Devil in the Details: GOP Control in a Complex Policy Environment

Changes in power are always exciting.  By all metrics, Tuesday night was a momentous victory for the GOP.  They took control of both Senate and House for the first time in 8 years.  Yes, second-term presidents routinely underperform in their 6th year. Ronald Reagan himself lost 8 Senate seats in his 6th year, and incumbent presidents have lost congressional seats in 25 of 28 midterm elections over the past century.  The “midterm loss” phenomenon is real and enduring, but we should not minimize what transpired in 2014.

Winning control of a legislative chamber means that Republicans control committee assignments and the policy calendar.  After six years of unprecedented obstruction, including a record number of filibusters, the GOP gets a chance to govern.  The modern GOP has been masterful tearing down Obama – much of which made easy by administrative blunders and pedestrian management skills – but arguably less effective projecting a cohesive governing agenda of concrete policy proposals and details.  It’s one thing to throw rhetorical bombs and gin up the far-right base (*cough – Ted Cruz – cough*).  It’s another to put forth pragmatic policy ideas and legislative minutia that address complex problems and difficult trade-offs in a diverse society of 315 million people.

Policy analysts and social researchers like myself are still waiting for a coherent Republican alternative to the Affordable Care Act to evaluate.  Somehow alternative policy ideas are always on the horizon but never actually come to fruition.  They know they hate “Obamacare” but struggle to articulate specific policy improvements.  Repealing the law dozens of times is vacuous symbolism and dodges the hard work of actually constructing tailored alterations.  60+% of the electorate does not want the ACA repealed “root and branch” but rather modified and improved incrementally.  Republicans need to get in the policy trenches and actually tinker with legislation.  Admittedly, they are in a bit of a bind on this one.

Obamacare resembles Republican proposals put forth by Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.  The idea of an individual insurance mandate originates with the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Obamacare law is modeled after Mitt Romney’s health care law in Massachusetts.  The functional mechanics of the ACA do not match the communistic hyperbole perpetuated by GOP elites in recent years.  If we are going to require insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and disallow lifetime caps on coverage for the chronically ill and elderly (basic consumer protections that most people agree with), we need a younger, healthier pool of insurance recipients and the individual mandate is one way to accomplish those difficult trade-offs.  There might be better ways to improve our health insurance system using market mechanisms but Republicans need to articulate what those might be.

Basically all policy analysts, including myself, believe that long-term debt-load is a concern.  There are some differences of opinion over how urgently we need to reduce long-term debt, but reduction is broadly desirable as a policy goal. In turn, Republicans are perceived as the party of “fiscal responsibility” and running on reducing federal spending is a GOP campaign stalwart.  They are serious spending hawks on many discretionary budget items and much of this effort is laudable.  We need this voice in Washington.  However, when rubber meets the road, the GOP struggles to articulate viable paths to fiscal health.  This occurs on both sides of the ledger.  While Republicans claim to be “against spending”, in reality they tend to support the most expensive items in the federal budget.  Three budgetary items: Social Security, Medicare, and military constitute the bulk of federal spending and Republicans tend to campaign on and support these ginormous programs.

There is an adage in policy circles that “America is a risky place to be born, but a glorious place to grow old”, meaning that we tend to direct ample resources to programs that support the elderly.  The Republican base increasingly consists of elderly citizens and they actively campaign on maintaining Social Security and Medicare programs (e.g.  “Obama is gutting Medicare” as a rallying cry).  It’s easy to demonize redistributive, means-tested programs like food assistance or Head Start and those programs do need some streamlining and revision or even elimination, but the food stamp program is less than 2% of federal spending!  Eventually, we have to address the elephants in the room (SS, Medicare, military) – no pun intended – and Republicans (as well as Democrats) have not articulated adequate policy solutions to these big budget issues.  In short, Republicans tend to like spending on the elderly and military and those things are very expensive!

On the revenue side of the ledger, Republicans hold a doctrinaire anti-tax position.  They are unwilling to raise taxes on anyone ever.  Since the Reagan years, this is right-wing gospel.  During the 2012 GOP primary debates, candidates would not even agree to just $1 in tax increases for $10 in spending reductions.  When the general election came, Romney and Ryan struggled mightily to articulate paths to fiscal health without revenue increases.  Indeed, Romney ran on further reducing tax rates and making up the difference with closing loopholes that he could never name.  Non-partisan Congressional Budget Office scoring showed the Romney/Ryan budgets – and Ryan’s more recent budgets – falling deep into the red because of lost tax revenue, yet tax cutting remains an article of faith on the right, not an avenue to fiscal health.  Doggedly cutting taxes makes it harder to balance budgets and pay down long-term debt that needs curtailment.  It’s not clear how always and everywhere cutting taxes is fiscally responsible exactly (look to Sam Brownback’s recent disastrous experiment in Kansas).  Indeed, we used to have much higher tax rates on wealthy individuals throughout the 20th century and we rarely had budget deficits.  Beginning with Reagan’s Tax Reform Act of 1986, top marginal rates fell dramatically from 70% to 28% and we have run deep deficits ever since.

Most Americans and policy analysts agree that we need a strategic mixture of spending cuts and tax increases to close our budgetary gap.  Eventually, the governing GOP majority will need to address revenues if they genuinely believe in improving long-term fiscal health not merely satisfying ideological impulses.  One way to tackle this would involve cleaning up the tax code.  This is something we can get done.  We do not need higher rates per say and we could even lower the corporate rates significantly, but we need meaningful tax reform that actually closes the labyrinth of existing loopholes and raises substantial revenue.  We need more than mere anti-tax ideology alone, especially as long-term debt looms and a smaller number of people increasingly control the bulk of America’s wealth.  During the Bush years, we went to war and provided prescription drugs for the elderly (Medicare-Part D) and CUT taxes in the process.  Cut taxes while transitioning to war footing!  Republican Dwight Eisenhower is rolling over in his grave.  That is a recipe for fiscal calamity.  I don’t think Obama and Congressional Dems have necessarily articulated adequate long-term fixes to SS and Medicare, but they are at least willing to suggest that unpopular tax increases be part of the fiscal mix.  Similar to the individual mandate in the ACA, Dems at least show some willingness to buck popularity and face difficult trade-offs in exchange for improved policy functioning.  Republicans will eventually need to eat their vegetables (but it could be organic long beans with freshly churned butter – more revenue through closing loopholes not increasing rates).

Every Republican victory speech last night included something along the lines of “we need a stronger foreign policy”… That sounds good as stump speech platitude but what does that mean exactly?  Once again, we have observed unwavering criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy approach to things like Syria, ISIS and Ebola, but we rarely if ever here specific policy prescriptions from the right.  What would they do differently?  Ever since the power vacuum was opened with the short-sided invasion of Iraq, it is unclear how we deal with nimble foreign threats and the continuous rise of splinter extremist groups.  Is the Republican response to have perpetual war in the Middle East and extensive ground troops fighting indefinitely?  What does having a “stronger” foreign policy mean exactly?  And how will we achieve these ambitious foreign policy goals – whatever those might be – while simultaneously cutting taxes?  I’m more than willing to be critical toward Obama’s response to ISIS and Ebola, but what exactly are the inadequacies and what would you do differently?  The search for policy specifics and coherent governing approaches lives on.

The policy wonk side of me is excited!  We have a dearth of quality, workable, pragmatic policy ideas on Capitol Hill.  This is the Republican’s time to shine.  They could look back to governing majorities in the 1990s that worked to streamline, improve, and reform governmental functioning, not abolish it completely.  The American populace as a whole is not nearly as staunchly right-wing as the House Tea Party Caucus.  Newly minted Republican Senators like Ted Cruz and Joni Ernst appear more comfortable as purist demagogues preaching to the fringe rather than serious policy wonks looking for pragmatic compromises in a complex policy environment.  The question remains.  How can we move forward in substantive ways on immigration, health care, taxes, stagnant wages and mobility, energy, veteran’s affairs, education, infrastructure, foreign policy, etc?  I’m not convinced the new Republican majority can just pass easy ideologically driven bills that Obama will inevitably veto.

There needs to be meaningful compromise and attempts to reach out to President Obama and Senate Democrats, who can filibuster carte blanche much like Senate Republicans have done over the past 6 years.  My hope is that Senate Democrats do not reflexively filibuster and obstruct like Republican counterparts have done in the recent past.  We need more than Limbaugh-style bellicose antipathy toward political opponents.  We need more than “libtards” and “cancervatives.”  We need an admission that we live in a complicated world that requires thoughtful solutions in the nebulous middle-ground.  Let’s sit down and make progress!

Miscarriage of Justice: Reflecting on the Slow Motion Tragedy Unfolding in Ferguson

Amnesty International’s recent Ferguson report pretty well sums up my latest thoughts on the killing of Michael Brown (the full report can be found here):

Due to conflicting reports, what happened between Brown and Wilson remains uncertain. According to one witness, Brown and his friend attempted to walk away when the officer fired his weapon, shooting the unarmed Brown, whose hands were in the air. According to police statements, a physical confrontation between the officer and Brown resulted in the officer shooting the unarmed Brown.

Regardless, international standards provide that law enforcement officers should only use force as a last resort and that the amount of force must be proportionate to the threat encountered and designed to minimize damage and injury. Officers may only use firearms when strictly necessary to protect themselves or others against the imminent threat of death. Even then, the intentional lethal use of firearms is justified only when “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Irrespective of whether there was some sort of physical confrontation between Michael Brown and the police officer, Michael Brown was unarmed and thus unlikely to have presented a serious threat to the life of the police officer. As such, this calls into question whether the use of lethal force was justified.

Also troubling is Missouri’s broad statute on the use of deadly force. Amnesty International is very concerned that the statute may be unconstitutional and is clearly out of line with international standards on the intentional use of lethal force as it goes well beyond the doctrine that lethal force only be used to protect life.”


As we watch a different kind of tragedy play out in slow motion in Ferguson, we should reflect on these words and think about reforming the legal contours of deadly force in self-defense.  It appears less and less likely that there will be an indictment of Darren Wilson.  Selective leaks from the grand jury, controlled by Bob McCulloch’s office, are purposefully designed to engender sympathy for Officer Wilson among the public and foreshadow that any indictment is unlikely. The leaks are strategic and selective, only and ever favoring Wilson’s side.  The tilt in the system again laid bare for everyone to see.

We never hear anything about the numerous witnesses on public record claiming to see Mike Brown unnecessarily gunned down with hands in the air trying to surrender.  We never will.  Those compelling perspectives are stifled while only Wilson’s crafted testimony is given oxygen.  At this point the fix is surely in and the narrative being spun behind closed doors to the grand jury is not one that leads to indictment.  You can “indict a ham sandwich” but not when your favorite meal is ham.  McCulloch’s intimate association with STL County PD and established history of indifference towards episodes of police brutality call into question the ability of McCulloch’s office to put forth a vigorous prosecution.

By all objective standards, Mike Brown posed no imminent deadly threat to Officer Wilson even if he did “charge” toward the officer (from some sizable distance away mind you).  He was already shot 2-3 times at that point and basically all eyewitness accounts (that we know of) say Brown was merely stumbling awkwardly and already “going down” from being shot multiple times previously.  No reasonable person could perceive Brown as an imminent threat to life at that point in the affair.  Most people, including myself, are willing to give Officer Wilson the benefit of doubt for the initial shots fired inside the police SUV.  There very well may have been an altercation of some kind.  When Brown closed the SUV door back on Wilson the situation escalated quickly and Brown was shot moments later, supposedly in self-defense.

[although any injuries sustained appear minimal from photos and videos taken immediately after the incident – Wilson has no visible wounds and shows no outward signs that he was injured – He never touches his face or massages wounds that would be throbbing in pain – nothing is disheveled on his uniform and his overall appearance is pristine – furthermore, Mike Brown showed no signs of physical struggle on his autopsy reports, which does not seem possible if he was throwing haymakers at Wilson about to knock him unconscious – the material evidence that Mike Brown was ever an imminent deadly threat to Officer Wilson is thin – there was never any “orbital bone fracture” and there will be no catastrophic injuries of the sort].

But nearly all witnesses (that we know of) agree that Brown had his hands in the air (or at least out) and was harmlessly stumbling in zombiesque fashion toward Wilson as he rained bullets, not charging in a deadly (or even remotely menacing) fashion toward the officer.  With 2-3 gunshot wounds registered already, how could he?  The Washington Post recently reported that 7-8 “new” black witnesses have testified in secrecy behind the scenes and support Officer Wilson’s account.  This is likely just shoddy reporting in response to rhetorical gamesmanship being played by Bob McCulloch’s office.  These “new” witnesses are probably the witnesses we already know about (for the most part).  The same ones that say Mike Brown was unnecessarily mowed down in a hail of gunfire as he attempted surrender.

The witnesses “agree” with Wilson that there was some type of ambiguous altercation at the police SUV, but do not agree with Wilson on the exact details of the incident, especially regarding the final moments when Wilson played executioner.  This is the misleading game of semantics being played by Bob McCulloch’s office.  But alas, the reputational damage is further baked into the cake.  The unwavering narrative of Mike Brown the deviant villain and Darren Wilson the heroic savior plays on.  Brown cast as deserving of mortal fate due to uncontrollable animalistic tendencies beginning with a few cigars and a shove and ending with ferocious charging toward Officer Wilson, who fired away unrelenting because he “feared for his life.”  Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck’s Blaze are now tweeting about these earth shattering revelations.  Your rabidly right-wing uncle has likely posted about the 7-8 “new” witnesses in haughty triumphant fashion.  This is all part of the charade.  Remember, the game is rigged from start to finish.

To anyone seriously following this affair, it has been fairly clear from day one that local Ferguson and STL County officials never had any intention of vigorously prosecuting Darren Wilson for excessive force. The selective leaks just further solidify the notion that the system skews toward Wilson and Mike Brown’s fate was sealed the second his face hit the hot August pavement and rested there on display for several more hours.  Part of me hopes there is something compelling in the testimony and physical evidence that completely exonerates Officer Wilson.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that will be the case.  Not enough to justify the extreme actions he took that fateful day.  We will have Officer Wilson’s words – artfully and strategically crafted no doubt after having weeks to prepare and hear everyone else’s version of events – against a bevy of eye witnesses that basically all agree that an unarmed Brown was not an imminent deadly threat to Wilson and was gunned down unnecessarily as he collapsed to the ground.

There will be mass unrest in the streets when the no-indictment announcement comes down, and it could quite possibly spread far outside the confines of Ferguson to other areas of St. Louis and into other U.S. cities and towns.  Wilson might very well walk scot-free because of ultra-lenient Missouri statutes that allow police officers to legally use deadly force in nearly all dangerous – not nearly deadly – situations.  The bar for legal use of deadly force in Missouri is exceedingly low and that legal framework continually plays into Wilson’s favor.  Everything does.

But the resolved people of Ferguson and beyond will march on, confident that meaningful law enforcement reforms are within their grasp.  The throng of peaceful protesters are fighting for justice not only for Mike Brown but for all victims of excessive force.  I do not want to live in a world where Darren Wilson’s maximal actions can be justified under the lax parameters of existing deadly force rules.  We need to rethink and rework those parameters along with the frayed relationship between law enforcement and the minority community more generally.  I stand proudly in righteous indignation with the protesters on that crusade.

Ferguson and the Festering Wounds of Structural Inequality

On Saturday, August 9, unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, MO, an inner-ring suburb of North St. Louis.   The details regarding the initial altercation remain fuzzy but the tragedy was reportedly set in motion by overly aggressive policing toward jaywalking (“get the fu*k on the sidewalk”).  As consistently voiced by multiple eyewitnesses, the grotesque nature of the killing reportedly included multiple deadly shots as the suspect held his hands up in surrender… Unarmed.  Brown’s untimely death has sparked outrage and non-violent protests among residents looking for answers, accountability and justice.

Unfortunately, some episodic looting among opportunistic ne’er-do-wells has also broken out (seemingly unrelated to the legitimate protests).  Nothing excuses the unlawful looting in Ferguson, but the underlying grievance of Mike Brown’s family and frustrations of the local community are justified.  Many whites – and sadly many of my own family and friends – will focus myopically on the handful of knuckleheads and dismiss the entire situation with a familiar “see black people are just out-of-control.”  The reflexive venom emanating from my Facebook feed guarantees the looters are squarely within the sights of white America, primed to represent African Americans writ large and define the entirety of the situation.  The reinforcement of animalistic deviance in the black community is tucked away for safe keeping and they are sure letting those looters have it.  Nothing more to see here.  It’s always about the looters.  It’s almost as if an unarmed teenager wasn’t killed at all.

From a naïve position of privilege, most white people are loathe to discover genuine empathy and nuanced understanding about the roots of anger bubbling up among minorities in places like Ferguson.  After all, it would be unheard of for unarmed white teenagers to be gunned down by police in predominantly white areas like Town and Country, Chesterfield, O’Fallon and St. Peters.  Why should we care?  We should care because these riotous actions are taking place within a larger historical context that begs for deeper introspection and awareness.  If we can bridge vast divides and achieve cross-cultural understanding, we can begin collective healing and constructive dialogue toward improving policies and societal conditions.

Some fury directed at the Ferguson looters is justified but rarely matched by concern toward the victims of police brutality and broader systems of injustice that entrench minorities in a disadvantaged societal position.  Yes, people are protesting in Ferguson because another unarmed teenager was needlessly gunned down by someone who was supposed to be a trustworthy protector of the community.  Yes, people are protesting in Ferguson because minorities are subjected to 93% of police stop and searches.  Yes, people are protesting because an unarmed black male is killed once every 28 hours by law enforcement in America.  Yes, people are protesting because small North St. Louis County jurisdictions issue unprecedented amounts of tickets, fines and warrants.  However, the protests also highlight deeper structural challenges and systemic inequality embedded in the black experience; ones that require greater recognition and sustained outreach from white America.

Never mind the obvious sins of slavery and Jim Crow segregation that laid the historic foundations of white supremacy and enduring structural inequality.  It took centuries for whites to merely acknowledge the baseline humanity of black people.  From the Plymouth Rock landing until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America perpetuated a centuries-long system of overt racial apartheid that dehumanized and forcefully relegated African Americans to an inferior societal position.  Literal chains were only to be replaced with separate drinking fountains, housing covenants, poll taxes and lynch mobs, further solidifying the superior status of white identity.  On one front, we should be proud of our incremental progress on racial equality, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, but we should not get complacent.  We should refrain from applauding ourselves because we finally allowed minorities to eat at restaurants, own homes or attend college (of course having the adequate resources to own homes and attend college is another matter entirely).

In more recent times, urban America has undergone drastic transformation, much of which has been decidedly unfavorable toward minority inhabitants, yielding a renewed set of structural injustices in the 21st Century.  We are experiencing a “new world of the urban poor” as coined by preeminent sociologist William Julius Wilson.  Over the past few decades, inner-city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson have become hotbeds of concentrated poverty, characterized by deepening social and economic isolation from mainstream America.  U.S. cities have experienced unprecedented urban sprawl, becoming ghettoized as a semi-permanent, overwhelmingly minority “underclass” inhabit central-city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs, while a whiter, more affluent population inhabits outlying suburban and exurban areas.  The exodus and abandonment from central-city areas has been staggering.

For instance, the population of St. Louis City reached a zenith at approximately 860,000 residents in the early 1950s.  Today, little more than 315,000 individuals reside within city limits, representing a 63% population decline.  That bears repeating.  63% fewer people reside within STL city borders today, nearly 550,000 fewer than just a few decades prior!  Most importantly for this piece, dramatic metropolitan reorganization has been allocated unevenly across socioeconomic and racial status leaving mostly poor minorities concentrated in the urban core and inner-ring suburbs of North St. Louis including Wellston, Jennings and Ferguson.  Meanwhile, a whiter, more affluent population selectively clusters in outlying suburban and exurban locales like Town and Country, Oakville, Eureka, and exurban parts of St. Charles County like O’Fallon and St. Peters.  White flight from St. Louis’ urban core accelerated from the 1960s through the 1990s and continues into outlying exurban locales today as inner-ring suburbs, such as Jennings, Wellston, and Ferguson, increasingly experience decay and abandonment.  How does the hyper-segregated “chocolate city, vanilla suburbs” dynamic come to exist?


Through decades of exclusionary suburban zoning policies that completely disregarded low-income housing units  along with racially restrictive “housing covenants” (i.e. contracts barring blacks from home ownership) and discriminatory mortgage lending practices that “redlined” certain residential neighborhoods, central-city areas of St. Louis – and many other rustbelt cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Buffalo – became methodically starved of social and economic resources and populated disproportionately by low-income minorities.   Successfully acquiring suburban residency – and the myriad contextual benefits of suburban residency (quieter streets, greener spaces, fresher air, less crime, better schools, better connected job networks, better educated and affluent neighbors, higher paying jobs, greater access to supermarkets and fresh produce, greater access to banks and financial capital, higher property tax base, etc.) – was almost exclusively the purview of whiter and more affluent citizens creating the hyper-segregated metropolis we observe today.  Massey and Denton’s seminal work, American Apartheid,and Hilfiker’s opus, How Ghettos Happen, highlight the systematic cloistering of impoverished minorities into inner-city enclaves following the end of formal Jim Crow segregation in the mid-1960s.  The “ghetto” as popularly conceived has been purposefully manufactured through selective residential opportunities favoring privileged white citizens at the expense of disadvantaged minority populations.

Occurring alongside asymmetric suburbanization and ghettoization, America has experienced dramatic industrial restructuring, shifting the U.S. economy away from high-paying, blue-collar occupations toward low-wage, low-security service sector opportunities, further cementing the alienated condition of those residing in distressed neighborhoods.  The opportunity structure for all working class Americans has arguably become more limited and admittedly millions of white working class families are routinely struggling financially, mired in realities of low-wage retail and hospitality jobs.  Those with high levels of skill, college pedigree and connections are doing exceedingly well in today’s economy, while day laborers without college degrees or Rolodexes increasingly confront headwinds to economic security.  The working class is comprised disproportionately of racial minorities, thus economic restructuring and fading opportunity structures are felt most acutely in low-income minority areas.  In turn, high-poverty ghetto neighborhoods are relatively void of economic opportunity and community anchors, resulting in disorganized environments of instability and disarray.  Civic organizations and quality, high-paying jobs (and accompanying financial and social assets), the glue that binds healthy communities, are largely absent in low-income neighborhoods.  These distressed contexts ultimately matter to the outlook and behavior of its inhabitants.


Individuals growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods are continually reinforced with a sense of exclusion and persistent overexposure to deviant norms and social cues.  These inhabitants are hermetically exposed to high levels of traumatic violent crime and rarely digest mainstream expectations of college and career stability.  Immediate opportunities are at McDonalds or 7-Eleven or in the underground economy, not accountancy firms.  Inhabitants observe drug dealers and rappers achieving success not doctors and lawyers, ultimately shaping the perceptions, expectations and outlook of inner-city residents.  When merely surviving the day becomes paramount, any notion of long-term investment becomes completely foreign.  It is the immediate ghetto environment itself that fosters an underclass subculture that marinates within itself day after day, year after year.  The adage that individuals are the “product of one’s environment” rings partially true and privileged whites need to do a better job of acknowledging the ways in which distressed settings and external stressors can reinforce certain behaviors.  There is a mythology that one has complete and total agency over one’s actions and fortune.  Certainly personal responsibility plays a role and we should remain critical of self-sabotage and self-defeating behavior, but the persistent exposure to external norms and cues also shape individual perspectives and actions.  How can we expect sainthood or mere collegiate aspirations and familial stability in a chaotic war zone?


Along with suburbanization and economic restructuring, a third structural phenomenon continues to fuel urban injustice in the 21st Century.  Derived from the “Southern Strategy” of Nixon and Reagan that sought to garner the political support of disaffected conservative Southern whites following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, America launched a discriminatory “war on drugs” waged primarily within depressed inner-city areas ultimately leading to the mass incarceration of young men of color.  Michelle Alexander’s widely acclaimed The New Jim Crow meticulously documents the manner in which biased law enforcement – and broader criminal justice system – has lead to a new racial-caste system of disenfranchised minorities.  It is no longer poll taxes and separate lunch counters, but rather muscular drug policies that animate today’s disenfranchisement.  Although whites and blacks are found to possess and use drugs at similar rates, law enforcement eschews suburban cul-de-sacs and college campuses, targeting efforts surgically in low-income minority neighborhoods.  It is poor African Americans and Latinos that are routinely over-policed and feel the brunt of the drug war, and many familial anchors necessary to neighborhood vitality are quite literally sitting behind bars.  Once branded a felon, minority offenders face substantial barriers to successfully assimilating back into society.  They are routinely discriminated against by potential employers and lose basic citizenship protections, such as voting rights and the ability to serve on juries and receive financial aid for educational purposes.  Meet the New Jim Crow.

In a similar vein, our local law enforcement agencies have become more “militarized” in the years following 9/11 with injections of heavy artillery and SWAT tactics, and the brunt of militarized policing is oftentimes felt (quite literally) among racial minorities in low-income areas.  We saw this manifest in Ferguson when police rolled in with armored personnel carriers, sniper rifles and tear gas seemingly provoking the restless crowd while arresting members of the press, including venerated Alderman, Antonio French, further alienating and engendering anger.  The aggressive posturing from law enforcement in Ferguson has been palpable from day one of this affair.  It’s likely what led to Brown’s death in the first place.  Structural challenges faced by urban minorities are real and enduring and deserve attention, awareness and investment in potential solutions.  Equality of opportunity, the platitudinal ideal of America, was always a cruel myth and remains elusive in the 21st Century.


High-poverty environments in contemporary urban America were purposefully manicured through systems of white supremacy and discriminatory policies and practices of residential exclusion.  This much is certain.  It is no accident or random happenstance that poor minorities are neatly segregated into the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of urban centers.  These distressed places exhibit a relative dearth of immediate economic opportunity and social organization and therefore tend to reinforce disorganized behaviors among underclass inhabitants.  Reversing these trends will take broad awareness and understanding across the populace and willingness to more equitably allocate public resources across the metropolitan landscape.  Prospective policy adoptions, including criminal justice reforms and targeted investments in infrastructure, education and jobs/apprenticeship programs in distressed areas must be explored.  These are our fellow citizens living on the margins of society amid the land of plenty and merely desire an equal voice in society. A voice they have never had.  Roundly criticize the unruly Ferguson looters but also be aware of the history of racial subjugation and systematic mistreatment that leads citizens toward mass unrest and bursts of protest.  After you’ve finished chiding the looters, make sure to save some invective for systems that callously killed Mike Brown and continue to disenfranchise millions like him.

Prison Profiteers

Criminal justice in early America centered on vengeance and swift corporal punishment for sinners, criminals, and African American slaves.  When formal corrections eventually formed in the mid-19th Century,  there was a propensity to involve private sector actors and profiteering motives.  For instance, several states instituted “convict leasing” systems that provided cheap convict labor to commercial enterprises.  Prisoners were swiftly processed by local courts and transported as subsidized labor to private warehouses, railroads, and plantations.  Market-based corrections eventually waned in the early 20th Century as  prison maintenance became accepted as a core governmental function characterized by publicly-controlled prison facilities.

The Reagan years ushered in an administrative movement toward privatization or “contracting-out” of government services with market-based actors, especially in the area of human-support services (e.g. charter schools, non-profit health facilities, etc.).  Political elites of all ideological stripes have embraced the notion of “entrepreneurial government” that harnesses the dynamism and innovation of private sector actors in public service provision.  Over the past few decades, we have witnessed the privatization of schools, garbage collection, military services, mental health services, welfare-to-work offices, electronic record-keeping, and myriad other governmental functions.  In the push for privatization, public-private partnerships have also waded into more controversial waters, such as the administration of America’s prisons.

While incorporating private-sector actors into government functioning makes some policy sense, all government functions are not created equal and favorable market conditions do not exist universally.  Thus, the success of privatization is likely conditioned by specific policy areas and situational nature of the marketplace.  Free-market ideology alone does not guarantee improvements in policy implementation.  In the case of America’s prisons, it could be argued that privatization will do little to improve service delivery.

1.  A competitive market for prison maintenance services does not exist.  It is unclear that a market would exist at all without government support (prisoners are not exactly lucrative “customers” in the open marketplace).  At best the market functions as an oligarchy with a few major players seeking government contracts.  Correctional Corporation of America and the Wackenhut Correctional Corporation operate effectively as a duopoly, guaranteed contractual renewal irrespective of performance.  In short, there are few if any competitive rivals and minimal market pressure to function optimally.

2.  Profiteering motives could induce perverse incentives along several dimensions.  Maximizing profits means maximizing “customers” or in this case maximizing the number of prisoners.  Thus, prison corporations could potentially lobby for even more punitive criminal justice measures, producing a steady stream of clients (and revenues).  Mass incarceration strategies (e.g. War on Drugs) have imprisoned millions of Americans over the past few decades, and might only worsen under a privatized system.  Secondly, Maximizing profits also involves minimizing costs to personnel and services.  These could come in the form of company layoffs, cuts to worker wages/benefits, or cuts in prisoner services (like health care or food service perhaps).  Shareholders might enjoy extra dividends but prison security and prisoners themselves will likely take the brunt of privatization efforts.  There is a human cost to corporate “efficiency” that is likely magnified in the prison privatization context.

3.  Scholars and practitioners have suggested that a “paradox of privatization” exists in the provision of public services.  In short, the paradox states that shedding government functions to the private sector requires increased government oversight mechanisms to monitor private sector actors.  When the government contracts with third-party providers, more government is needed to make sure market actors are accountable to taxpayers.  Any cost savings reaped from private-sector prison management are blunted because of increased costs to government oversight.

4.  Last but not least there are thorny ethical issues related to corporate control and the power to incarcerate citizens.  Should corporations be in charge of punishment in America, an areas that has traditionally been the purview of government authority?  If we are going to incarcerate and punish millions of individuals, should there be some baseline public accountability?  Is it unethical to profit from the punishment of American citizens?

Today, approximately 3 million individuals populate America’s prisons, and the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  We should be striving to reduce the incarceration rate, and I’m not convinced that allowing corporations to profit from mass imprisonment will abate those trends.  We should think long and hard about the potential drawbacks to prison privatization before handing the keys of justice over to the Correctional Corporations of America.

Libertarian Ambivalence

Like many states before them, earlier this year, North Carolina voters approved a measure that banned same-sex marriage.  Subsequent reaction largely followed conventional political wisdom.  Conservatives mostly applauded the marriage ban, liberals mostly derided the ban, but I noticed a more muddled and mixed reaction from my libertarian friends.  Nearly everyone was appalled at the infringement of individual liberty but some still viewed the ban as properly constitutional, while others viewed the ban as grossly unconstitutional.  How can well-intentioned libertarians disagree over the dynamics of federalism and basic constitutional interpretation?

Ron Paul and other Libertarian Party elites (Gary Johnson, Jim Gray, etc.) talk rather flippantly about constitutional interpretation, framing the document as clear, obvious, or simplistic.  The mixed reaction from libertarian adherents to the NC marriage ban hints at a deeper complexity beyond the surface-level purity that libertarianism routinely exhibits.  The crux of this complexity lies in the inherent constitutional contradiction that simultaneously grants both individual freedom and states’ rightsand the fact that those two principles [individual freedom and states’ rights] oftentimes conflict with each other.

In short, when it comes to personal privacy issues some libertarians favor the individual freedom implied in the 9th and 14th Amendments, while others favor 10th Amendment states’ rights even when it restricts individual freedom, such as with the NC marriage ban.  Put another way, some viewed the NC measure as an unconstitutional affront to individual liberty (i.e. favor 9th and 14th Amendments), while others viewed it as a proper constitutional exercise in state sovereignty (i.e. favor 10th Amendment).

Take another example, the landmark Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which declared anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional, effectively liberating homosexuals from criminalizing Texas statutes.  Is there a “pure” or “correct” libertarian reaction to this ruling?  Probably not.

Some libertarians might champion the Lawrence decision on constitutional grounds that the 9th and 14th Amendments properly limit states’ rights and guarantee individual freedom to engage in private sexual behavior.  That is to say, an individual’s right to engage in private sexual behavior supercedes the 10th Amendment’s right of the states to regulate sexual behavior.  Conversely, other libertarians might deride the Lawrence decision on “principled” 10th Amendment grounds.  Anything that is not explicitly mentioned in the constitution should – always and everywhere – remain the purview of the states.  Thus, many libertarians would accept punitive governmental restriction that occurs at the state-level.  Because “sodomy” is not explicitly listed as a federally protected right (e.g. sodomy is not explicitly listed in the Bill of Rights) then states have the right to regulate and criminalize individual behavior at will.

One basic truism in American politics is that states’ rights is not tantamount to expanding individual freedom (think about Jim Crow segregation or militarized sodomy police squads), and libertarians will continue to exude muddled constitutional interpretation when these two principals inevitably collide.  Some will side with individuals while others with the states.  The idea that there exists one universally pure libertarian way to interpret the constitution is myth.

Built St. Louis

Urban sprawl and mass suburbanization have taken their toll on St. Louis City.  The central-city in particular has been largely abandoned, and has been decaying physically, socially, and economically for decades.  The population of St. Louis City reached a zenith in the early 1960s at approximately 900,000 residents.  Today, approximately 300,000 individuals reside within city limits, representing a 66% population decline.  That bears repeating.  66% fewer people reside within city borders today… 600,000 fewer people than just a few decades prior!  The mass exodus has been staggering.

Similar dynamics of sprawl, depopulation, and central-city abandonment have taken place across the broader American landscape.  While “metropolitan areas” continue to blossom, the population in central-city areas continues to decline, albeit at a much slower pace than in the 1970s and 80s.  Many of our great Rustbelt cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, etc. have witnessed crippling population loss to outlying suburban and exurban areas.  For instance, the “north-side” of St. Louis once was once bustling with social and commercial activity in areas like Gaslight Square. Here is what north St. Louis looks like today as a result of sprawl and abandonment.

A website called “Built St. Louis” ( meticulously documents the historic structures we have lost over the past few decades.  You will literally weep at the inner-city degradation and callous disregard of palatial brick homes and historic landmarks.  Built St. Louis demonstrates that we do not treasure “place” in America to the extent that other societies do, and it comes at our own peril.  Get lost for hours as Built St. Louis documents the structural landmarks and thriving communities that have gone missing.

The causes of sprawl are varied and complex from increased highway and automobile access, to racial politics or “white flight”, to inadequacies of liberal city governments, but those causal concerns are not driving this blog post.  In Robert Putnam’s seminal work entitled “Bowling Alone”, the author posits that suburbanization, characterized by isolated gated communities, automobile dependence, and lack of sidewalks has partially eroded our “social capital” and sense of oneness as a nation.  We have chosen to bulldoze many historic city buildings in the name of sprawl, but have we lost something bigger like healthy social interaction and community bonding?  Is sprawl ultimately detrimental to our sense of togetherness and social connectedness?  Something to ponder next time you take the T.R. Hughes exit ramp.

We should care when majestic structures are razed to pave another parking lot, but we should also be cognizant of the larger societal forces at play, and continually endeavor to better understand the consequences of sprawl on our communities and environment.

First Debate

In the general election, Romney can effectively argue that federalism allows Massachusetts to experiment with a health care mandate as a decentralized “laboratory of democracy.”  It is the 10th Amendment purview of the states to enact insurance mandates if they desire, but such actions should be limited at the federal level.  While Romney can appeal to voters on grounds of states’ rights, the functional policy question remains and he will likely have to defend his actions as governor at the first presidential debate.

Moderator (I’m thinking Jim Lehrer):  “Even if you believe mandates should be limited to state governments, why is it that you pursued and signed into law an insurance mandate in Massachusetts?  Why is a mandate good for Massachusetts?  Why does a mandate make insurance markets function more effectively  and make sense for Massachusetts citizens?  If this policy is good for the people of Massachusetts, how can you criticize  President Obama when he pursues similar policy approaches?

Romney: “Ummmmmm… Jim, can I use one of my lifelines?”