In “The Archipelago of Pain” Bobo says solitary confinement is arguably less humane than flogging. He tells us our prisons need to reform solitary laws. I guess he doesn’t own stock in a private prison firm… In “Ukraine Fights for Its Truth” Mr. Cohen says for nations like Ukraine, Europe is escape from the torment of their history. Prof. Krugman, in “The Hammock Fallacy,” says the big new poverty report from the House committee led by Representative Paul Ryan is yet another con job. Well, color me completely unsurprised that the Zombie-Eyed Granny Starver hasn’t changed. Here’s Bobo:
We don’t flog people in our prison system, or put them in thumbscrews or stretch them on the rack. We do, however, lock prisoners away in social isolation for 23 hours a day, often for months, years or decades at a time.
We prohibit the former and permit the latter because we make a distinction between physical and social pain. But, at the level of the brain where pain really resides, this is a distinction without a difference. Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, compared the brain activities of people suffering physical pain with people suffering from social pain. As he writes in his book, “Social,” “Looking at the screens side by side … you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.”
The brain processes both kinds of pain in similar ways. Moreover, at the level of human experience, social pain is, if anything, more traumatic, more destabilizing and inflicts more cruel and long-lasting effects than physical pain. What we’re doing to prisoners in extreme isolation, in other words, is arguably more inhumane than flogging.
Yet inflicting extreme social pain is more or less standard procedure in America’s prisons. Something like 80,000 prisoners are put in solitary confinement every year. Prisoners isolated in supermaximum facilities are often locked away in a 6-by-9-foot or 8-by-10-foot barren room. They may be completely isolated in that room for two days a week. For the remaining five, they may be locked away for 23 hours a day and permitted an hour of solitary exercise in a fenced-in area.
If there is communication with the prison staff, it might take place through an intercom. Communication with the world beyond is minimal. If there are visitors, conversation may be conducted through a video screen. Prisoners may go years without affectionately touching another human being. Their only physical contact will be brushing up against a guard as he puts on shackles for trips to the exercise yard.
In general, mammals do not do well in isolation. In the 1950s, Harry Harlow studied monkeys who had been isolated. The ones who were isolated for longer periods went into emotional shock, rocking back and forth. One in six refused to eat after being reintegrated and died within five days. Most of the rest were permanently withdrawn.
Studies on birds, rats and mice consistently show that isolated animals suffer from impoverished neural growth compared with socially engaged animals, especially in areas where short-term memory and threat perception are processed. Studies on Yugoslav prisoners of war in 1992 found that those who had suffered blunt blows to the head and those who had been socially isolated suffered the greatest damage to brain functioning.
Some prisoners who’ve been in solitary confinement are scarcely affected by it. But this is not typical. The majority of prisoners in solitary suffer severely — from headaches, an oversensitivity to stimuli, digestion problems, loss of appetite, self-mutilation, chronic dizziness, loss of the ability to concentrate, hallucinations, illusions or paranoid ideas.
The psychiatrist Stuart Grassian conducted in-depth interviews with more than 200 prisoners in solitary and concluded that about a third developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. Many people just disintegrate. According to rough estimates, as many as half the suicides in prison take place in solitary, even though isolated prisoners make up only about 5 percent of the population.
Prison officials argue that they need isolation to preserve order. That’s a view to be taken seriously because these are the people who work in the prisons. But the research on the effectiveness of solitary confinement programs is ambiguous at best. There’s a fair bit of evidence to suggest that prison violence is not produced mainly by a few bad individuals who can be removed from the mainstream. Rather, violence is caused by conditions and prison culture. If there’s crowding, tension, a culture of violence, and anarchic or arbitrary power, then the context itself is going to create violence no matter how many “bad seeds” are segregated away.
Fortunately, we seem to be at a moment when public opinion is turning. Last month, the executive director of the Colorado prisons, Rick Raemisch, wrote a moving first-person Op-Ed article in The Times about his short and voluntary stay in solitary. Colorado will no longer send prisoners with severe mental illnesses into solitary. New York officials recently agreed to new guidelines limiting the time prisoners can spend in isolation. Before long, one suspects, extreme isolation will be considered morally unacceptable.
The larger point is we need to obliterate the assumption that inflicting any amount of social pain is O.K. because it’s not real pain.
When you put people in prison, you are imposing pain on them. But that doesn’t mean you have to gouge out the nourishment that humans need for health, which is social, emotional and relational.
Next up we have Mr. Cohen:
Let’s sweep away Vladimir Putin’s mind games — the supposedly threatened Russian bases, the supposedly threatened ethnic Russians, the supposed humanitarian crisis, the supposed illegitimacy of the government in Kiev (with its 82 percent parliamentary backing) — and be clear that the fight in Crimea is about a simple issue: the freedom of Ukraine to set its course as a European democracy governed by laws rather than an authoritarian, undemocratic, lawless society of Moscow-backed oligarchs in the “fraternal” grasp of Russia.
That would be the fraternity of Budapest (1956), Prague (1968), Kabul (1979) and Grozny (1999).
Ukraine shares with the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia the fate — eloquently described by the historian Timothy Snyder in his powerful book “Bloodlands” — of being among the worst killing fields of World War II, bounced back and forth between Stalin and Hitler. Now the spread eastward of NATO and the European Union — the greatest of post-Cold-War achievements — has allowed the Baltic states to begin disentangling truth from lies in the carnage of their histories.
That is what westward-gazing Ukrainians are fighting for at the most basic level: truth over lies. They want a life based on facts rather than fabrications, institutions rather than provocations, laws rather than cash-filled envelopes.
Last month my colleague Alison Smale filed a piece from Lviv in western Ukraine. It began: “Under a leaden sky that wept intermittent rain, this fiercely proud city bade farewell on Saturday to one of its sons, a 28-year-old university lecturer killed by a bullet on Thursday in Kiev in the carnage on and around Independence Square.”
Lviv was called Lwów and was in eastern Poland before the Hitler-Stalin pact and World War II. It was occupied twice by the Red Army and once by the Nazis. Its prewar population of Jews and Poles was murdered or deported. After the war, the city was incorporated into Ukraine — and of course the Soviet orbit.
The reason people in this part of Europe crave the framework of NATO and the European Union is for security and prosperity, of course. Above all, however, they seek a guarantee that the torment of their history, with its lies, is behind them.
My family came from Zagare in northern Lithuania. The Soviet Red Army occupied the town in 1940, was driven out by the Nazis in June of 1941, and fought its way back in 1944.
Like Lviv, Zagare was thrice occupied. When Soviet forces reached the town in 1944, they found a mass grave in the woods. A Soviet Special Commission examined the remains and determined that there were 2,402 corpses: 530 men, 1,223 women, 625 children and 24 babies. This accounting showed a small discrepancy from the numbers given by SS Standartenführer Karl Jäger, who in a report dated Dec. 1, 1941, from the Lithuanian town of Kaunas exulted that 2,266 Jews (663 men, 1,107 women and 496 children) were executed in Zagare on Oct. 2, 1941.
A Soviet sign was put up in the wood: “Memorial to the victims of Fascism.” It hid the truth, as was the norm in Moscow’s empire.
The Soviets found the human remains but had scant interest in an accurate identification of them as Jews. Stalin’s aim, as Snyder explains, was to forge Homo Sovieticus, not to reinforce Jewish identity. The Holocaust had to be managed within the Soviet political agenda.
A cornerstone of this was that the war had begun in 1941 with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, rather than in 1939 with the Hitler-Stalin pact and the joint Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland.
Hitler had managed to blame the Jews for communism. Stalin, the communist, nursed his own hostility. Jews would become the “rootless cosmopolitans” of his postwar propaganda. Jews, rather than victims of Nazism, became agents of an imperial conspiracy against communism.
Stalin had to conflate Jews’ particular suffering into the immense general (read Slavic and Russian) sacrifice of the “Great Patriotic War” against Hitler. So the Jews in the Zagare ditch or Ponary forest near Vilnius, and in countless other pits across the “Bloodlands,” were identified, if at all, as “Soviet victims of Fascism.”
Today, according to Putin, the “Fascists” are in Kiev. His schooling was, of course, in fabrication.
Only with Lithuanian independence from Moscow in 1990 was a memorial detailing the Nazi crime in Zagare put up in the woods. It reads: “In this place on Oct. 2, 1941, Nazi killers and their local helpers killed about 3,000 Jewish men, women and children from the Siauliai region.” In 2012 a similar plaque was placed in the middle of town.
Ukraine is fighting for its right to remember, accurately and truthfully, that 28-year-old Lviv university lecturer killed in the fight for its freedom. No right should be more important to the United States and Europe. Societies based on lies fail.
And now we get to Prof. Krugman:
Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. So when you see something like the current scramble by Republicans to declare their deep concern for America’s poor, it’s a good sign, indicating a positive change in social norms. Goodbye, sneering at the 47 percent; hello, fake compassion.
And the big new poverty report from the House Budget Committee, led by Representative Paul Ryan, offers additional reasons for optimism. Mr. Ryan used to rely on “scholarship” from places like the Heritage Foundation. Remember when Heritage declared that the Ryan budget would reduce unemployment to a ludicrous 2.8 percent, then tried to cover its tracks? This time, however, Mr. Ryan is citing a lot of actual social science research.
Unfortunately, the research he cites doesn’t actually support his assertions. Even more important, his whole premise about why poverty persists is demonstrably wrong.
To understand where the new report is coming from, it helps to recall something Mr. Ryan said two years ago: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” There are actually two assertions here. First, antipoverty programs breed complacency; that is, they discourage work. Second, complacency — the failure of the poor to work as much as they should — is what perpetuates poverty.
The budget committee report is almost entirely concerned with the first assertion. It notes that there has been a large decline in labor force participation, and it claims that antipoverty programs, which reduce the incentive to work, are a major reason for this decline. Then come 200 pages of text and 683 footnotes, designed to create the impression that the scholarly research literature supports the report’s claims.
But it doesn’t. In some cases, Mr. Ryan and colleagues outright misstate what the research says, drawing outraged protests from a number of prominent scholars about the misrepresentation of their work. More often, however, the report engages in argument by innuendo. It makes an assertion about the bad effects of a program, then mentions a number of studies of that program, and thereby leaves the impression that those studies support its assertion, even though they don’t.
What does scholarly research on antipoverty programs actually say? We have quite good evidence on the effects of food stamps and Medicaid, which draw most of Mr. Ryan’s ire — and which his budgets propose slashing drastically. Food stamps, it seems, do lead to a reduction in work and working hours, but the effect is modest. Medicaid has little, if any, effect on work effort.
Over all, here’s the verdict of one comprehensive survey: “While there are significant behavioral side effects of many programs, their aggregate impact is very small.” In short, Mr. Ryan’s poverty report, like his famous budget plan, is a con job.
Now, you can still argue that making antipoverty programs much more generous would indeed reduce the incentive to work. If you look at cross-county comparisons, you find that low-income households in the United States, which does less to help the poor than any other major advanced nation, work much more than their counterparts abroad. So, yes, incentives do have some effect on work effort.
But why, exactly, should that be such a concern? Mr. Ryan would have us believe that the “hammock” created by the social safety net is the reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty. But the evidence says nothing of the kind.
After all, if generous aid to the poor perpetuates poverty, the United States — which treats its poor far more harshly than other rich countries, and induces them to work much longer hours — should lead the West in social mobility, in the fraction of those born poor who work their way up the scale. In fact, it’s just the opposite: America has less social mobility than most other advanced countries.
And there’s no puzzle why: it’s hard for young people to get ahead when they suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, and lack of access to good education. The antipoverty programs that we have actually do a lot to help people rise. For example, Americans who received early access to food stamps were healthier and more productive in later life than those who didn’t. But we don’t do enough along these lines. The reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty isn’t that the government helps them too much; it’s that it helps them too little.
Which brings us back to the hypocrisy issue. It is, in a way, nice to see the likes of Mr. Ryan at least talking about the need to help the poor. But somehow their notion of aiding the poor involves slashing benefits while cutting taxes on the rich. Funny how that works.