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November 27, 2015

"Prisons as Panacea or Pariah?: The Countervailing Consequences of the Prison Boom on the Political Economy of Rural Towns"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Major Eason available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The nascent literature on prison proliferation in the United States typically reveals negative impacts for communities of color.  Given that southern rural communities of color were the most likely to build during the prison boom (1970-2010), however, a more nuanced understanding of prison impact is warranted.

Using a dataset matching and geocoding all 1,663 U.S. prisons with their census appointed place, this study explores the countervailing consequences of the prison boom on rural towns across multiple periods.  For example, locales that adopted prisons at earlier stages of the prison boom era received a short-term boon compared to those that did not, but these effects were not lasting.  Furthermore, later in the boom, prison building protected towns against additional economic decline.  Thus, neither entirely pariah nor panacea, the prison serves as a state-sponsored public works program for disadvantaged rural communities of color but also supports the perverse economic incentives for prison proliferation.  Methodological, substantive, theoretical, and policy implications regarding the intersection of race and punishment are explored.

November 27, 2015 at 05:06 PM | Permalink


This is not a surprising conclusion because many state government programs are in fact nothing but employment projects in disguise. My state has a very inefficient system of higher education due to universities scattered hither and yon. But every time someone suggests consolidation to save funds the local politicians have not just one cow but several cows because these universities offer the only decent paying job in their communities. So there is a tacit understanding that "if you don't fight to kill my university I wont fight to kill yours" and the public keeps paying through the nose for less return than they might otherwise get.

My point isn't that prisons are the same a universities but the fact that once a government program gets established and people hired to fill those positions a self-perpetuating cycle gets started because those employees become an interest group that must be appeased. This is true regardless of political affiliations and regardless of the type of government program.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 27, 2015 6:24:52 PM

There is a name to what Daniel discusses. If anyone can recall it, please, say it.

There is a small group with a huge vested interest, their livelihood.

There is the tax payer with a small vested interest, say the closing of the government institution would only save $100 in taxes a year.

So the first group fights intensely to save the rent seeking program.

The taxpayer has a much smaller interest and fights much less intensely to close the wasteful program.

This is a common problem for utility and for the public interest.

That asymmetry of interest and of advocacy has a name, and explains a lot of rent seeking. What is it called?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 27, 2015 11:56:07 PM

Ok. I'll bite. The only thing I can think of is pork barrel politics but I'm sure you have a different term in mind. It's not the free-rider problem. I probably know it but it is not coming to mind.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 29, 2015 4:08:14 PM

That wasn't bait. It is a political science term that I cannot remember. Pork barrel is a half of it, where a small number benefits greatly by getting full time jobs, so fighting for them. The general population has to pay a small amount, and does not put up a fight to resist the expense.

The above scenario is the other half, where an existing program is wasteful, but does not get closed, for the same reasons.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 29, 2015 4:30:24 PM

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