Brooks and Nocera

Bobo, FSM help us, has decided to grapple with “The Prison Problem.”  He gurgles that the war on drugs and sentencing laws are often blamed for packed cells, but that explanation’s wrong, and the true causes are even harder to reverse.  Of course there’s one cause that Bobo didn’t bother to factor into his babbling.  In the comments “Mark” from Cheboyagen, MI asks the blindingly obvious question:  “Doesn’t the for profit prison system bear mentioning?”  Not if you’re Bobo, it doesn’t.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Is Donald Trump Serious?”  He says The Donald says yes, but his positions on the issues suggest otherwise.  Here’s Bobo:

Pretty much everybody from Barack Obama to Carly Fiorina seems to agree that far too many Americans are stuck behind bars. And pretty much everybody seems to have the same explanation for how this destructive era of mass incarceration came about.

First, the war on drugs got out of control, meaning that many nonviolent people wound up in prison. Second, mandatory-minimum sentencing laws led to a throw-away-the-key culture, with long, cruel and pointlessly destructive prison terms.

It’s true that mass incarceration is a horrific problem. Back in the 1970s the increase in incarceration did help reduce the crime rate, maybe accounting for a third of the drop. But today’s incarceration levels do little to deter crime while they do much to rip up families, increase racial disparities and destroy lives.

The popular explanation for how we got here, however, seems to be largely wrong, and most of the policy responses flowing from it may therefore be inappropriate.

The drug war is not even close to being the primary driver behind the sharp rise in incarceration. About 90 percent of America’s prisoners are held in state institutions. Only 17 percent of these inmates are in for a drug-related offense, or less than one in five.

Moreover, the share of people imprisoned for drug offenses is dropping sharply, down by 22 percent between 2006 and 2011. Writing in Slate, Leon Neyfakh emphasized that if you released every drug offender from state prison today, you’d reduce the population only to 1.2 million from 1.5 million.

The war on drugs does not explain the rocketing rates of incarceration, and ending that war, wise or not, will not solve this problem.

The mandatory-minimum theory is also problematic. Experts differ on this, but some of the most sophisticated work with the best data sets has been done by John Pfaff of Fordham Law School. When I spoke with Pfaff on Monday I found him to be wonderfully objective, nonideological and data-driven.

His research suggests that while it’s true that lawmakers passed a lot of measures calling for long prison sentences, if you look at how much time inmates actually served, not much has changed over the past few decades. Roughly half of all prisoners have prison terms in the range of two to three years, and only 10 percent serve more than seven years. The laws look punitive, but the time served hasn’t increased, and so harsh laws are not the main driver behind mass incarceration, either.

So what does explain it? Pfaff’s theory is that it’s the prosecutors. District attorneys and their assistants have gotten a lot more aggressive in bringing felony charges. Twenty years ago they brought felony charges against about one in three arrestees. Now it’s something like two in three. That produces a lot more plea bargains and a lot more prison terms.

I asked Pfaff why prosecutors are more aggressive. He’s heard theories. Maybe they are more political and they want to show toughness to raise their profile to impress voters if they run for future office. Maybe the police are bringing stronger cases. Additionally, prosecutors are usually paid by the county but prisons by the state, so prosecutors tend not to have to worry about the financial costs of what they do.

Pfaff says there’s little evidence so far to prove any of these theories, since the prosecutorial world is largely a black box. He also points out that we have a radically decentralized array of prosecutors, with some elected and some appointed. Changing their behavior cannot be done with one quick fix.

Some politicians and activists suggest that solving this problem will be easy — just release the pot smokers and the low-level dealers. In reality, reducing mass incarceration means releasing a lot of once-violent offenders. That may be the right thing to do in individual cases, but it’s a knotty problem.

Two final points. Everybody is railing against the political establishment and experts and experienced politicians. But social problems are invariably more complex than they look. The obvious explanation for most problems is often wrong. It takes experience and craftsmanship to design policies that grapple with the true complexity of reality.

Finally, recategorizing a problem doesn’t solve it. In the 1970s, we let a lot of people out of mental institutions. Over the next decades we put a lot of people into prisons. But the share of people kept out of circulation has been strangely continuous. In the real world, crime, lack of education, mental health issues, family breakdown and economic hopelessness are all intertwined.

Changing prosecutor behavior might be a start. Lifting the spirits of inmates, as described in the outstanding Atlantic online video “Angola for Life,” can also help. But the fundamental situation won’t be altered without a comprehensive surge, unless we flood the zone with economic, familial, psychological and social repair.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

As part of his ongoing effort to make a mockery of the American political process, Donald Trump released his tax plan on Monday morning. This is the third official policy position he has laid out in the three and a half months he’s been running for president.

His opening salvo, of course, was his absurd proposal to round up the 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country and deport them, en masse, while also building an impenetrable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’ll actually be a wall that will look good,” he actually told Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night.

His second position paper, which hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves, is a no-holds-barred defense of the Second Amendment that the National Rifle Association could have written. Among other things, Trump says that we don’t need expanded background checks, and that concealed carry permits — he has one himself, in case you were wondering — should be valid in all 50 states, just like a driver’s license.

His tax plan, at least, is not completely irrational. Then again, “a broken clock is right twice a day,” as Edward Kleinbard, a law professor and tax expert at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, puts it.

Kleinbard told me he likes the fact that Trump wants to tax profits that companies earn abroad at the time they are earned, just like domestic profits. That would help end the practice of American companies parking their profits overseas, because they are now taxed only upon repatriation. (Trump also wants to impose a one-time tax on those overseas profits, which would raise some $200 billion.)

A second tax expert I spoke to, Robert Willens, noted that Trump’s plan would end corporate “inversions,” whereby companies list an overseas “headquarters” to take advantage of another country’s lower tax rate. The reason, though, is that Trump’s proposed 15 percent corporate tax rate is so low that companies wouldn’t need to leave to enjoy drastically lower taxes.

Trump says his plan will also prevent American companies from moving jobs overseas. But it won’t. Companies might move their headquarters back to the U.S., but the main job sources — factories — will remain in countries that have lower labor costs, not lower taxes. And neither Trump nor anyone else running for president can fix that.

What is irrational is Trump’s belief that he can cut corporate taxes from 35 to 15 percent, can cut the top income tax rate from 39.6 to 25 percent, can allow millions of additional Americans to go untaxed completely (they’ll be able to fill out a form that says “I win”), can abolish the estate tax and can lower the maximum capital gains tax from 23.8 percent to 20 percent, and still be “revenue neutral.”

Where will the revenue come from to make up for those tax cuts? It’s not going to come from whacking the “hedge fund guys,” as he likes to call them. Though Trump proposes to end their “carried interest” tax break, his new maximum individual rate of 25 percent means their tax burden would barely budge. And though he claims he will get rid of various unspecified deductions, he didn’t dare touch the one individual deduction that matters: the mortgage interest deduction. Somebody must have told him that that would cost him in the polls.

Like almost everything else about the Trump campaign, his tax plan is hard to take seriously. (To be fair, most of the tax plans put forth by his Republican rivals are hard to take seriously.) During the “60 Minutes” interview, Trump told Pelley that he would force the Chinese to “do something” about North Korea’s nuclear program — while also preventing them from devaluing their currency! — that he would get rid of Obamacare — while instituting universal coverage! — and that he was on more magazine covers than “almost any supermodel.”

You could see Pelley struggling to keep a straight face.

I wonder, in fact, whether even now Trump is a serious candidate, or whether this is all a giant publicity ploy. Once a real developer, Trump is largely a licenser today; the more famous he becomes, the more he can charge to slap his name on buildings or perfume or men’s suits.

I’m not alone in wondering this, of course. Several Republican consultants I spoke to openly questioned whether Trump is in it for the long haul. “You would see him spending a lot more money if he were putting together a true national infrastructure,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist.

There’s one other thing. All his life, Trump has had a deep need to be perceived as a “winner.” He always has to be perceived coming out on top. That’s why, ultimately, I don’t think he’ll ever put himself at the mercy of actual voters in a primary. To do so is to risk losing. And everyone will know it.

He’ll be out before Iowa. You read it here first.

From your pixels to the FSM’s noodly appendage…

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