Review: Private Guns, Public Health

Review: Private Guns, Public Health

Private Guns, Public Health by David Hemenway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Viewed from abroad, America’s so-called freedom is portrayed as the freedom to sit behind a door with a gun.


Guns were one of my first and longest childhood obsessions. I would ask my mom to buy me encyclopedias of guns, complete with illustrations of pistols, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, assault rifles, and grenade launchers. I learned about the different loading and firing mechanisms, different sorts of bullets and bores, and even about the history of firearms. I had memorized, for example, which guns had been used by each side in World War II. In middle school I even took to designing my own guns on paper.

While my own gun obsession took a predictably nerdy form, in a way it was not at all unusual. First-person shooter video games were and remain intensely popular, and a lot of the fascination comes from the thrill of virtually firing all sorts of exotic weapons. Most action movies have a similar appeal. At one point, all the boys in my neighborhood even acquired realistic-looking airsoft guns, which we would use to pelt one another with little plastic pellets. (When white children do this, the cops aren’t called.)

But it was only when I had graduated high school that I held a real gun. It was just a .22 caliber practice rifle, which we used to shoot a few soda cans. Even so, I remember the powerful and disturbing sensation of knowing that the only thing between safety and injury was a mere twitch of the finger. Contrary to my childhood fantasies, the reality was not something I much cared for.

Gun culture in the United States is odd by any standard. With less than 5% of the world’s population, American civilians own nearly half of all the firearms on the planet. There are more guns than people; and this, despite the fact that only about a third of the population owns a gun. Nowhere else in the developed world is close, and nowhere else has gun ownership become such a divisive and persistent issue.

David Hemenway, the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, wrote this book to inject some reason and data into the conversation. This book is filled with study after study—mostly statistical analyses—that all aim to prove a simple point: that guns are a threat to public safety. To most people living elsewhere in the world, this point will probably seem blindingly obvious; but it is just such a point that is debated incessantly in America.

One of the most common arguments in favor of guns is that they can be used in self-defense, and thus protect citizens from criminals. But having a gun in the house also introduces different sorts of risks. For one, there is the question of gun accidents. This can take many forms. Guns can be dropped and misfire, or can be fired in the mistaken belief that they are unloaded. Tragically, many young children die while playing with guns that have been unsafely stored. And then there is suicide. Studies have shown that a substantial portion of suicides are impulsive decisions made in a moment of crisis, not carefully-planned acts. This means that having access to a deadly weapon in a crisis can dramatically increase the chances that a suicide attempt results in fatal injury. Added to this are mistakes that turn deadly:

A fourteen-year-old girl jumped out of a closet and shouted ‘Boo’ when her parents came home in the middle of the night. Taking her for an intruder, her father shot and killed her.

Yet maybe the increased risks from accident and suicide are balanced by decreased risk from criminality? The evidence is not encouraging. Hemenway finds no evidence to support the notion that gun ownership acts as a deterrent for criminals. He also finds surprisingly few examples of guns being used to successfully ward off robbers. Indeed, studies show that the safest thing to do in the event of a robbery is to call the police and run away (not necessarily in that order). What is more, in evaluating the policy of allowing guns for self-defense, we also must factor criminal access to guns—that a robber is more likely to be armed.

Another argument in favor of guns is that regulations will only stop the “good guys” from getting guns, not the “bad guys.” This argument is unconvincing for many reasons. For one, the population of the world is not so easily divided into good and bad people. Take, for example, the couple who threatened Black Lives Matter protesters with their guns last July. Were they good guys or bad guys? According to the law, they were committing a felony; yet according to the Republican Convention, they were acting heroically. This is a silly example, but it does show how many illegal uses of fire-arms are considered “self-defense” by the users.

This argument is also unconvincing because the weight of evidence is all on the other side. In states where there are stricter gun laws there are fewer guns. In countries with stricter gun laws, it is far less likely that a criminal will be able to purchase a firearm. This is obvious as soon as one leaves the United States. Indeed, the truth is that “bad guys” all over the world are often able to get guns due to our lax gun laws. Most of the guns used in criminal activity in strict states like New York come from permissive states like Florida; a third of the guns in Japan from the United States. In short, while we worry about drugs and gangs entering our country, lethal weapons have been illegally leaking out.

But the sticking point is always the Constitution—specifically, the Second Amendment, which guarantees the “right to keep and bear arms.” Yet Hemenway convincingly shows that this amendment was not written to guarantee individuals the right to buy guns, but in part of a larger debate about standing armies. After all, the amendment begins: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State… .” One must remember that the United States Constitution was written to replace the Articles of Confederation, which gave too much power to the individual states at the expense of the federal government. This amendment seems to have been a way of placating the Anti-Federalists, who wanted to maintain the state’s rights to keeping militias.

The amendment was actually interpreted along these lines—as guaranteeing the right to state militias—right up until 2008, when the Supreme Court first decided that the right does indeed extend to individuals. (In my opinion, the constitutional wording is almost incoherent if meant to apply to individuals, but I am no legal scholar.) Nevertheless, that decision still conceded the government’s right to regulate the sale and purchase of firearms; so there is no legal reason why we could not enact more sensible regulations.

Still, a common pro-gun argument goes that civilian gun-ownership is a major check on government tyranny. It is difficult to see the logic in this argument. For one, the government has tanks and fighter jets, so this is not even realistic. And of course people living all over the world, in places with far fewer guns, enjoy the same civil liberties as Americans do. Indeed, as the opening quote shows, most non-Americans consider an armed society substantially less free, since freedom is incompatible with the threat of violence. One could even make the argument that civilian firearms directly threaten freedom, since they give government forces a pretext for violent action.

What is more, there is no historical evidence that the founders thought this was desirable. Shays’ Rebellion was an armed revolt against the government on behalf of debtors, led by a Revolutionary War veteran. The revolt was put down by the state government after the nascent federal government could not raise enough money, which further exposed the weaknesses in the Articles of Federation. In short, far from inspiring the founders, this armed rebellion likely goaded the founders to further empower the federal government.

Some years later, during the presidency of George Washington, there was another armed revolt: the Whiskey Rebellion, so named because it was against the taxation of whiskey. Far from supporting this citizen justice, Washington rode out himself at the head of an army, accompanied by Alexander Hamilton, to put it down. (Luckily, the rebels dispersed before any fighting.) If these examples do not show the founders’ attitude towards armed civilian uprisings, then I am not sure what could.

To cut this short, American gun laws are extremely lax by world standards. Meanwhile, the evidence suggests that guns do not help keep people safe, but precisely the reverse. And there does not appear to be any legal reason why we cannot improve the situation. Even the American public broadly supports gun restrictions, such as mandatory background checks, closing legal loopholes, and improving gun design to make accidents less likely. This has been shown in survey after survey. And yet, despite all this, there does not seem much hope of significant change.

Although gun control is not the most pressing issue facing the United States (the list grows daily), I think that the issue does crystalize one of the most frustrating and depressing aspects of American political life: our inability to make progress on issues that do (or should) have broad consensus. Like so many problems—climate change, abortion, and recently COVID-19—guns have been fully assimilated into the American culture war machine, which inevitably turns all nuanced discussions into simple pro and against stances. Once this happens, even repeated tragedies seem unable to shake us out of our paralysis.

For me, this was made brutally apparent after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Even the cold-blooded murder of children was not enough to cause meaningful change. By the time of the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, six years later, the culture war had polarized the issue so greatly that the two sides were not even living in the same universe anymore, as we can see from the many conspiracy theories claiming that the entire tragedy was somehow faked. As a thousand Americans die per day from the virus, and as wildfires rage and hurricanes batter the coast, this same dynamic plays out again and again—threats to public health that we are unable to address due to the culture war machine.

I find David Hemenway’s contribution to this issue to be both compelling and strangely touching. He has held onto the belief that he can change people’s minds using statistics, and that he can steer the conversation away from simple pro and against stances to a more nuanced discussion based on shared interests and values. Yet such a book as this—written dispassionately, full of careful reasoning and research, devoted to the public good—seems particularly unlikely to make a significant impact. And that, perhaps, is the most depressing fact of all.

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Review: The House of Morgan

Review: The House of Morgan

The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance by Ron Chernow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I picked up this book, I assumed it was a biography of the two famous John Pierpont Morgans. But this is far more; indeed it is a true history of the Morgan bank, though admittedly with heavy emphasis on the biographies of the key figures. Given that this history spans over a century and includes a huge number of players, politics, and policies, the fact that Chernow could put out such a polished book in two and a half years is a testament to his skill as a writer and researcher.

The book is most colorful in its beginning and slowly fades into the dullness of contemporary reality. The Bank of Morgan began with the 19th century financier George Peabody, a sort of Dickensian miser turned philanthropist. Lacking a son, Peabody passed on his business to Junius Spencer Morgan, another personality of a bygone age, who managed to combined pious moralizing with strict business. His son, Pierpont, is by far the most colorful character in this panorama. A rabid art collector, an amateur archeologist, and an inveterate womanizer with a swollen nose and an enormous yacht, Pierpont was a central figure in the American economy of his age.

His son, “Jack,” though resembling Pierpont physically, was a far more mild-mannered sort of banker. His life is mostly lacking in racy and romantic stories (except for the time he was shot by a would-be assassin). The Morgan line mostly fizzles off after Jack; but there are many other Morgan bankers to take note of. The most important was undoubtedly Thomas Lamont. Chernow tracks Lamont’s strange journey from the cosmopolitan advocate of the League of Nations to an apologist for Italian fascism and Japanese aggression. It appears wide culture and smooth manners do not immunize one from ugly politics.

The wider historical arc of Chernow’s book gave me a bit of nostalgia. We begin with bankers in top hats and stiff collars, guzzling port wine and sucking on cigars. (Pierpont was a heavy drinker and smoker, and believed that exercise was unhealthy.) These bankers relied on charisma and relationships as much as they did on any technical understanding. The early House of Morgan was paternalistic towards its employees and stressed an esprit de corps—the importance of banking tradition over personal egos. This sleepy world of respectable bankers gives way, in the late twentieth century, to the high-octane world of trading, where highly trained employees work twelve-hour days trying to beat one another in an enormous casino.

The activities of the bankers also change markedly in this history. While nobody would argue that Pierpont was saintly or altruistic, his main activities consisted of reorganizing industrial companies to make them more productive and effective. This is a great contrast with the bankers of the 1980s, who are mainly concentrated on speculative activities and hostile takeovers which seem to have very little to do with work of real value.

Of course, my impressions of this history are colored by the fact that I know relatively little about finance and thus at times had trouble following the business side of things. Chernow, for his part, is typically vague when it comes to any technical details; his preferred style is to focus on individuals and their foibles. This was a bit frustrating, since I felt that I could have learned more had Chernow simply included more in the way of explanation.

But, as it stands, this is an extremely readable and compelling history of one of America’s most important banks. Things have changed since the publication of this book. Morgan Stanley is still going strong, though J.P. Morgan mainly serves as a brand used by Chase bank, and Morgan, Grenfell & Co. does not even exist as a name anymore. Even 23 Wall Street, the iconic home to this iconic bank, now sits empty and unused, apparently owned by a shadowy billionaire who is reportedly sitting in a Chinese jail. Such is the fate of all great empires.



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Review: A Brief History of Neoliberaism

Review: A Brief History of Neoliberaism

A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is one thing to maintain, for example, that my health-care status is my personal choice and responsibility, but quite another when the only way I can satisfy my needs in the market is through paying exorbitant premiums to inefficient, gargantuan, highly bureaucratized but also highly profitable insurance companies.


Neoliberalism is a term that is often thrown about; and yet, like socialism and capitalism, I often feel that I do not quite know what it means. Its common definition—the preference for free trade and free markets—did not seem to distinguish it from capitalism itself, as I understood the term, which made me wonder why neoliberalism was so controversial and hated.

Harvey’s book goes a long way in answering this question. The best way to understand neoliberalism may be historical. After the end of the Second World War, governments were dominated by Keynesian policies—that is, the use of taxation and spending (if necessary, deficit-spending) to control boom and bust cycles. But in the 1970s the Keynesian consensus broke down as a result of stagflation: low growth combined with high inflation. The failure of Keynesian policies to get the economy out of its rut led, eventually, to the embrace of quite a different governing philosophy: neoliberalism.

This has many intellectual components. Neoliberals are—at least in theory—opposed to fiscal policies as a way of fighting economic ups and downs. (In practice, this means that governments must adopt austerity measures in order to keep their budgets balanced in an economic downturn.) In fact, neoliberals are quite generally anti-government, at least in their rhetoric. They favor privatization, deregulation, low taxes, and low tariffs. The central idea is simple and, on its face, compelling. Prices communicate market information far better than a government can manage; individuals understand their own needs better than the government; and the profit motive is the great driver of general prosperity.

Yet what (ostensibly) began as a great liberation of sovereign individuals and all of their creative genius became, instead, an economic transfer from the poor to the rich. The evidence, by now, is clear that neoliberalization did not jump-start the economy. Growth has never recovered its pre-1970s levels; and economists now admit that they simply do not know how to make an economy grow. But as growth slowed, and wages stagnated for most mere mortals, the rich, richer, and richest made off with ever-increasing slices of the economic pie. Inequality reached such stark levels not seen since the 1920s. Harvey contends that this was not a mere byproduct of the economic philosophy, but one of its primary goals.

If the rhetoric of neoliberalism were, indeed, true—if the government was merely “getting out of the way,” and letting the market do its magic—then claims of nefarious intent would perhaps be unfounded. But as Harvey points out, the neoliberal state is no mere bystander. On the contrary, state power is quite necessary to the operation of neoliberal policies.

Most obviously, if property rights and contracts are sacrosanct, then there must be enforcement—violent if necessary—of those rights. In practice, this also means that there is a double standard between debtors and lenders. In a neoliberal state, the debtor has all the responsibility not to take out a loan that they cannot pay back; and there is very little protection if they do take such a loan. Meanwhile, there is no similar responsibility on behalf of the lender not to lend irresponsibly (as the 2008 financial crash proved); and if the lender does so, the state sanctions any draconian measures necessary to extract repayment.

The state also actively subsidizes the wealthy, both directly and indirectly. It directly subsidizes companies through (among other things) bailouts. The mortgage tax deduction is essentially a handout to the rich—as well as a spur to high-end housing construction. It puts up legal impediments to labor organizations and strikes.

And the indirect subsidies are many. If a community is devasted by a free trade deal, the state deals with the social fallout (often through mass incarceration, in the US). If the housing market leaves many homeless, then the state steps in to enforce eviction notices and provide homeless shelters. If medical insurance is out of reach to many, then the state provides public healthcare and emergency rooms. And this is only to speak domestically. Harvey documents many cases when the IMF and World Bank pressured developing countries to adopt neoliberal policies, and then demanded repayment of loans even if it meant impoverishing their populations.

In sum, the neoliberal state is not a mere onlooker, enforcing class-neutral rights and ensuring a fair game is played without cheating. On the contrary, the neoliberal state serves to provide welfare to the rich while enforcing brutal ‘capitalism’ on the poor.

Yet Harvey is not only valuable in his catalogue of neoliberal hypocrisies. Many of the most interesting parts of this book, I found, were Harvey’s reflections on how neoliberalism has transformed the culture. His contention is that the 1960s era emphasis on personal liberty has led to a kind of atomization of society. As more and more people are convinced that the government is evil or at least useless, people seek different forms of community. This can take many forms: religiousness, political populism (which Harvey predicts), or, for the progressively minded, NGOs. Indeed, one can see the rise in NGO activity as a kind of tacit defeat by the left, as they have yielded the possibility of democratic, governmental action, and instead turned to privately owned organizations run by elites.

More broadly, the embrace of a radically individualist philosophy makes political organization difficult. How can you politically unite people behind the idea that the government is the problem? Few forces have been able to transcend this limitation, most notably nationalism—giving birth to neoliberalism’s ugly cousin, neoconservatism. Other collective bonds—such as race, gender, or sexuality—do not have the widespread pull of nationalism, which Harvey believes gives the left a chronic disadvantage.

Harvey’s solution to this (unsurprisingly, given that he is a Marxist) is to make class, once again, a basis of political mobilization. It is only when workers collectively reform the society that the rich can be defeated. Unfortunately, the two economic crises that have transpired since this book was published have yet to make that happen. Nevertheless, I think this is a valuable and incisive book about one of our era’s most distinctive features.



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Review: Evicted

Review: Evicted

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.

Yesterday, on July 24, the federal moratorium on evictions—protecting about 12 million renters—ended; and many state-level moratoriums will conclude soon as well. Enhanced unemployment benefits, which gave households an extra $600 per month, will terminate this month, too, meaning that families will lose income at just the moment they are vulnerable to eviction. Meanwhile, as the virus rages on, so does massive unemployment. It seems likely, then, that the United States is on the cusp of a huge wave of evictions. Under these circumstances, I thought it was a good time to read this book.

This is an urban ethnography written about the lives of the desperately poor as they struggle to find stable housing. Matthew Desmond lived for months in a trailer park and then in the inner city, following people around, taking notes and photographs, recording conversations, conducting interviews, and carrying out large surveys. In many ethnographies—especially since the postmodern turn—the author has striven to include herself in the narrative, emphasizing the subjectivity of the process. But Desmond has effaced himself from this book, and has instead written a kind of nonfiction novel of eight families undergoing eviction.

The first thing that strikes the reader is that Desmond is an excellent writer. The narration is gripping from the beginning—dramatic, vivid, and even occasionally poetic—meaning that my first reaction was emotional rather than intellectual. Wrenching pity for the people caught up in this cycle of poverty alternated, at times, with light disapproval at seemingly self-destructive behavior, which disappeared into outrage at the landlords profiting from this situation, and then incredulity that such things can be allowed to go on in a supposedly advanced nation. Often, I found it hard to take in, and had to put the book down to take a breath:

[Crystal] had been born prematurely on a spring day in 1990 shortly after her pregnant mother was stabbed eleven times in the back during a robbery—the attack had induced labor. Both mother and daughter survived. It was not the first time Crystal’s mother had been stabbed. For as far back as she could remember, Crystal’s father had beat her mother. He smoked crack and so did her mother and so did her mother’s mother.

But if this book were merely a collection of such stories, it would be little more than poverty voyeurism. This book has quite an important point to make, though, and that is how eviction is not only a consequence of poverty, but one of its major causes.

Any account of housing instability needs to begin with the fact that most people who qualify for housing aid to not get it—3 out of 4 receive no aide whatsoever. This leaves them at the mercy of the private housing market, which has seen steadily rising rents for years, at a time when wages are stagnant. Though it is normally recommended to pay no more than 30% of your wages in rent, the subjects of this book paid far, far more—in some cases, over 90%. This has serious consequences. Most obviously, if you are paying so much of your income in rent, it is impossible to save, and often even to pay basic expenses. What is more, this means that virtually any unforeseen expense—repairs, medical problems, or a funeral—can make a renter fall behind.

Once behind, it is extremely difficult for a renter to catch up. This effectively puts them at the mercy of the landlord. Even if the house is in disrepair and violates safety codes, missing rent means that the renter can be evicted on short notice. As Desmond describes, some landlords are willing to be lax—at least for a time—and cut deals with tenants. But for many who fall behind, the sheriff will soon be knocking on their door, along with a team of movers, giving the tenants a stark choice: to have their things left on the curb, or put into storage (where they need to pay extortionate fees in order to keep it from being trashed). Most evictees do not have housing lined up, and many end up in homeless shelters.

In a market where buyers are desperate and sellers are relatively scarce, there is little incentive for landlords to reduce prices, or even to make basic repairs of their properties. As Desmond explains, it is often more profitable for landlords to evict late-paying tenants and contract new ones than to make their properties livable. The tenants in these pages put up with rats, roaches, broken walls, smashed windows, clogged plumbing, sagging ceilings, to give just a short list. Desmond himself did not have hot water during his stay at the trailer park, despite paying rent on time, repeatedly asking the landlord, and even informing them that he was writing a book about life in a trailer park.

Eviction is not a rare occurrence—there are well over one million per year in the United States—and it is also not merely a private tragedy. Unsurprisingly, evictions concentrate in poor neighborhoods; and when residence in an area is unstable, it makes it an even less desirable place to life. As Jane Jacobs pointed out, neighborhoods are not primarily made safe by patrolling police, but by the constant presence of people on the street, people with a sense of ownership of the neighborhood. Ejecting residents obviously erodes this possibility—and not only in the area where people are evicted from, but also in the areas they unwillingly move to—which makes the city generally less safe.

Eviction is also not colorblind. Just as black men are disproportionately locked up, Desmond found that black women are disproportionately thrown out. And when you consider that having either a conviction or an eviction record can disqualify you from public housing, and can legally be used to screen potential renters by private landlords, you can see that this disadvantage is compounded. The white families in these pages certainly did not have an easy time finding and maintaining housing, but the black families were significantly worse off. Desmond followed one white couple who managed to find a place despite both of them having eviction and felony records, and one of them an outstanding warrant!

It is crucial to remember that housing instability is not merely the byproduct of individuals navigating private markets. The government is not only culpable for being a bystander to suffering citizens, but for propping up this very situation. Just as government force—in the guise of police officers and prisons—has been used to deal with the social fallout of disappearing jobs, so has government force—in the form of eviction courts, sheriffs, movers, public eviction records, and homelessness shelters—been used to deal with the disappearance of affordable housing. Without this government backing, the situation could not exist.

In many cases Desmond documented, government workers actually encouraged landlords to evict their tenants. Since many properties do not meet building codes, virtually any government attention—whether from the police, the fire department, an ambulance, or social services—can motivate a landlord to eject a tenant. What is more, if too many 911 calls come from an address, the property is labeled a ‘nuisance property,’ and landlords are forced by the police to ‘take action’—usually through an eviction. Even victims of domestic abuse are often evicted, one reason that many victims do not contact the police.

If we can agree that this situation is unconscionable, then of course we must do something to change it. But what? One solution is rent control: establish maximum prices that landlords can legally charge. This can have some quite negative unintended consequences, however. For one, if low-income housing ceases to be profitable, then there is no incentive to create more. This leads to shortage. But what about simply giving people more money, such as by raising the minimum wage or a basic income scheme? The problem with this strategy is that rising rents can easily offset income gains.

One fairly easy, short-term solution would be to provide defendants in civil courts with public defenders. Currently, in the United States, only defendants in criminal courts have such a right, though many other nations also provide legal counsel in civil cases. At the moment, most people do not even show up for their eviction hearings; the majority who show up do not have a lawyer, and most of them lose the case. Legal counsel can profoundly change the odds of evictees. And it is worth noting that, though hiring lawyers is expensive, cycling people through homelessness shelters is even more so—and this does not even take into account the other forms of economic disruption caused by eviction, such as job loss (quite common when people lose their home).

Another solution, popular in the past, has been to build public housing. This has several obvious problems, too. For one, as happened in NYC, vibrant and affordable neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for enormous housing projects. What is more, the design of public housing projects was ill-conceived: enormous high-rises with parks in between. By isolating the poor into these buildings—with no shops or other services nearby, and few good communal spaces—the projects became dangerous and dysfunctional.

It is possible that smarter public housing could play an important role in the housing crisis. If apartments are scattered through the city, rather than concentrated, and integrated with shops, restaurants, and other businesses, then it is much less likely that they will become dangerous. An added benefit to cheap public housing is that they exert a downward pressure on the housing market, since private apartments must compete with them. However, the housing shortage is so acute that public housing alone is unlikely to be enough; it would require too much building.

This is why Matthew Desmond advocates housing vouchers. These vouchers basically pick up the tab for renters, covering anything above 30% of their income. However, there is an obvious problem with such a scheme: landlords are incentivized to overcharge for their properties, since the money is guaranteed. Indeed, according to Desmond, this often happens, which leads to a lot of wasted taxpayer money. Clearly, some mechanism is necessary to establish reasonable prices. But the voucher scheme does have the great advantage of scalability: they can be distributed quickly and widely.

Such a program would not be cheap. And in the United States, welfare programs tend to be politically divisive, since in our individualistic culture we prefer to hold the poor responsible for their own poverty. This mindset runs very deep. Desmond even records a preacher who, after giving a sermon about the importance of charity, refused to help a homeless woman so that she could learn her lesson. And certainly many of the people in this book did make bad, self-destructive choices. But as Desmond points out—and as psychological studies have shown—living in poverty actively erodes people’s ability to choose wisely and to think in the long term. Furthermore, many behaviors which seem irrational to middle-class onlookers are actually sensible adaptations to poverty.

The other important point to consider is that those of us lucky enough not to live in poverty are also benefiting from government policies. The federal government subsidizes mortgages—a policy that mainly benefits people with six-figure incomes. The capital gains exception means that homeowners who sell their house do not have to include much of that money in their income, and thus are not taxed. Indeed, the United States loses far more in tax revenue through these kinds of tax breaks than it spends in housing aid for the poor. This fits into a common pattern in American life: that those least in need of help are those most likely to receive it (and vice versa, of course).

As I hope you can see, this is a gripping and important book. The reader comes away with both an intellectual and a visceral understanding of housing insecurity. There are some things that I wish Desmond included—most notably, what economic trends drove this change—but, on balance, I do not think anyone could have written a better book on this topic. Now, as we face the prospect of mass evictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps we will summon the political will to do something about the problem.

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Review: Tightrope

Review: Tightrope

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something is wrong with America’s tax structure when the working poor pay taxes so the federal government can make a payment to an e-commerce giant owned by the world’s richest man.

This book was timely when it was released, and it has only grown timelier since the pandemic struck. Normally, Americans are typified by high levels of patriotism and pride in our country—the unshakeable conviction that we are the greatest. (Indeed, as the authors note, while Americans students are not especially strong by international standards, they are most likely of all to think they have mastered the subject-matter.) But now, as the virus comes roaring back, with unemployment soaring and systemic racism undeniable, this illusion is difficult to maintain. Indeed, the pandemic may have been the perfect crisis to expose the underlying weaknesses in our society. With every country responding to the same challenge, we can compare successes and failures; and at the moment the US response is not inspiring.

The premise of this book is that the United States is falling behind its peer countries in many respects—high-school enrollment, healthcare, child mortality, incarceration—largely as a result of a governmental philosophy embraced in the 1970s. In a nutshell, this was the philosophy of extreme individualism: that every person is wholly responsible from themself. Put another way, this was a kind of radical, economic meritocracy—the belief that the distribution of wealth was a perfect reflection of people’s worth. Thus, the wealthy deserved their wealth and should not be taxed or regulated, while the poor deserved their poverty and should not be helped.

The effects of this mentality can be seen in all sorts of places. The IRS is much more likely to audit someone making less than $20,000 than someone making a thousand times that. White collar crimes are rarely prosecuted, and if so with a fine or a light sentence, while a shoplifter can face serious jail time. After irresponsibly marketing OxyContin—and contributing to a heroine epidemic that cost many lives—Purdue paid a fine that was a mere fraction of their profits, while there are many poor individuals serving life sentences for drug possession. Two zip codes in the same city, one rich and one poor, correspond with life expectancies that differ by twenty years. Income bracket is a stronger predictor of college success than SAT scores (and income partially predicts SAT scores, too). The list goes on.

One irony of American life is that the excuse given for not having welfare programs is always the same: How will we pay for it? When it comes to helping out poor Americans we suddenly become extremely penurious. Thus, we wring our hands about Section 8 housing assistance but not tax breaks for mortgages, and we knit our brow at public healthcare but rarely discuss the tax breaks for employer-based healthcare. We underinvest in social services, rehab facilities, education, and housing, but we do not bat an eye at the expense of cycling the poor through shelters, emergency rooms, and jails. When it comes to police, prisons, and the military, there is never any discussion of affordability.

What makes this book worthwhile is not for this information, however, as it can be found in many places, but for the stories from Nicholas Kristoff’s life. The son of Yamhill, a small town in Oregon, Kristoff has watched many of the kids he grew up with succumb to deaths of despair over the years. The most memorable case may be the Knapp family. After growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father, the five Knapp children all died before their sixtieth birthday. One died of liver failure, one of hepatitis from injecting drugs, one of a heroin overdose, one of an explosion in a drug lab, one of a fire while inebriated and unconscious. In fact, when the book was published one of the siblings, Keylan, was still alive, but died last March.

While in any individual case you can make an argument about bad choices, the mere fact that a quarter of the children on Kristoff’s school bus died points to a deeper problem. In the authors’ opinion, the fundamental shift is the disappearance of decent, blue-collar work—particularly for men. By now, the story is familiar enough. Whereas, in the past, a person without a high school diploma could work a unionized job in a factory and afford a house, that is simply not the case nowadays.

The disappearance of jobs has a kind of domino effect: people deal drugs to make money, take drugs to ward off boredom, get arrested, lose custody of children, have their driver’s license revoked, get evicted—in short, the cycle of poverty.

Now, as Kristoff and WuDunn repeatedly point out, it is far too easy to write this off as a series of irresponsible choices. And it is true, many poor people make bad decisions. Being impoverished does not inculcate saintliness or enlightenment. But to ascribe the failure to individuals is, I think, both illogical and unfair, though that is so often how we choose to see it in America. Indeed, this sort of individualistic thinking can be quite compelling, such as in the case of Tanitoluwa Adewumi, a Nigerian immigrant who won the New York State K-3 chess championship at the age of eight while living in a homeless shelter. His tale attracted attention and Tani is now living in a real home, thanks to the generosity of many strangers.

Stories like this are intensely inspiring, since they seem to validate our belief that real merit will always get rewarded in the end. But arguably the more socially important fact of Tani’s story is that all the children he was competing against were from well-off families, with private chess tutors. And this underscores the essential point: that chess ability—like so many things—is not normally the product of raw talent and individual drive alone, but also the result of resources and environment.

For me, the best way of thinking about the competing influences of environment and individual merit is that they conflict only at their extremes. Here is what I mean. The environment is akin to the menu in a restaurant, and the individual chooses from these pre-set options. Only rarely, in extreme cases, does the diner get to switch restaurants and look at a new menu.

Just so, when a child is born into a family of a certain economic class, there is a certain range of likely economic outcomes. A child of a middle-class family has a decent chance of becoming, say, a doctor, while the child of a wealthy family has a fair shot at becoming a CEO. In the United States, at present, most children will not radically change the economic class they were born into. It is even more unlikely that a child of a billionaire will end up homeless than that a homeless boy will win a chess championship. But a small number of people, through a combination of luck and skill, will succeed in radically raising themselves (or, in some cases, lowering themselves). In these cases, individual factors will seem to have trumped environmental influence.

To continue the metaphor, just as it is the responsibility of the individual to choose wisely from the menu, it is the responsibility of the society to make sure that nothing on the menu is poisonous. Too often, however, people are born into circumstances that make it extremely difficult to choose correctly. And in the case of the poor, one bad choice can be disastrous. This is the meaning of the book’s title: the least advantaged have the least room for error—one mistake, and society brands them a criminal, a junkie, or a welfare queen—while those from wealthy backgrounds can make any number of mistakes without facing catastrophic consequences. To use the book’s metaphor, then, it is the individual that has to walk, but it is society that choses whether they will walk on a tightrope or a promenade.

How can we change this situation? The book ends with a series of policy suggestions—universal health care, jobs programs, child credits, maternity leave—which I suspect will not be terribly surprising. But if we are going to adopt any of these, we must first throw off the perspective of seeing every person as wholly responsible for their fate, our belief that the market is a faultless reflection of personal merit—which is the perfect excuse for inaction. We say of poor kids like Tani that they “beat the odds,” and they do deserve accolades. But these stories should motivate us to change those very odds, so that they are not stacked so heavily against the poor.



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Review: When Work Disappears

Review: When Work Disappears

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor by William Julius Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is just as indefensible to treat inner-city residents as superheroes who are able to overcome racist oppression as it is to view them as helpless victims.

This book is remarkable to read now, as it documents a phenomenon that has only grown more widespread in the years since its publication. William Julius Wilson set his sights on understanding the causes and effects of urban poverty, particularly as it afflicted the black community.

The process Wilson identifies will be familiar to most Americans now: As factories close and industry decamps, well-paying jobs for people without college degrees dry up. The disappearance of decent work causes a kind of domino effect. Those who can move out, do so, leaving only the most disadvantaged to stay. Little by little, the community starts to crumble. Families fall apart as people—particularly fathers—are unable to support their children. Drug use and drug dealing become widespread in a community with few legitimate employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the government provides little support for the people trapped in this situation. The chronically underfunded schools did not provide a ladder out of poverty. The lack of public transportation means that people who do not own cars have little opportunity to find work elsewhere. Mothers are forced to choose between staying on welfare, facing stigma and losing a sense of autonomy, or taking minimum-wage work and losing health insurance—for themselves and their children. Instead of providing drug counseling and addiction support, the primary response is to incarcerate drug offenders in large numbers, which only further debilitates the community and makes family life even more difficult.

By now, this basic process has played out in many parts of America. But before it affected rural whites, it hit urban African Americans. And here is where the country’s racial attitude became a major factor. For the public response to this suffering was not sympathetic; rather, people worried about “thugs” and “super predators,” making American streets unsafe—people so dangerous that they could not be helped, only locked away. The public pointed the finger at “welfare queens” and accused poor mothers of milking the system to live a life of ease. In other words, as is so often the case in the United States, we blamed the poor for living in poverty.

As Wilson, a distinguished sociologist, is at pains to show, the key factor in this process is the disappearance of jobs. When there is no opportunity to make a decent living, a community suffers. Nowadays such a thesis is hardly controversial. Indeed, we have seen it play out in many parts of the country. But at the time, it was a vital point to make, since the public discourse insistently framed the problem as a kind of moral failing on the part of the poor. Either that, or some sort of negative cultural attribute was blamed. And, of course, all of this was racially coded. But as more and more communities succumb to this process, the explanations relying on personal responsibility or cultural traits seems less and less plausible. This is a structural problem.

This is not to say that Wilson is against using culture as an explanation. To the contrary, in the first part of this book, where he relies on surveys and interviews performed by his team, he notes how living in such an environment can cause adaptations that are maladaptive elsewhere. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle, since negative stereotypes are sometimes borne out, and used to further stigmatize the community. One of the most fascinating sections are a series of interviews with employers in the area, many of whom give excuses and justifications for not wanting to hire black employees, particularly males. But even more striking is that most of Wilson’s respondents endorsed the basic American value system of individualism and personal responsibility. Those on welfare did not relish a life of ease, but longed for work that could support themselves and their children.

The second part of this book looks at larger trends and solutions. Wilson notes that the sort of urban poverty widespread in American cities is virtually nonexistent in Europe, and credits the strong safety net there. His own proposals for improving the lives of the urban poor are familiar by now—universal healthcare, improved infrastructure, more funding for education—but they do not seem much closer to reality now than in 1996, when this book was published. We can start moving in direction at any time. All that is lacking is the political will.



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Review: Are Prisons Obsolete?

Review: Are Prisons Obsolete?

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite the important gains of antiracist social movements over the last half century, racism hides from view within institutional structures, and its most reliable refuge is the prison system.

If you know anything about Angela Davis—anti-racist activist, Marxist-feminist scholar—you know that her answer to the question posed in the title is “Yes.” This is a short primer on the prison abolition movement, written at a time (2003) when criminal justice reform was not an especially popular topic in mainstream politics. Though mass incarceration was already well underway by the time Angela Davis published this book, it would take the public over a decade to come to grips with this disturbing transformation of the American criminal justice system.

Angela Davis spent some time in prison herself. Indeed, she was the third woman to make it onto the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list, when guns registered under her name were used in a deadly courtroom attack. (After a nationwide campaign, a court ruled that mere possession of the arms used in a crime was not enough evidence to entail guilt, and she was released.) Davis already considered herself an anti-prison activist in the late 1960s, when the national prison population was about 200,000. By the time she published this book, that number had gone up by 1,000%.

Davis provides some valuable background into the rise of prisons. Though nowadays the prison—like public schools and office jobs—seems like an inevitable part of life, it is worth remembering that, like so much we take for granted, it arose under particular historical circumstances in the not-too-distant past. In the case of prisons, it arose in the context of the Enlightenment, specifically when ideas of the social contract and individual rights became more widespread. After all, it does not make much sense to punish somebody by depriving them of their rights if they did not have any to begin with. (This is also why prison was not used as a punishment for slaves or, for many years, women.)

Another historical root of the prison is Christianity. The name ‘penitentiary’ indicates what early prison advocates hoped it would accomplish: by giving criminals time to reflect upon their evil ways, they would repent, reform themselves, and be able to return to society as a productive member. It does not take much imagination to see the continuity between the monastery and the jail, where the inhabitants occupy cells, follow strict routines, and endure much time alone.

Thus, prison originally arose as a far more humane alternative to the sorts of corporal and capital punishments common in America and Europe—lashings, removal of limbs, burning, hanging, and so on. And of course, however brutal prisons may be, I think we must acknowledge that they are certainly more humane than what came before. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that much of the rhetoric of reform and repentance has fallen away. Considering the brutal conditions inside prisons, and the high rates of recidivism upon release, talk of personal transformation nowadays would sound insincere at best.

Davis then goes on to offer a series of other critiques of the prison system. The anti-racist perspective—that the criminal justice system disproportionately targets people of color—will be familiar to most Americans nowadays. Davis also has much to say on the subject of female prisons, the most disturbing of which is the widespread sexual assault that occurs in these institutions. Last, Davis talks about the perverse economic incentives of prison: cheap labor, captive markets, and a way of dealing with otherwise ‘unproductive’ members of society. In short, the criminal justice system, as it stands today, exacerbates and reinforces existing inequalities.

The last chapter is on potential alternatives, and this is where I thought the book was most lacking. Davis is fairly vague on the possible alternatives to prison. She does, however, make the important point that there is not one, single replacement, but a variety of options for different sorts of problems. Some of these are obvious: expanding mental health resources, legalizing and regulating sex work, drug rehabilitation programs, and other usual suspects. But the great stumbling block to prison abolition is not the many non-violent acts that are currently criminal, but violence. What shall we do with rapists, armed robbers, and murderers (which, it is important to note, commit a minority of crimes)?

Davis does not directly answer this question, but instead ends with the story of Amy Biehl, a young white American woman who was killed in South Africa during the unrest of Apartheid. The four men convicted of her murder were pardoned as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; two of them eventually met Biehl’s parents, and were hired to work in the NGO established in Amy’s name.

Davis offers this story as an example of “restorative,” rather than “retributive,” justice. However, I think that reliance on such stories does sidestep the essential issue at hand, and that is the issue of deterrence.

In my view, the strongest justification for prison is as a deterrent to socially destructive behaviors, and its continued existence should depend on how effective it is as a deterrent. Admittedly, this is not how most of us think about prison. The natural human tendency—so strong as to be almost irresistible—is to think of punishments as vengeance. The idea that somebody could commit a horrid act and get away with it can be deeply disturbing. It is as if the whole universe has been set wrong, and harsh punishment is required to set it right.

This compulsion is so strong that even many people arguing for police defunding or decarceration ask for vengeance. After all, one common demand is that offending police officers be themselves arrested and imprisoned. It is remarkably upsetting to consider that, say, police officers could bust into Breonna Taylor’s house and kill her in her sleep, and not even lose their jobs. And yet letting go of this sense of vengeance is exactly what activists such as Davis are asking us to do.

In cooler moments, we may consider that no amount of punitive action for those officers will bring Taylor back. And, of course, the same is true of most crimes: the punishment may seem to correct the cosmic scales, but it rarely undoes the crime (unless, say, a thief returns stolen goods). The truth, however, is that punishment is not really about the criminal; it is a negative consequence imposed to deter further criminal acts by others. In other words, the punishment is really for all would-be criminals. Thus, punishment is justified if, say, imprisoning the police responsible for Taylor’s death would make other atrocities less likely.

(Of course, in some cases there is also a public safety element to imprisonment. If a person is potential danger to their community, then it is justifiable to remove them. Thankfully, the number of serially violent criminals is fairly low.)

To revisit the case of Amy Biehl, if every murderer was pardoned and then offered a job, I think it is fair to say that this would create a perverse incentive structure. This is the challenge of radical criminal justice reform. And this leads us many empirical questions: How effective are prisons at crime deterrence? Does the crime rate depend on the incarceration rate? Does the crime rate depend on the severity of the sentencing? Is there another sort of deterrence that would be more humane? While considering all these points, the guiding ethical principle must be to inflict the least suffering consistent with a safe community.

Judging for myself, it seems implausible that the incarceration rate and the stringency of sentencing have a decisive effect on the crime rate. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and yet the country is hardly a paradise of lawful behavior. On the contrary, by many metrics the US experiences far more violent crime than comparable nations. Clearly other factors—widespread poverty, a poor social safety net, the availability of guns—are playing a big role. Furthermore, the continued use of the death penalty in the US, and the use of long sentences and brutal ‘supermax’ prisons, does not seem to have had an appreciable effect on the crime rate.

There is also the question of how our prison system is even contributing to the crime rate. After all, if we incarcerate huge numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, subject them to dehumanizing conditions, and then release them saddled with criminal records—effectively barring them from many jobs and forms of housing—then it stands to reason that criminal behavior will often result. And it does: recidivism rates are persistently high. Ideally, any justice system would not only deter crimes, but would help to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes. After all, the whole community gains when a former inmate becomes a productive citizen. Our current system, by contrast, traps former inmates into second-class citizenship.

If we want to examine a justice system built along different lines, we may take a look at Norway. There, prison sentences are much shorter (the average is around 8 months), and prisons themselves can look very different from what we imagine. In many prisons there are no security cameras and no barred windows, and the security guards are unarmed. (Also keep in mind that Norway’s incarceration rate is nearly ten times lower than America’s!) The consequence of this light treatment has not been an explosion of crime. On the contrary, Norway is one of the safest countries in the world. The recidivism rate is also low, meaning that most former inmates find work and lead productive lives.

Now, one may argue that the Norwegian way could not work in the United States, since it is a country with much less poverty and a stronger social safety net. But this is precisely the point of anti-prison activism: By discouraging us from seeing the prison as a dumping ground for undesirable members of society—a kind of human trash bin—it helps to focus our attention on improving our communities in other, less punitive, ways. A thriving society will simply not need as many prisons as one that is struggling. Imagining a decarcerated world thus requires that we imagine a world where government support comes in the form of jobs programs, affordable housing, drug addiction support, mental health resources, functioning schools—and not simply in the form of a baton and handcuffs.



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Review: The New Jim Crow

Review: The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A war has been declared against poor communities of color, and police are expected to wage it.

When I was in high school, I was taught a story about American history. It went basically like this: The Founding Fathers created the Bill of Rights, which enshrined personal liberty into law. But being flawed men, they did not think of extending these rights to black slaves. This error was corrected over time: we fought the civil war, struck down Jim Crow, and marched for civil rights—trying to create a society where a person’s worth depended on the content of her character, not the color of her skin. This long and difficult process culminated in the election of Barack Obama, whose presidency seemed to be the strongest proof that the ark of history did, indeed, bend towards justice. I watched his inauguration in the auditorium of my high school, as living proof of the validity of this narrative.

When I was in high school, I also read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s description of life in a gulag, and was taught about the horrors of repressive countries where citizens lack basic rights. The Bill of Rights would prevent any such thing from happening on American soil.

But there were many things I was not taught. For example, I was not taught that the United States currently has more people behind bars than Stalin ever had. Nor was it mentioned that, with less than 5% of the world’s population, we have over 20% of the world’s prisoners. None of my teachers likely knew that the United States not only has more prisoners per capita than China—an authoritarian country—but more prisoners in total—more prisoners than a country with over four times our population. In my class on American government, we did not learn that the US incarceration rate is six to seven times that of most European countries. In high school, we learned a little about Nelson Mandela, but we did not learn that the United States imprisons a greater percentage of its black population than South Africa during Apartheid.

When I was in high school, a police officer came in to give us a talk about illegal drugs. He was part of the D.A.R.E. program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which has been repeatedly proven ineffective. As if to underline the point, a substantial percentage of my white classmates went on to experiment with drugs, and I cannot recall a single instance of serious legal repercussions faced by any of them. We were not routinely stopped and searched, our homes were not broken into, we did not know anyone who was carted off to jail. My university was the same story: substantial levels of drug use with little enforcement and few consequences. For a white American growing up in these circumstances, the only way to learn about America’s enormous prison population—fueled by a War on Drugs that never seemed to manifest in white neighborhoods—would be to read a book like this one.

In this book, Michelle Alexander describes a criminal justice system totally incompatible with what we think of as the land of the free. She describes a system in which police focus attention on poor, black neighborhoods, and are given legal cover to racially profile. She describes police conducting searches without probable cause and confiscating money and items for mere suspicions. In this system, private residences can be broken into without warning by militarized SWAT teams, often on flimsy or false evidence. Alberta Spruill, a 57 year-old woman in Harlem, died of a heart attack when a flash bang grenade was thrown into her apartment. In 2015, a flash bang grenade was thrown into a baby’s crib in Georgia, burning the infant. In 1992 Donald Scott, a reclusive millionaire, was killed in his own home, apparently because police hoped to confiscate his assets. In none of these cases were drugs found. The case of Breonna Taylor is only the most recent example of this.

Simply put, the Bill of Rights has not prevented a situation from arising that would not be out of place in a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The Fourth Amendment is intended to protect us from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and requires that warrants have “probable cause” and to specify the “things to be seized.” But when someone can be stopped on the street and patted down based on mere suspicion, or when someone can be stopped in their car and told to lie down in the street while police rummage through their car, confiscating any loose cash, then this constitutional language is dead letter.

The Eighth Amendment forbids “excessive bail” and “excessive fines,” and prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” Meanwhile, since the vast majority of those arrested are living in or near poverty, people routinely sit in jails for months, without being convicted of a crime, simply because they cannot make bail. When prisoners are released, they are provided with a pittance at the gate and told to go find work. At a time of extreme financial vulnerability, many are required to pay bills for their own incarceration, their own mandatory drug programs, and their own probation requirements.

As far as cruel and unusual punishment goes, the United States is notorious for being one of the few developed countries that maintains the death penalty. But even putting that to the side, the United States imposes prison sentences for drug offenses that are unusual in the world context, and undeniably cruel. In the Supreme Court case Harmelin v. Michigan, the court upheld a conviction of a life sentence without parole for possession of 672 grams of cocaine. Also unusual and cruel are the penalties imposed on criminals, even after serving their prison sentences. They are not eligible for food stamps or public housing, and often are forever deprived of the right to vote or serve on a jury. And this is putting aside the legal discrimination against former convicts when it comes to housing and employment. In short, any amount of prison time can turn one into a second-class citizen.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees citizens the right to a “speedy” trial, though I have already mentioned that many people are held in jail, unable to pay bail, for weeks, months, or even years. Though the amendment guarantees a “public” trial, many are thrown into prison without having had a trial at all. This is because prosecutors can tack on charge after charge, with little restraint, meaning a guilty verdict could result in decades behind bars. Faced with such a prospect, even some innocent people take plea deals in order to shorten their sentences.

The amendment guarantees an “impartial jury,” but jury selection—and the exclusion of black jurors—has been common practice for decades. Last, the amendment grants the accused the right to “the Assistance of Counsel,” but, as noted, many are imprisoned without ever having spoken to a lawyer. Even those who do ask for public counsel are wont to be sorely disappointed. Unlike prosecutors—remarkably powerful in the current system—public defenders are underpaid and overworked. The New York Times reports on one lawyer in Louisiana who had 194 cases at the same time.

The Thirteenth Amendment outlaws slavery but makes an exception for convicted criminals. This exception has blossomed into an enormous industry of cheap prison labor. Prisoners work, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily, for far less than the minimum wage. The government also provides tax incentives for businesses to use prison, and it is a popular choice. Prisoners making a few cents per hour have labored for Starbucks, Walmart, and Victoria’s Secret, to name just three of the dozens of companies. In seven states, prisoners work the State Capitol Buildings and Governor’s Mansions, cleaning the spaces for the legislators who write the crime bills. In New York City, prisoners were used to dig the mass graves on Hart Island, where the city’s indigent are buried.

Why did this happen? Up until around the 1970s, the United States had an incarceration rate that was broadly similar to other developed countries. The change was political, and started with Nixon, who pioneered the “law and order” rhetoric that was to replace explicit mentions of race. Ronald Reagan put this rhetoric into action by initiating the War on Drugs, ushering in legislation that beefed up enforcement and instituted harsher sentences. But the Democrats certainly do not have clean hands, either. Michelle Alexander singles out the 1994 Crime Bill as the worst piece of legislation in the War on Crime, which was signed into law by Bill Clinton and written by none other than Joe Biden (even Bernie Sanders voted for it). The result of this legislation was a frightening increase in the incarceration rate. And it is difficult to see the timing of this vast expansion—coming right on the heels of the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s—as coincidental.

If our criminal justice system is really so egregious, why did it take us so long to realize it? One answer is obvious: the War on Drugs (which Alexander holds as mostly responsible for mass incarceration) is primarily directed against poor people of color, who have little political power. If SWAT teams were regularly raiding college dorms and frat houses—which they would be doing if we were really serious about the evils of drug use—then this level of police overreach and incarceration would never be tolerated.

But the other reason that this system was tolerated for so long is that, unlike earlier forms of segregation, the new War on Crime is formally colorblind. Instead of explicit mentions of race, mass incarceration is supported by the logic of meritocracy. Meritocracy is a seductive idea, not only because it allows us to say that the downtrodden “deserve it”—they are criminals after all—but because it always throws up exceptional counter-examples to the rule. This allows us to turn away from the thousands of black and brown people behind bars and turn toward remarkable people like Barack Obama and, indeed, Michelle Alexander herself. Yet just as the remarkable rags-to-riches stories of some entrepreneurs does not show that the economy is fair, the extraordinary success of Oprah Winfrey does not show that racism is dead.

Michelle Alexander has written an important and, in retrospect, a remarkably prescient book. Writing during the euphoria of the early Obama years, she alerted the public to an enormous and, at the time, largely invisible tragedy. Mass incarceration is simply incompatible with a free society; it has torn apart black and brown communities, and it harms many white Americans (mostly poor) as well. Now, as the current pandemic is spreading through our overcrowded prisons, decarceration is especially vital. And, of course, people who have served their time should not be forced to endure second-class citizenship once they are released. The spate of disturbing police killings is just the most visible symptom of a system that arrests far too many people, and can be reduced simply by decreasing the number of arrests. Decades after the War on Drugs was declared, we have millions behind bars, on probation, or on parole; and as the recent heroine epidemic has demonstrated, the drugs have not gone anywhere.



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Review: The End of Policing

Review: The End of Policing

The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A kinder, gentler, and more diverse war on the poor is still a war on the poor.

Like many white Americans, I was complacent about the problem of police violence for many years. I figured that there would always be tragic accidents, always a few bad officers, and that we must make allowances for people doing what is, no doubt, a very difficult job. My attitude started to change when I left the country, and realized that the levels of police violence and incarceration in America are exceptionally high. Still, I figured that the United States was always going to be a uniquely violent country, and that an over-aggressive police force was simply one aspect of this.

The killing of George Floyd and the recent protests have been a turning point for me, as they have been for many people in the country. The death of yet another unarmed black man in police custody—yet another citizen choked to death by government workers, as he repeated that he could not breathe—was gruesome enough. But the seemingly infinite videos of flagrant police abuse that surfaced during the protests pushed me from complacent, to skeptical, to indignant. Peaceful protesters and journalists were shoved, beaten, sprayed, gassed, shot with “less-lethal” ammunition, and arrested.

Few people, I hope, can see the video of Martin Gugino—a 75-year old man pushed to the ground by Buffalo police, bleeding from his head as police march past him indifferently—without a sense of outrage. The only way to rationalize such an obviously unnecessary use of force is to embrace ridiculous conspiracy theories, as the president recently has. Meanwhile, the police response to this incident is entirely typical: after the two offending officers were suspended, the rest of the 57 members of the emergency response team resigned in protest.

It is in this context that the rallying cry “Defund the Police” has begun to circulate. In other circumstances, such a statement would strike me as absurdly Utopian; but once I learned that its proponents were not proposing to eliminate policing entirely, but to reduce it and divert resources to other social services, it began to sound all the more reasonable. (I do I fear the slogan is poorly chosen, however, since it gives many people the mistaken idea that nobody will be around to solve murders or investigate thefts. If a slogan requires a lengthy clarification, then it is not an effective slogan; and it risks alienating people by making the idea seem more radical than it really is. Personally, I think something like “Reimagine Policing” may capture the idea much better, even if it sounds a bit twee.)

This book is an excellent resource for those who wish to reimagine the role of police in America. (It is now available for free download on Verso.) Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College, examines the many ways that police are asked to do a job they are ill-suited for, and proposals to replace them. His first essential point is that the problem goes far beyond the conventional discourse about police reform. Body cameras, implicit bias training, and diversifying police forces do not reliably reduce police violence. Certainly, there are reforms that can and should be made—such as stopping the 1033 program which transfers military equipment to police departments, or changing the training regimes that instill a “warrior” mentality into police officers—but even the best of these reforms miss the point.

As with the issues of healthcare and higher education financing, there is a tendency in America to frame the issue of policing in terms of technocratic fixes, as if value-neutral reforms could be instituted that would make the police a perfect institution. But this ignores the greater moral and philosophical question: What do we have police for?

The police are distinguished from other public servants in being armed and authorized to use violence. Their presence is warranted if somebody poses a violent threat—as in the case of an assault, a sexual predator, or someone on a shooting spree—and even then, it is their responsibility to use a minimum of force. The problem, however, is that the vast bulk of police work does not consist in dealing with violent threats; it consists of traffic stops, border patrol, noise complaints, domestic abuse calls, drug busts, school fights, or prostitution. What connects so many of these situations is not the threat of violence, but poverty—which in America is inevitably racialized.

The life of George Floyd exemplifies the problem with policing. Born into difficult circumstances, he had many run-ins with the police during his life, none of which helped him. He served ten months in a state prison for a $10 drug deal, and then five more years after a plea deal for armed robbery. In the incident that led to his death, he was allegedly trying to pay for cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. What ties these together is that they are crimes of poverty—and that the only government intervention available came in the form of a punitive criminal justice system.

Nobody is in favor of robbery or counterfeit money; but I think that such crimes are inevitable if people are forced to endure a low standard of living with few legitimate economic opportunities to improve their situations. The question we need to ask, then, is whether locking people away, or saddling them with police records—or, in the case of Floyd, outright murder—is the right way to improve our country. Put another way, the essential question is whether a criminal justice mentality—which treats crime as an individual choice, subject to moral sanctions—is appropriate for the many social problems besetting our communities.

The case of police in schools is illustrative of how this mentality is applied to social problems. In the United States, we have apparently come to accept the constant possibility of school shootings; and partly as a response to this, armed police officers have been stationed in tens of thousands of schools across the country. In fact, two-thirds of American high school students attend a school with at least one police officer present; many schools have officers but lack counselors or nurses.

In too many cases, the police are not present merely to prevent violence, but actively take part in disciplining students. In this way, schools become a microcosm of American society: Inequality of opportunity (since schools are funded by property taxes) and an increasingly narrow metric of success (in this case, standardized tests) lead to undesirable behavior, which is dealt with through increasingly punitive measures. Who benefits from this system?

Another clear illustration of the criminal-justice approach is the war on prostitution and drugs. One does not need to be in favor of either of these activities to see that criminalizing them has not worked. Anyone who wants to buy drugs or sex can do so, just as any college student under 21 (the legal drinking age in America) can find a way to buy alcohol. Meanwhile, this approach has resulted in millions of people—most of whom are non-violent—being thrown into prison. Not only does our approach fail to address the problem, then, but we multiply the social harm into the bargain.

Any visitor to Amsterdam can see that the legalization of prostitution and marijuana has not caused the social order to descend into chaos. On the contrary, the condition of sex workers in places where sex work is legal and regulated, such as New Zealand, is far better than in the United States (even though we justify our approach as preventing human rights abuses). The case of Portugal’s drug policy is even stronger evidence of the failure of our approach. After decriminalizing drug use in 2001, and treating it as a public health issue, Portugal now has the lowest drug mortality rate in Europe, fifty times lower than the United States—and this is on top of the huge reduction in drug-related arrests.

As a final point, we also must remember that America’s War on Drugs has not only had devastating consequences domestically, but has contributed to drug-related violence around the world. Indeed, the destabilizing effects of these policies have, in part, driven unauthorized immigration, a problem that we have chosen to address using—of course—more policing.

Prostitution, drug use, and policing in schools are just three of the examples that Vitale examines. In these as in so many other cases—such as homelessness and mental illness—we must ask: Should a police officer be handling this problem? That is to say, should we have armed personnel, authorized to use violent force, treating these problems as matters of individual choice that deserve punishment? In so many cases, I believe the answer is no. I am sure that many police officers try to do these jobs conscientiously and diligently, but a gun, a baton, and handcuffs are simply not the proper tools, and imprisonment is not the proper approach.

If we are to learn from the current pandemic, I think it should be that a public health approach to social problems is both more rational and more humane. We would, of course, never throw somebody in jail for testing positive for COVID-19, even if having the disease can put other people’s lives at risk. When it comes to disease, we do not think of it as a problem of individual choice, personal responsibility, and deserved punishment. Just so, I think that we should see drug use, prostitution, school misbehavior, petty theft, and unauthorized immigration as processes that are driven by factors that go far beyond individual choice, and which merit coordinated social support rather than criminal prosecution. Imagine if the thousands of dollars that were spent sending George Floyd to jail for a $10 drug deal were instead spent on improving his situation.

As one final point, I think there is a significant factor of police violence that is not addressed in this book: gun ownership. If we choose to live in a society where, at any moment, somebody can open fire into a crowd, then I think this puts serious constraints on the degree to which we can disarm or reduce police forces. So many stories of police killings involve somebody being killed for reaching into their pocket, holding a shiny object, or even for a car backfiring. In places where gun ownership is rare, this almost never happens. This is another issue that could benefit from a public health approach. But even if we eliminated all civilian guns in the country, we would still be left with policing practices that exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the immense social divides in America. With a little bit of imagination, I think we can find a better way.

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Review: Paying the Price

Review: Paying the Price

Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream by Sara Goldrick-Rab

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Soaring rhetoric about the value of hard work obscures the fact that family money has long been one of the best predictors of college success.

Among the so-called developed nations, the United States is unique in many respects, not least in higher education. Whereas going to university is either free or quite cheap in most of Europe, in America college can often be a serious financial burden. Admittedly, America also has many of the best universities in the world, so perhaps the extra cost is justified for the small fraction of students who attend these elite institutions. But costs are also high in public universities; indeed, even our community colleges are expensive by European standards.

This book is not primarily concerned with why the cost is so high. Instead, sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab focuses her attention on how students go about paying for it. To do this, she conducted Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study, in which she and her team followed 6,000 low-income students from 2008 onwards. The study involved many surveys and much statistical work, but also in-depth interviews of selected students. Her aim was to find out how the various forms of financial aid—grants, loans, work-study—affect graduation rates. With such a wealth of evidence, Goldrick-Rab can speak with quite a bit of authority about the challenges faced by low-income students.

The picture that emerges is of a complicated and often ineffective financial aid bureaucracy, which allows too many low-income students to fall through the gaps. Much of this is due to financial aid being outpaced by the rising cost of college. Consider the Pell Grant, the primary economic subsidy provided by the federal government to low-income students. When it was passed into law, in 1965, it covered 80% of an undergraduate degree. Nowadays, however, a Pell Grant covers less than 1/3 of that price. Meanwhile, contributions by state governments have steadily dropped off, leaving students with ever-higher tuition costs.

Federal loans have arisen as a way to bridge the gap between the rising price of attending college and the decreasing purchasing power of grants. Though better than private student loans, even the federal loans cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. To qualify, the student must fill out a FAFSA application every year, which determines what types of loans the student qualifies for, how big a loan, and the “expected family contribution”—the amount the government expect the student’s family to be able to pay.

In Goldrick-Rab’s telling, there are many ways in which this system fails. One obvious difficulty is the expected family income. Most obviously, even if a student’s family has the available money, they may not be willing to pay; and of course the government cannot force families to make the expected contribution. What is more, the formulas used by the government to determine how much a student’s family can pay are not always realistic. They do not account for the reality that, rather than being financially supported by their families, many students financially contribute to their families while they are studying.

Basing financial aid on last year’s tax returns can also subject students to sudden shifts in their aid. If a parent gets a new job, for example, a student may suddenly find that they no longer qualify for grants or subsidized loans, and that their expected family contribution has drastically risen. To take an example from my own life, FAFSA also factors in whether a student has any siblings in college; and the graduation of a sibling can also cause a dramatic reduction in financial support.

The call for increased financial aid has sometimes been met with the response that students ought to work more in university. But this advice is misguided for a multitude of reasons. For one, students are already working a great deal. But the days when students could pay their way through college by stacking boxes during the summers are long gone. The students in this book did work, often for long hours, making the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. At that salary, it is difficult to even make a significant dent in the cost of attending college (the average debt of a graduating student is about $37,000).

Working while in school presents other difficulties, too. Scheduling is an obvious example. Most college classes are during normal work hours, which forces many of the students in the study to work night shifts and weekends. Time spent working is time spent not studying, and often time spent not sleeping, which hinders academic progress. The requirements on loans and grants only compound the problem of balancing work and study, since many forms of financial aid require a minimum GPA and full-time enrollment. This can result in a double-bind, since if a student drops one class to focus on the others, she may switch from full-time to part-time; and if she keeps all her classes, her GPA may suffer.

The Federal Work-Study program provides financial assistance to students working on campus, and according to Goldrick-Rab is a beloved program. However, the rules for applying to the program are somewhat confusing. Many students assume that acceptance into the program means that they will be given a job. But this only means that they can start applying to jobs that are covered under the program. Aside from this, work-study depends on the amount of funds and work available at a given moment, and so has not proved to be a reliable way for most students to pay for college.

College is meant to be a stepping-stone to a greater life. But for many of the people in this book, their time at university became a weight around their neck. As low-income students struggle to balance family, jobs, and study— negotiating a complex financial aid system that relies heavily on loans—they often found themselves unable to keep up with their classes and unable to pay for even basic living expenses. Indeed, since there is no university equivalent to subsidized school lunch programs, many of the students were literally too hungry to focus.

Worst of all, if a student decides that they cannot complete their studies, then they do not only lose the opportunity of a degree: they are saddled with debt, without the job opportunities to pay it off. As a result, the decision to study in university carries considerable financial risk in the United States, especially for low-income students. If a student succeeds in graduating, they will have significantly better job opportunities than their peers; but if they fail, they will be significantly worse off than their peers who did not even try.

To me it seems clear that the American system for funding higher education is not working. Student debt is the fastest growing type of debt, and the second highest private debt category in the country, after house mortgages. This was not true twenty years ago. Collectively, $1.5 trillion is owed by 45 million students—about 7.5% of America’s GDP. Roughly one in ten students defaults on their loan payments within three years, and, unsurprisingly, default rates are three times higher among students who did not complete their degrees. When you consider that education has one of the highest returns on investment of any government expenditure, our failure to support it is especially baffling.

Why has higher education become so outrageously expensive? I am still unclear on this, and it is not the main focus of this book. But we are not powerless to change it. In so many other countries, the decision to study in university is not nearly so fraught with financial peril. Indeed, the phrase “Student Debt,” like “Medical Debt,” is virtually unknown here in Spain. Of course, this is not an isolated problem. Even if we fixed financial aid, students from poorer neighborhoods would still be at intense disadvantages, not least because American public schools are funded by property taxes (and so reflect a neighborhood’s wealth). But making higher education affordable and financially risk-free would go a long way in bolstering the economy and widening opportunity.



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