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October 11, 2011

Another GOP debate, another chance to (fail to) discuss drug war and mass incarceration

Tonight brings another debate among the Republican presidential hopefuls, and this Washington Post entry sets up the basics:

For 90 minutes in New Hampshire tonight, eight Republican presidential hopefuls will sit around a wooden table and take shots at each other and President Obama.  The theme of The Washington Post/Bloomberg debate, which starts at 8 p.m, is the economy.   As Karen Tumulty, who will be one of the journalists asking questions, wrote, previous debates definitively shifted the momentum of the race.  And tonight’s debate will likely set off yet another a new phase.

This new Wall Street Journal commentary by Fred Barnes highlights how central these debates have become to the national political conversation, and that is why I will keep hoping and rooting for one of these many debates to explore with the candidates their views on the war on drugs and mass incarceration.  

The recent PBS documentary on America's experience with alcohol prohibition provided yet another reminder of the many ways in which criminalization of certain market transactions impact national and local economies, as well as federal and state government spending and tax revenues.  (The Prohibtion series mentioned, though did not discuss sufficiently, that those folks pushing for alcohol prohibition recognized they had to first push through a constitutional amendment authorizing a national income tax to make up for the federal tax revenue that would be lost once alcohol sales were banned.  Imaginging an alternative modern US politics and history if we did not have a national income tax is mind-boggling.)

As has been the case before, I am expecting to be disappointed by tonight's debate because I doubt we will get any focus on the drug war and mass incarceration despite the fact that a significant portion of federal government spending and a massive portion of state government spending is devoted to these big government programs.   Still, in the hope someone in charge of tonight's debate or future ones, let me repeat some of my favorite free-market-oriented questions about these topics that I would like to hear discussed by all the GOP hopefuls:

Some recent and older related posts:   

October 11, 2011 at 10:22 AM | Permalink

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Hi Doug.

Other than you being an attorney, I am unsure why you are so insistent on the inclusion of these topics.

1) In a bipartisan manner, an overwhelming majority of Americans are quite content with incarcerating drug users and dealers. If there were a Democratic primary season this cycle, none of them (except the kook equivalent of Paul, Dennis Kucinich)would voice support for your soft on crime policies either. To the American public, this is a settled issue. You may as well be asking for a debate on the merits of cancer.

2) Even if any serious people were advocating your policies, the economy is (correctly) the central issue. Entitlements are a much larger part of the budget than "incarceration nation."

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 11, 2011 11:54:38 AM

Under Tarls theory, no one should get upset over government spending on expensive muffins - or much, if anything, else - because such spending pales in comparison to spending on "entitlements."

Posted by: reader | Oct 11, 2011 12:09:55 PM

Reader,

Under your "theory" the debate tonight should be about "expensive muffins."

Thanks for the straw man. Of course I never stated that "no one should get upset" over anything they want. Have at it.

What I DID say was that there are much larger fish to fry than incarceration. Under our current economic circumstances, deciding to spend debate time on incarceration is like the ER surgeon ignoring the sucking chest wound in order to lance the boil on your backside.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 11, 2011 12:25:10 PM

'much larger fish to fry than incarceration'

since you represent 1 of the aproximately 312M+ in this country, 'have at it'. With the numerous issues this country is facing at the moment finding out where aspiring politicians stand on multiple issues is certainly conducive to a wider group of informed voter populace which appears to be severely lacking at this present point in time.

Posted by: comment | Oct 11, 2011 12:51:38 PM

Here's a question for them: "As imprisonment has exploded over the last 20 years, crime has imploded. It's dropped by more than 40%, resulting in hundreds of thousands fewer crime victims each year. Would you please give us your views of the rush to release prisoners, and tell us your estimate of how much more crime there will be if we go back to the failed "rehabilitation" policies of the past?"

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 11, 2011 3:31:13 PM

TarlsQtr: What is the basis for your assertion that "In a bipartisan manner, an overwhelming majority of Americans are quite content with incarcerating drug users and dealers"? According to a Gallup poll a year ago, the nation is nearly evenly split on whether marijuana should be legalized:
http://www.gallup.com/poll/144086/New-High-Americans-Support-Legalizing-Marijuana.aspx

Medical marijuana, which is illegal under federal law, has been supported by 80% of those questioned in some polls:
http://abcnews.go.com/PollingUnit/Politics/medical-marijuana-abc-news-poll-analysis/story?id=9586503

Other polls show that, when the economics of incarcerating drug users are discussed, many report a preference for treatment over prison:
http://talkbusiness.net/article/ANOTHER-POLL-SHOWS-PUBLIC-FAVOR-FOR-PRISON-REFORM/1610/

If I was questioning the legitimacy of all federal prison terms or all federal crimes for local offenses --- a position that anyone truly committed to limited federal powers might well endorse --- then I agree this has become a settled issue in modern political times. But I would like to see your evidence showing that still "an overwhelming majority of Americans are quite content with incarcerating drug users" (particularly marijuana users).

Thanks.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 11, 2011 3:53:54 PM

Comment stated: "since you represent 1 of the aproximately 312M+ in this country, 'have at it'. With the numerous issues this country is facing at the moment finding out where aspiring politicians stand on multiple issues is certainly conducive to a wider group of informed voter populace which appears to be severely lacking at this present point in time."

Sigh. Please make a case for any "point in time" where the "voter populace" was better informed. I suspect that you will not answer this question mainly because there IS no other time where the voters had access to and availed themselves of more information.

The other reason you made that comment is because it is a common, although intellectually lazy, debating tactic. It is far easier to assign the appellation of "uninformed" (or racist, bigoted, homophobic, bloodthirsty, etc.)to those that disagree than to look inward and contemplate that you could be wrong. It makes you feel better now but it is obviously a poor way to win converts.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 11, 2011 5:15:59 PM

Jeez Doug.

What we have here is the mother of all "bait-and-switches." We go from your original post that speaks of the drug war in general (not just one drug) and incarceration nation to honing in on a small subtopic, marijuana. Like it or not, that is an admission that I am correct.

Now, you can quote all of the vaguely worded polls you want but only one type of poll counts, those that include a ballot box.

Even using your conveniently narrower focus on pot, it still does not look good. What is the record for pot legalization in statewide referendums? Didn't California (which is not exactly South Carolina)even vote down Proposition 19 in November 2010? If you cannot get California, it is safe to say that you are not even close nationwide.

Also, how many politicians can you name that has run on and won a major office where drug legalization and/or undoing incarceration nation was a major part of their platform? Here is a hint, only in the districts that are farthest to the left, where they have streets named after Timothy Leary. I guarantee that Ben Nelson did not get elected on the promises of legalizing drugs and and incarcerating fewer people.

Seriously, that you even ask the questions should provide a clue. If there were any depth or breadth to drug legalization and emptying the prisons, they would spend 30 minutes on both topics. Furthermore, Obama would lead the charge rather than attacking medical marijuana.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 11, 2011 5:42:24 PM

Here is a question: "What will cost more innocent Americans their lives in the next 5 years, proven wrongful executions or murders by the 50,000 convicted felons that are being released early in California? Because these are future events, there is no way to no for sure but, as President, would you promise to keep this data and report the unedited and unadulterated statistics to America on inauguration day 2017?"

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 11, 2011 5:55:48 PM

'Please make a case for any "point in time" where the "voter populace" was better informed.'

The case is not any other point in time, it's this point in time. When candidates are debating in a public forum which is highly visible to a larger live audience, that is the time to find out what their positions are, not through sound bites or selective editing and certainly not after the fact.

'it is a common, although intellectually lazy, debating tactic.'

Ok, but please spare me because it rings of a quasi-intellectual trying to bolster a none statement.

Posted by: comment | Oct 11, 2011 6:28:33 PM

Comment stated: "The case is not any other point in time, it's this point in time."

Sure, it is important. Why? Because the only objective measure we have is a comparison to previous generations. If not, it is up to you to provide the evidence that the American populace is so ill-informed.

Comment stated: "When candidates are debating in a public forum which is highly visible to a larger live audience, that is the time to find out what their positions are, not through sound bites or selective editing and certainly not after the fact."

There is absolutely no logic to your argument. This is just not an important topic to most Americans and those that are ill-informed are not going to watch an obscure pre-primary debate anyway.

It is not that the topic is entirely unimportant. It is that there a time limit to this debate and many more pressing issues than letting cokeheads out of prison. The issue is also settled. This is evident by the same fact you complain about, that little or no time will be spent on these issues. If there was any real question to where the American people stood, these questions WOULD be asked without any need for tantrums from people on this blog.

Comment stated: "Ok, but please spare me because it rings of a quasi-intellectual trying to bolster a none statement."

Regardless of whether you like it or not, pointing out your logical fallacies is relevant. An argument based on a fallacy (genetic/ad hominem) is by definition, wrong. That is not "quasi-intellectual", just fact.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 11, 2011 7:29:11 PM

You are 100% right, TarlsQtr, that no major politicians has won a major office with drug legalization and/or undoing incarceration nation as a major part of their platform. The same, of course, could be said about the death penalty, tax increases, support for Israel, gay marriage or lots of other issues --- the mainstream traditional safe political position on these issue is well-known, AND YET just how candidates respond to thoughtful questions on these topics is still often telling and informative.

In the 2012 GOP debate context, given the stressed themes of less federal government and state rights --- and especially given that candidate Ron Paul (who just won the Value Voters straw poll) is a vocal opponent of the drug war and the co-sponsor of legislation to get the feds out of pot prohibition --- a question that explores GOP candidates' (dis)affinity for big government in this setting could be quite interesting. Also, Newt Gingrich is a leading figure in the "Right on Crime" effort AND Rick Perry has signed a lot of legislation in Texas that has significantly reduced the prison population in the state. I would like to know what Romney and Cain and others might have to say about these efforts/records from their competitors.

Moreover, as you may know from reading this blog, a recent federal crackdown on med mal in California AND a recent ATF letter telling gun dealers not to sell guns to med mal patients have made drug policy issues very dynamic as to the fed/state relationship.

Most critically, I am not asserting that these are essential issues that must come up in every GOP debate. But this is the 7th major debate, and the topic has not come up once despite the fact many candidates have dynamic records on a topic that has significant federal executive enforcement dimensions. All I seek is that, in one debate that one good question focus on a topic that impacts tens of millions of Americans.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 11, 2011 7:43:22 PM

T: The rent seeking theory explains most lawyer anomalous policy making. Marijuana kills 100's a year, mostly in car crashes. Mildly addictive. Illegal.

Cigarettes and alcohol kill 500,000 people a year. Highly addictive. Legal.

We are living in a lawyer Twilight Zone. In one episode, the doctor recoils and apologizes for failing to fix the face of a patient who is unveiled to be beautiful to us, and the doctor and nurses have hideous, monstrous faces.

Because rent seeking is a synonym for armed robbery, it should be criminalized itself.

Prohibition does suppress use. Example, prohibition of alcohol had no public support, still reduced consumption by about 50% with all attendant benefits including an economic boom. The rate of opiate use in Vietnam was around 40% for US combat soldiers. Upon return to the US, it dropped to 2%, with remaining users being similar to civilian drug addicts in background. These are valid, historical, naturalistic experiments that support the efficacy of prohibition. These experiences argue for either the return of prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes or the legalization of marijuana.

The current policy appears insane until one understands its aim, government make work jobs, serving no real public interest.

For the students, rent seeking is best understood by understanding its opposite, profit seeking. In profit seeking, a skilled person is paid for performing a service, adding value, and granting a benefit not attainable by the payor on his own. So I could cut my own hair, and get a mess. Or, I get a good haircut in 10 minutes, the hair cutter gets $20. I pay rent, and get shelter a building I could not build or maintain myself. Renting an apartment is profit seeking.

The word rent in rent seeking is from Adam Smith's, profit, wage, rent. It is an unfortunate use of a Medieval term referring to the cost assessed to farmers by lords, in the form of a portion of the crop. In rent seeking, a oil company spends money on a lobbyist to enact a subsidy. The public gets no more oil from this subsidy. The tax for this subsidy is collected by a man with a gun, thus the synonym to armed robbery. I pay taxes to an oil company, and get nothing back (in contrast to the return on profit seeking).

If you pay taxes and get protection by the military - profit. Pay taxes, get a road - profit.

Pay taxes to subsidize oil companies that do not expend effort to find oil. Rent seeking. Rent seeking also demoralizes the competitor and makes it feel stupid for expending effort to produce oil. I can spend $billion and go to disgusting places to make a profit of $100 million. Meanwhile, my competitor spent $1 million on a lobbyist, and got a $100 million subsidy from the taxpayer, while I stayed in a nice hotel in DC. Exploration is much better in Washington than in Disgustjisthan. So I imitate my competitor, and national productivity is devastated by successful rent seeking.

Here is the best example of rent seeking. We discussed the motivation of government make work in the War on Drugs. The highest expression of rent seeking of all: the excess cost and profitability of illegal drugs from the War on Drugs. If I were a big drug dealer, I would spend good money to lobby against legalization. All illegal drugs are generics, none may be patented nor monopolized. If legal, marijuana would be grown by highly efficient tobacco farmers, would cost a tenth what it costs now, and my Mexican Cartel would be completely defunded. The US government is subsidizing rent seeking narco-terrorists with prohibition. We get nothing back for their high prices, no benefit.

So we are not in the Twilight Zone of lawyer insanity. We are in a big money driven, slick plunder of the public treasure. The huge amounts involved (paid to the government bureaucracy and to the narco-terrorists) also has us predicting no real change any time soon. The money transcends political parties. It will not matter who takes office.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 12, 2011 6:08:11 AM

Doug stated: "You are 100% right, TarlsQtr, that no major politicians has won a major office with drug legalization and/or undoing incarceration nation as a major part of their platform. The same, of course, could be said about the death penalty, tax increases, support for Israel, gay marriage or lots of other issues --- the mainstream traditional safe political position on these issue is well-known, AND YET just how candidates respond to thoughtful questions on these topics is still often telling and informative."

Actually, many have been elected partially on planks such as "tough on crime" (Giuliani is a great example)and tax DECREASES. You posted yourself an article today where a Florida legislator proposed the firing squad because he was tired of the "sensitivity movement for criminals." As far as your last sentence, I agree. However, I just do not understand why you do not see that bigger issues are going to take the lead in the debates.

Doug stated: "In the 2012 GOP debate context, given the stressed themes of less federal government and state rights --- and especially given that candidate Ron Paul (who just won the Value Voters straw poll) is a vocal opponent of the drug war and the co-sponsor of legislation to get the feds out of pot prohibition --- a question that explores GOP candidates' (dis)affinity for big government in this setting could be quite interesting. Also, Newt Gingrich is a leading figure in the "Right on Crime" effort AND Rick Perry has signed a lot of legislation in Texas that has significantly reduced the prison population in the state. I would like to know what Romney and Cain and others might have to say about these efforts/records from their competitors."

No argument other than to reiterate above. We have more pressing issues (the economy) and reducing incarceration to the levels I suspect you desire is A) like spitting into the ocean and B) not politically viable.

Doug stated: "Moreover, as you may know from reading this blog, a recent federal crackdown on med mal in California AND a recent ATF letter telling gun dealers not to sell guns to med mal patients have made drug policy issues very dynamic as to the fed/state relationship."

Two points. I do not mean this as an insult in any way, but I believe you overestimate how interesting this topic is to the average voter. I work in a College of Justice and Safety and can tell you that I have heard absolutely no co-workers even mention this. Interest is mainly reserved to attorneys and a few nuts like me.

Also, I am sure you can point out several vaguely worded studies where med marijuana gets significant support but I would suspect that this support evaporates if respondents are notified that there are other options that produce similar medical benefits. Again, this is personal opinion, but I believe those polls reflect more the wonderful streak of compassion of the American people than any real support for marijuana. There is not much depth to the "support."

Doug stated: "Most critically, I am not asserting that these are essential issues that must come up in every GOP debate. But this is the 7th major debate, and the topic has not come up once despite the fact many candidates have dynamic records on a topic that has significant federal executive enforcement dimensions. All I seek is that, in one debate that one good question focus on a topic that impacts tens of millions of Americans."

OK, you say here "one good question" and I can support that. However, in your original post you identified THREE specific questions that you want asked and noted that these were only "some."

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 12, 2011 12:59:42 PM

I think we agree a lot more than we disagree, TarlsQtr, especially because I will be the first one to acknowledge that bigger issues should and are taking the lead in the GOP debates. But, as the latest debate showed, asking the same basic questions about the same big issues in each debate ends up just allowing the candidates to repeat their talking points.

I suspect that a few good questions about the drug war and mass incarceration would provide a new and fresh window into the thinking and perspectives of the crowd seeking to be the next leader of the most important country in the free world.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 13, 2011 8:46:33 AM

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