reason to believe that a stone cold murderer were not going to re-offend, or were likely to commit only shoplifting offenses, I would have no problem with letting him out of prison no matter how awful his offense of conviction. By contrast, if I thought that a shoplifter were likely to become the next Ted Bundy, I would have no moral problem maxing him out.

"Mr. Otis, evidently, is understandably unwilling to embrace utilitarian theories of justice like this. Lots of decent people share his views, but let me pose him this hypo..."

I embrace the theory of justice that the punishment should fit the crime. I would have thought that punishment proportionate to the offense WAS utilitarian, but that is a somewhat different point.

Now admittedly mine is a retrospective outlook on the utility of punishment, but severity also has prospective effects. This is the whole concept of deterrence. If people believe they are going to be severely punished for murder, they are less likely to commit it. This is a good thing in and of itself, and has the added benefit of not forcing us to be in the Big Brother (and largely junk science) business of predicting who will re-offend and with what crime.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 10, 2008 7:18:14 PM

Mr. Otis,
Do you doubt that certainty of punishment exerts a greater deterrent force than severity? If not, I think a strong case can be made that limited resources are better invested in policing than in longer prison terms.

Deterrence and incapacitation each probably produce reductions in crime -- but their expense produces opportunity costs. Moreover, they have serious human and social costs that are not captured by the crime rates.

Posted by: RW | Jun 10, 2008 8:20:03 PM

RW:

From the studies I have seen, the perceived likelihood of getting caught has a greater deterrent effect than the severity of punishment, that's true. But severity of punishment comes in second.

Also, it's not a zero-sum game. There is not a fixed pool of resources, so that when X dollars are given over to police services, they must be subtracted from prison costs. It's true that there is SOME degree of trade-off, sure, but -- to take one recent example -- if we got ahold of just a fraction of the zillions in this gargantuan farm bill the President unsuccessfully vetoed, and used them for both police AND prisons, we'd all be better off -- though, perhaps, left apologizing to the cows.

There are opportunity costs to imprisonment, no doubt. There are also opportunity (and human) costs to failing to imprison. The recidivism rate is not zero. Before embarking on any experiment with release, it would be prudent to at least try to find out how much more crime we'll be letting ourselves in for. But liberals' interest in that appears to be asymptotic to zero.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 10, 2008 9:55:11 PM

Mr. Otis:

Well reasoned argument, but it all depends on the truth of one statement -- "there is not a fixed pool of resources."

Not so. We can add more resources to the criminal justice pot, but there is a point at which it starts to crowd out more valuable expenditures than the farm bull, I mean bill. Defense, health care, tax cuts, education (note: your ideological preferences may vary). Once a limit is acknowledged, we have an allocation problem.

Now, as in the laffer curve, there is a point where trading the next prison dollar for the next police dollar increases crime (at 100% police expenditure, we have nowhere to put the people the cops catch) and vice versa (at 100% prison expenditure, we have no one to catch the criminal). So, at the optimal scale of incarceration, where does this curve peak?

To bring us full circle to the original question posed by Prof Berman in the thread, we therefore need to answer two questions:

1. Are present criminal justice expenditures sustainable (are they crowding out other social expenditures)?

2. Is our allocation of police to prison optimal?

In other words, where are we?

Posted by: RW | Jun 10, 2008 10:24:06 PM

BTW

In defense of Ms. Curtis, I don't think your answer is quite sufficient. Most of the people who are caught in stings cannot avail themselves of an entrapment defense, at least in the federal system. They have to prove they were predisposed and that a person of reasonable firmness would have succumbed to the pressure applied. That might be a fair standard but it does not necessarily correspond to the moral principle you suggested above, which seems (and you are the master of your own moral principles, so by all means, clarify) to be that it is the "job" of the criminal justice system only to respond to crime that has already occurred -- not to generate crime (I mean that factually, not prejoratively) in order to test who might commit it in the future.

I think her point was actually quite insightful.

Posted by: RW | Jun 10, 2008 10:34:49 PM

Er.. should read "they have to prove they were not predisposed..."

Posted by: RW | Jun 10, 2008 10:35:44 PM

Bill Otis wrote: "Now admittedly mine is a retrospective outlook on the utility of punishment, but severity also has prospective effects. This is the whole concept of deterrence. If people believe they are going to be severely punished for murder, they are less likely to commit it."

And if people believed they would be caught for murder, they are less likely to commit it. The fact of the matter is that deterrence proponents, much like economists, are full of shit. Crime, like much economic activity, doesn't occur because people rationally weigh costs and benefits. A central premise of your argument is a pure fiction. Sure, your program may cause movement at the margins, but why should I listen to somebody promising misery for millions in exchange for, at the most, negligible returns? Your program tolerates the perpetual creation of crime victims.

Contrary to posters above, we do in fact know why crime occurs and we do in fact know how to substantially reduce it (as opposed to marginally reduce it). There is a reason the U.S. has so much more crime than other industrial nations, and it is not, of course, because we are too fair and lenient--as would have to be the case were we to buy the snake oil you're selling about deterrence. Our society, the richest in the world in absolute terms, has abandoned a large segment of our population to utter squalor, some of the poorest in the world.

Bill Otis wrote: "It is not up to the government to preemptively control its citizens so that they do not commit crime. It is up to people to control THEMSELVES to conform to the law and not to cheat, rob, bully, etc. their neighbors. When they are unwilling to do that, the fault does not lie with the rest of the world."

No, it lies with those who use their disproportionate power within the society to systematically deprive large segments of people of the means and resources (including, e.g., health care, stable employment with a living wage, and stable housing) to effectively govern themselves. Those countries that do a better job in this respect unsurprisingly have less crime. It's not rocket science. It really isn't.

Posted by: DK | Jun 11, 2008 12:59:43 AM

We may examine why we have so much crime. There are probably many components, but perhaps we should look at what acts we have made criminal. Countries with less crime and fewer inmates do not incarcerate citizens for actions that we deem crimes. In Switzerland income tax evasion is a benign act. Money laundering is not understood in the same way in any part of the world, and our drug laws are unfathomable to many.

In western Europe sting operations are unheard of for the most part and evidence that our prosecutors rely on would not be part of any court proceedings. We may have more crime because we have more law.

Now - why do we have more law?

Posted by: beth curtis | Jun 11, 2008 1:18:29 AM

Conversation on other flank --

I will assume with you that crime varies positively with inequality. I don't know if thats true (I don't doubt it) but I will assume it. What is your account of social change in capitalist industrial countries?

Does demand for change remain pent up because it is not addressed and then explode as the society is finally unable to reconcile its ideology with its reality? Or does it snowball from smaller victories as more people slowly emerge from barriers to political participation (like poverty, lack of education, large scale incarceration, and, perhaps, fear of crime) and gradually bring their experiences to its mass consciousness?

I tend to think the latter. Accordingly, it seems to me that arguments in favor of marginally reduced incarceration (rather than broad-side attacks on the system that produces it) are likely to be more useful to your (our) project of producing meaningful social change. The deterrence argument you make at the beginning is promising and plausible. How good is the evidence?

Posted by: RW | Jun 11, 2008 1:25:39 AM

My last post addressed to DK.

Posted by: RW | Jun 11, 2008 1:37:30 AM

broken windows

Posted by: George | Jun 11, 2008 2:18:19 AM

DK:

I'll give you credit for consistency. Not one time have I seen you acknowledge that criminals just might act out of malice, greed, lust or any of that sort of thing. Nope, criminals merely dance as mindless puppets on the strings held by the Ruling Class. The fact that this sort of Marxist determinism went over the side of the ship decades ago doesn't appear to faze you a bit. Reading your posts is like getting in a time machine and going back to Manhattan coffee houses in the 1930's.

Last week, I had a chance to see a talk by Professor Alan Kors of the University of Pennsylvania. One paragraph in his remarks stuck me as all that needs to be said about the America Stinks theory that animates you (and others). Here it is:

"Faced with the accomplishments of their own society, however, Western intellectuals have the sensitivities of the princess and the pea. In the midst of unparalleled social mobility, they cry "caste." In a society of unparalleled bounty, they cry either "poverty" or "consumerism," depending on the moment of the economic cycle. In a culture of ever more varied, self-defined, and satisfying lives, they cry "alienation." In a society that has liberated women, racial minorities, religious minorities, and sexual minorities to an extent that no one could have dreamed possible just 50 years ago, they cry "oppression." In a civilization of boundless private charity, they cry "avarice." In an economy in which hundreds of millions have been free riders upon the risk, knowledge, capital, and military sacrifice of others, they cry "exploitation." In a society that broke, on behalf of merit, the seemingly eternal chains of station by birth, they cry "injustice." ###

The idea that American capitalism and culture cause epidemic misery and crime is worse than preposterous. It is a stunning, even a shocking, screed of ingratitude.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 11, 2008 8:23:06 AM

Bill
You claim an awful lot for American capitalism. The fact that much of that is mirrored in other western states - in Europe, in Canada, in Australia & New Zealand, and arguably in others too - yet they manage to have avoided the dire state of criminality and the intensely punitive practices of the US, seems to be beyond your comprehension. Or maybe being a true patriot, spurning internationalism, you turn a blind eye to the evidence that it can be done better. It is such arrogance that the present administration is condemned for, and rightly so.

Posted by: peter | Jun 11, 2008 9:16:40 AM

Peter:

If declining to circle the planet, eyes downcast and hat in hand, apologizing for the United States is arrogant, I plead guilty.

But it isn't.

I'm sorry you think America stinks. I believe it's a remarkable force for good, for its own people and people throughout the world, as Professor Kors said.

I see that you dispute none of his points, incidentally.

I also see that in your praise of internationalism, you neglect to mention India (the world's lagrest democracy), Japan (an advanced capitalist nation with a lower crime rate than Western Europe), South Korea (likewise) or any of the moderate Islamic states (notwithstanding that we are often admonished that we should respect Islam). But all these countries have, and use, the death penalty.

Your internationalism seems a bit selective. And while I have no evidence that you're a racist, and I don't think you are, I could not help noticing that your internationalist leanings included only predominantly caucasian countries. Why leave out the Orient? It has more people than all the countries you mentioned combined.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 11, 2008 10:02:13 AM

Mr. Otis, You seem to think that anyone that disagrees with your position hates America. That simply is not true. Perhaps this is the way people thought in Soviet Russia, or people think in Cuba, but in the USA, we not only allow for disagreement, but it is completely common for people to disapprove of laws and the executive. Indeed, in 30 or so states, it is completely permissible to say bad things about the judiciary.

While Mr. Otis has not figured out a way to get on the “Victims Rights Industry’s Gravy train” others have, and whenever it passes by the VC station, there is always a lot of fun to be had.

Posted by: S.cotus | Jun 11, 2008 10:27:41 AM

This is the company America keeps:

Countries with the Most Confirmed Executions in 2007
1. China (470); 2. Iran (317); 3. Saudi Arabia (143);
4. Pakistan (135);5. United States (42)

Countries with the Most Confirmed Executions in 2006
1. China (1,010); 2. Iran (177); 3. Pakistan (82); 4. Iraq (65); 5. Sudan (65); 6. United States (53)

Countries with the Most Confirmed Executions in 2005
1. CHINA (1,770); 2. IRAN (94); 3. SAUDI ARABIA (86); 4. UNITED STATES (60); 5. Pakistan (31); 6. Yemen (24); 7. Vietnam (21); 8. Jordan (11); 9. Mongolia(8); 10. Mongolia (8).

Posted by: John | Jun 11, 2008 10:51:01 AM

S.cotus:

When a poster routinely has nothing but bad things to say about the United States, it is a fair inference that he doesn't much care for the United States.

Is he free to take that attitude? Sure.

Does that freedom justify the substance of his criticism? Hardly.

If the substance is to be justified, it has to be by argument. I therefore found it odd that Peter took issue with my post, but did not mention, much less rebut, any of the remarks by Professor Kors that made up the bulk of what I was saying.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 11, 2008 10:58:43 AM

John:

I don't think looking down your nose at Oriental and Islamic countries does a whole lot to serve the cause of internationalsim, and might be construed as another illustration of American "arrogance."

Can't have that!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 11, 2008 11:09:10 AM

At last, we can indict the real criminal. It's Marx! Get him! His ghost is everywhere. Everything liberal is him. Indict it all. But these indictments ignore the real crime: everything Lenin and Hitler did was legal. Our Founders were all-too-aware of the potential evil state and knew no individual, not one, not ever, could ever come close to this evil potential of the State. Call that truth Marxist or whatever you want to call it but it will remain the truth. And yet, despite this, Marx haters like Michelle Malkin can justify the Japanese internment camps and Ann Coulter can justify McCarthyism. And let's not forget that Hitler adopted our eugenics laws and they were used as a defense in the Nuremberg trials.

The real danger, the real crime, is that constitutionalists are called Marxist or "bleeding heart liberals" or are accused of "coddling criminals" while all the while it is the right, and some of the left for their own reasons, who would today justify the logical conclusions of Hitler's or Lenin's laws.

The irony is that capitalism itself is proving the Marxist ghost fighters wrong because supply and demand and cost/benefit analysis require taking a closer look at massive incarceration. Maybe some of the liberal ideas aren't so bad after all. Not because they treat people humanely, with respect and dignity, but because they are cheaper! The only reason we don't have concentration camps is because they cost too much. Wait, no they don't.

Posted by: George | Jun 11, 2008 11:15:55 AM

George:

Do you see any irony in your invoking the Founders when, virtually to a man, they supported the death penalty, referred to capital crimes in the Constitution, and, in their state legislatures, made execution an option for many more crimes and with many fewer safeguards than today?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 11, 2008 11:55:40 AM

The topic isn't limited to the death penalty. Indeed, they didn't even have prisons at the drafting. No irony. Nice try but a perfect example of why "tough on crime" propagandists can't be trusted.

Posted by: George | Jun 11, 2008 12:04:15 PM

Bill
What I was saying, as you well understood, was that other nations (and I deliberately gave examples with cultures as closely historically related to our own as possible) shared much of the credit for capitalism as ourselves, and many of the benefits, without suffering the levels today of criminality and extremes of punishment that we experience in the US. India may be a huge democracy (though not all castes would agree), but it is a long way short of comparable to the US. But even so, apart from a single execution in 2004, there have been no executions in the country in the past ten years! But it is unnecessary to go through all the countries in the world to make the point - which you ignored - that there are many examples, in countries not so different from our own, where different attitudes and polices have produced more favorable results with regard to crime, incarceration, and the practice of the death penalty. Much as Professors points may be interesting, they seem to have little to do with the debate in hand. As for the Founders, well, they were content to see slavery continue. I think we can safely say that the process of civilization has moved on, in spite of their opinions and laws at the time of the Constitution.

Posted by: peter | Jun 11, 2008 12:07:37 PM

Mr. Otis, after some thought, you have a good idea. Every law and punishment that was not a law or punishment at the drafting should be repealed. The first to go would be the drug laws, which would free about 3/4 of all inmates across the country.

Posted by: George | Jun 11, 2008 12:15:16 PM

Bill, you identified "India (the world's lagrest democracy), Japan (an advanced capitalist nation with a lower crime rate than Western Europe), South Korea" as examples to diminish Peter's argument that the death penalty is not supported in similarly situated countries. You neglected to note that Japan, India, and South Korea rarely use the death penalty. The countries that use the death penalty in the numbers that the U.S. uses the death penalty, whether "Orientalist" or "Islamic" or otherwise, tend to be totalitarian, anti-democratic.

Posted by: John | Jun 11, 2008 1:18:24 PM

Bill;

During colonial times there were about 100 capital crimes including second offense burglary. Jails were used to hold pretrial detainees and jail sentences were not used as minor crimes were punished by fines and public humiliation. After the revolution there were efforts to reduce the number of capital crimes to violent premeditated crimes and treason. The movement to eliminate capital punishment came later.

Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to restrict the use of capital punishment to treason and first degree murder in Virginia that was defeated by one vote. Benjamin Rush a signer of the Declaration of Independence worked most of his life to eliminate capital punishment and was able to get Ben Franklin and William Bradford to help restrict capital punishment to first degree murder in Pennsylvania.

In some respects prisons are an American invention created to be an alternative to capital punishment.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 11, 2008 2:10:09 PM

Again, do we have more criminals because we have more law?

Posted by: beth curtis | Jun 11, 2008 3:06:40 PM

Beth;

In 1980 the average incarceration rate for state prisons was about 140 per 100,000 residents and now it is about 500 per 100,000 so there are an additional 360 per 100,000 in prison now. Some of those in prison today were not born in 1980 and the probability of admission to prison has a very large age dependence so most of todays prisoners were either not born or were young children in 1980. The oldest of todays entering prisoners would have been in their twenties in 1980.

There have been a lot of important changes in our society since 1980 and one of them was "tough on crime" so your question is relevant but I think "tough on crime" is but one of many factors. The news media think we are too stupid to understand anything more complicated than 'first time non violent drug offenders". No doubt such persons are in prison but they are most likely to be the girl friend of a drug trafficker in a federal prison.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 11, 2008 4:00:24 PM

Ms. Curtis,

The scope of criminal laws is probably relevant, but prosecutorial decisions are a lot moreso. There is a lot more prosecutable crime than there are resources to prosecute it, and would be even if the criminal code were exceedingly narrow.

Posted by: RW | Jun 11, 2008 4:54:49 PM

Thanks, I'll be thinking about the volumes of criminal code and the legions needed to investigate, enforce, and prosecute it.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jun 11, 2008 5:49:13 PM

Just my guess.

Posted by: RW | Jun 11, 2008 6:30:09 PM

Mr. Neff:

It's a pleasure to see someone here who actually knows what he's talking about and has no particular axe to grind.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 13, 2008 8:00:12 PM

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