BY PICKING Chuck Hagel to be his defence secretary and John Brennan to succeed David Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Barack Obama has made plain the qualities he is looking for in his most senior security officials: experience, caution and, perhaps above all, personal loyalty. Both men see the world very much as Mr Obama does, which is to say, complicated, messy and all too frequently impervious to the use of American power even when wielded with the best of intentions.
Breezy Point Madonna. Photograph by Mark Lennihan, AP. The accompanying article.
“It will be a symbol of the suffering,” Monsignor Curran said of the statue, “but also of our rise from the ashes. It will be a symbol of what we’ve been through but also of our resurrection. It will be a reminder that for all the property we lost, God never left.”
I caught this photo on an OWS blog, and it gave me pause.
What fascinates me about this cartoon is that it says quite a lot. On a substantive level, it’s an obvious critique of what the author sees as unfair sentencing policies. On a more structural level, it suggests a distinct view of the role of criminal justice in America.
From a substantive view point, the cartoon obviously exaggerates: few people are sentenced to five years in prison for mere possession of marijuana, and even if they were, the forfeiture of all property obviously violates due process. Additionally, polluters are often asked to pay judgments exceeding the cost of their pollution to society.
But it does raise questions: why do we as a society think that prison time is an appropriate sentence for drug possession or distribution, whereas we think criminal fines are the appropriate sentence for violation of environmental criminal laws?
Or even more of a question: why do some people (generally left-leaning) think that prison time is more appropriate to levy against corporate polluters than drug possessors / distributors?
What’s fascinating (to me) is that the answer is frankly obvious. Those people think of drug possession / distributing as a less serious crime than pollution. And, if you asked me about my personal views, I might agree that generally destroying the environment has more severe consequences for society than a single instance of possession.
(note: writ large, I wonder if I’d maintain that: drugs destroy entire communities and the scope of the problem likely exceeds environmental crimes)
But the question of what punishment is appropriate is related directly to the crime committed and the entity committing the crime. Prison is a more appropriate sentence for a person because such a sentence fulfills both goals of deterrence and retribution. Prison time in the case of corporations obviously does not.
Why not? Because the imprisonment of the few responsible actors (usually low-level employees who actually commit the violation) doesn’t deter corporate action in the future. Corporations aren’t interested in the welfare of individual employees: they are interested in making money. Financial penalties lobbied against THE corporation (and not just corporate actors) sends a message to the market, consumers, and stockholders.
In other words, before a person criticizes the criminal justice because one’s own intuitive reaction to sentencing (a reaction often dramatically shaped and created by, oddly enough, the system such a person sees as unjust), that person ought to carefully think through and evaluate possible justifications beyond political agenda.
The other issues looms large as well: what purpose does the criminal justice serve?
I take it for granted, for instance, that we want to hold corporations responsible for violations of law (and even for violations of what I consider ethics). If so, is criminal law the appropriate venue for this goal?
I’m unsure. On the one hand, the powerful censure that comes with a criminal conviction cannot be ignored. It is a unique kind of statement, one that comes not only with legal disapproval but with a tinge of ethical outrage.
On the other, punishing corporate defendants through criminal comes with the challenges unique to the criminal law. The burden of proof upon the government is extremely high. The investigatory restraints are high. Certain rights of defendants in criminal cases are given to corporations in these cases.
Given the costs and benefits, maybe the above cartoon does’t represent the actual problem. It attacks a structural problem it has with the criminal justice system, when in fact, alternative and more powerful remedies are available in our civil system.
In any case, it’s just a fascinating cartoon. It certainly encourages one to think.
The Economist has another great article related to the problem of inequality.
This time, the article discusses various theories of inequality. In particular it discusses the “Gini coefficient,” a way of measuring economic inequality. In that calculation, a state has a Gini coefficient of 0 if everyone has the same amount of wealth, and a Gini coefficient of 1 if only one person has all the wealth.
To give a sense of the outer bounds, Scandinavian nations have a coefficient of around .25, whereas nations like South Africa have a Gini coefficient of 0.6.
As you can see, the coefficient has increased over the last ten years. That means income inequality is increasing, not decreasing. The OECD average (the OECD is made up of some of the wealthiest nations in the world) had an increase of over .1.
This might not be alarming if you subscribe to the “Kuznets curve” theory. Basically, the idea is that as a state becomes more industrialized and developed, income inequality rises. However, the theory states that over time, the middle class grows, and inequality decreases.
The Economist suggests that rather being an upside-down U, as in the Kuznets curve, what’s happening is more like an N. A decrease in inequality over time that is followed by a steep rise in inequality.
Not a good sign. And why not? Aside from concerns about fairness, the IMF suggests that inequality can actually slow economic growth.
The Economist argues for what it calls a “true progressive” set of policies. The first section of the article provides some fascinating facts:
“If income gaps get wide enough, they can lead to less equality of opportunity, especially in education. Social mobility in America, contrary to conventional wisdom, is lower than in most European countries. The gap in test scores between rich and poor American children is roughly 30-40% wider than it was 25 years ago. And by some measures class mobility is even stickier in China than in America.
Some of those at the top of the pile will remain sceptical that inequality is a problem in itself. But even they have an interest in mitigating it, for if it continues to rise, momentum for change will build and may lead to a political outcome that serves nobody’s interests. Communism may be past reviving, but there are plenty of other bad ideas out there.”
The discussion reminds me of posts way, way earlier in this blog about the battle liberalism had fought during and before the Cold War: there was a danger that the middle and lower classes would become so dissatisfied with the liberal order that they would turn to socialism.
The article continues:
“The priority should be a Rooseveltian attack on monopolies and vested interests, be they state-owned enterprises in China or big banks on Wall Street. The emerging world, in particular, needs to introduce greater transparency in government contracts and effective anti-trust law… . School reform and introducing choice is crucial: no Wall Street financier has done as much damage to American social mobility as the teachers’ unions have. Getting rid of distortions, such as labour laws in Europe or the remnants of China’shukousystem of household registration, would also make a huge difference.
Next, target government spending on the poor and the young. In the emerging world too much cash goes to universal fuel subsidies that disproportionately favour the wealthy (in Asia) and unaffordable pensions that favour the relatively affluent (in Latin America). But the biggest target for reform is the welfare states of the rich world. Given their ageing societies, governments cannot hope to spend less on the elderly, but they can reduce the pace of increase—for instance, by raising retirement ages more dramatically and means-testing the goodies on offer. Some of the cash could go into education. The first Progressive era led to the introduction of publicly financed secondary schools; this time round the target should be pre-school education, as well as more retraining for the jobless.”
100% correct. The fact is, especially in America, the retirement system places a huge burden on youth to care for the aging Americans. This is getting worse and worse as the Boomers begin to retire.
“Last, reform taxes: not to punish the rich but to raise money more efficiently and progressively. In poorer economies, where tax avoidance is rife, the focus should be on lower rates and better enforcement. In rich ones the main gains should come from eliminating deductions that particularly benefit the wealthy (such as America’s mortgage-interest deduction); narrowing the gap between tax rates on wages and capital income; and relying more on efficient taxes that are paid disproportionately by the rich, such as some property taxes.”
It’d be interesting to know the exact statistic on the gap between income and capital gains taxes.
In any case, this platform is remarkably sensible, at least to me.