Should reformers jump on the small government bandwagon?

By Alan Bean

The talking heads say that federal and state governments are hamstrung by the debt crisis.  Most criminal justice reformers have decided to make the most of a bad situation.   State and federal governments can’t afford to lock up so many people, the argument goes, because there is no money in the bank.

Short-term, this is probably a good strategy.  Governments are drowning in debt and mass incarceration is gobbling up an ever-increasing slice of tax revenues.  In the long run, however, the “we can’t afford to pay for mass incarceration” arguments won’t work. 

In times of economic crisis, politicians lay aside the usual tuff-on-crime rhetoric.  If everyone believes the fiscal sky is falling, all government programs come under close scrutiny.  But security expenditures (public safety and the military) are always the last programs to get the axe.  When good times return, politicians  dust off the time-tested slogans and start screaming about crime in the streets and the need to arm ourselves against the enemy du jour.

A few libertarians argue, rightly, that the military and the machinery of mass incarceration are government programs feeding at the public trough.  But most Americans can be frightened into supporting a huge standing army and sprawling prison gulag because, in normal times, fear is the controlling emotion.

Because Americans think in radically individual terms, politicians often compare the federal government to a family budget.   If your expenditures exceed your income, they argue, the only sensible course is to spend less money: “You can’t spend what you haven’t got.”

For some families, the analogy works.  But what about families that can’t pay their bills because they aren’t bringing in enough income?  If mom and pop are both working for minimum wage, they probably aren’t squandering the food budbet on trips to Vegas.  Poor people don’t take expensive vacations; in fact, most have never been on a plane and many have never crossed the borders of the state they were born in.

The graph above was produced by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  It shows conclusively that the debt crisis is a combination of foolish spending and insufficient income.  If America hadn’t launched counter-productive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and if wealthy Americans hadn’t received an enormous tax cut, the deficit would be less than half its present size.  Moreover, if our politicians hadn’t deregulated the financial sector, it would have been unnecessary to bail out too-big-to-fail institutions or to invest billions of dollars in economic stimulus programs.

In other words, the federal budget deficit, though real, is a product of misplaced priorities.  We have a financial crisis for the same reason we have a mass incarceration crisis: we made foolish decisions driven by a toxic combination of greed and fear.

We can’t use the economic crisis as an argument for closing prisons unless we must embrace the logic of small government in toto.  Our problem isn’t that we are pouring too much money into government programs; our problem is misplaced priorities.

If we decide we can’t afford our massive prison system, hundreds of thousands of inmates will return to the streets.  So long as the mania for cutting taxes and public services prevails, we won’t just be closing prisons, we will be shutting down or scaling back on all public programs.

Former inmates can’t survive on the streets as it is; imagine the scene if we were to double the number of people exiting prison while slashing the very services that keep poor people alive?

The small government solution is to do nothing.  Mass incarceration has always been America’s response to a surplus population created by globalization, de-industrialization and outsourcing.  Prison has become a catch-all solution to every conceivable social problem.  If we close down the prisons, we must first create jobs for the uneducated, the unskilled and the chemically dependent–the jobs the free market cannot create on its own.

Sure, we need training programs to prepare troubled people for the rigors of a competitive job market.  But even if we invest heavily in education and vocational programs our economy will remain a game of musical chairs in which a steadily increasing pool of workers competes for an ever-decreasing supply of good-paying jobs.  You can’t buy a home, keep a marriage together and support a family on the minimum wage, no matter how many people in the household are working full-time jobs.

Government must create meaningful work for our surplus population.  Closing down half the prisons in America will eliminate jobs in the criminal justice field while swelling the ranks of the unemployed.  The unregulated market cannot respond to this crisis (and wouldn’t if it could).  If small government orthodoxy got us into this mess, more of the same won’t get us out.  America is broke because we invested heavily in counter-productive, fear-driven priorities at the very time we were slashing the tax rate for the very rich.

The current system was designed by the wealthy to serve the needs of the wealthy and, from the perspective of the wealthy, it has been remarkably successful.  Between 1950 and 1972, the Dow Jones average doubled in size, from 500 to 1000, while salaries also doubled.  Between 1972 and 2007, the Dow Jones average exploded to 14,000 while middle class salaries stagnated and the incomes of the wealthiest Americans grew at a phenomenal rate.  While the wealthy were making out like bandits, the folks on the lower rungs of the social ladder were fighting for survival.

As the graph above indicates, the tax burden, as a percentage of income, is currently being born by those least equipped to pay the piper.  New policies require a new consensus that won’t come without a moral revolution.

2 thoughts on “Should reformers jump on the small government bandwagon?

  1. Taxes, especially in the upper brackets, are near historic lows. I’m not in an upper bracket, but I would favor a tax increase on my own bracket in order to preserve some of the safety net for me and my children. Actually, because of legally allowable ministerial housing allowances for the retired, and because of non-taxability of Social Security benefits at certain levels, I’m in a zero percent tax bracket. I would not complain if that were changed if it meant that the Bush tax cuts for the upper brackets were also repealed.

  2. I think that Christians are the people who should be leading the way in the “new consensus” that Alan Bean points out is necessary to make democratic and economic power back to the people who have been losing it since the 1970’s. That trend has occurred throughout the developed world, though most dramatically in the US, and is somewhat mirrored in our relationship to the “global south”. Because wouldn’t Jesus be more likely to be improving society for the poor than blessing a new battleship or praying for the success of a corporation’s next fiscal year? I enjoyed so many of the books on Charles’ bibliography on Faith and Mass Incarceration, and I’ve always enjoyed the point of view of Borg and Crossan that we can make our world more fully like the realm of God. There’s so much more to talk about how so many Christians have started caring about all Creation and changing society for the poor, and progressive evangelical movements, but the most important thing is to work together.

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