Topic: General

Con Nation

According to new data from the U.S. Department of Justice, one in 136 Americans is behind bars today, including an astounding 12 percent of all black men between the ages of 25 and 29. The United States represents 4.6 percent of the world’s population, but houses nearly 23 percent of humanity’s prison population. Certainly, part of this is likely due to politicians’ unfortunate habit of addressing every social problem with a new law, but much of it is due to our ever-more-draconian drug laws. A few more statistics to chew on from the latest edition of Drug War Facts, published by Common Sense for Drug Policy:

  • As of 2005, drug offenders accounted for 55 percent of the federal prison population. About 45 percent of them were in prison for possession, not trafficking.
  • The number of people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug crimes rose from 14,976 in 1986 to 68,360 in 1999.
  • It costs U.S. taxpayers $3 billion per year to keep drug offenders behind bars in federal prisons.
  • Drug offenders have accounted for nearly half the meteoric growth in prison populations since 1995.
  • About half the population of U.S. jails and prisons are nonviolent offenders, more than the combined populations of Wyoming and Alaska.
  • Forty percent of the more than 1,000 state prisons in the U.S. opened in just the last 25 years. The state of Texas alone has opened an average of 5.7 new prisons each year for the last 21 years. Despite this, about half of federal and state prisons operate over capacity.
  • Total U.S. inmates numbered 488,000 in 1985, 1.3 million in 2001, and number 2.2 million today.
  • According to survey data by human rights groups, one in five U.S. prison inmates has been sexually assaulted.
  • According to federal sentencing guidelines, a man would need to possess 50 times more powder cocaine (preferred by white users) than crack cocaine (preferred by black users) to earn the same prison sentence.
  • Blacks represent about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 48 percent of the prison population. They represent just 13 percent of drug users, but 38 percent of those arrested for drug crimes, and 59 percent of those convicted.
  • When convicted of the same drug felony, blacks are about 50 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites.
  • A black woman’s chances of spending some time in prison over the course of her life (5.6 percent) is about equal that of a white man (5.9 percent). For black men, the odds are nearly one in three (32.2%).
  • Before Congress passed mandatory minimums for offenses related to crack (but which didn’t apply to powder cocaine) in 1986, the average drug-related sentence for blacks was 11 percent higher than for whites. After that law, the disparity jumped to 49 percent.
  • Despite all of this, overall drug use in this country hasn’t substantially abated. According to government survey data, the percentage of people reporting illicit drug use in their lifetimes rose from 31.3 percent in 1979 to 35.8 percent in 1998. Between 1999 and 2001, the figure went from 39.7 to 41.1 (data prior to 1998 isn’t comparable to data after 1998 due to changes in methodology). The percentage of college students reporting having used marijuana in the last year went from 27.9 percent in 1993 to 33.7 percent in 2003; the number using in the past month went from 14.2 percent to 19.3 percent; and the number reporting daily use went from 1.9 percent to 4.7 percent.

    Interestingly, all of these increases have come from people over 18 years of age. Drug use among minors is significantly down. Which means that even as adult Americans are more likely to take recreational drugs than they once were (and given these figures, with little corresponding social harm), they’re doing a good job of steering their kids away from them. Nevertheless, the government continues to arrest and incarcerate drug offenders, and in fact is now expanding its reach to include not just recreational users and traffickers, but doctors and patients who use controlled drugs to treat illnesses in ways the drug warriors have determined are “outside the scope of legitimate medical practice.” One wonders what percentage of Americans will need to be in prison before our politicians find the courage to say “enough.”

    Nuclear Welfare

    At a Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday, outgoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Nils Diaz reported that 16 utility companies were busily planning to build 25 new nuclear power plants thanks to last year’s energy bill. Champagne corks were popped, backs were slapped, congratulations were offered, and all was right in the political world.

    Just what did last year’s energy bill do to usher in this nuclear nirvana?  Well, our fair Senate–said by many to be in the grip of doctrinaire, free market Republican jihadis–passed a 20-year extension of the Price-Anderson Act (which protects the industry from liability if damages from an accident exceed a certain amount); adopted a 1.8 cent production tax credit for up to 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear generating capacity; provided risk insurance against the financial costs of litigation and other delays in building new nuclear power plants; and provided federal loans and guarantees for up to 80 percent of project construction costs.

    Look, I’ve got nothing against nuclear power per se.  But if nuclear energy had economic merit, it wouldn’t need this avalanche of government help and hand-holding.  Neither party looks good in all of this.  Republicans have no business meddling in markets this way.  And Democrats should quit folding to business interests like a cheap suit.

    The Influential Mr. Mbeki

    The Financial Times selects the most influential pundits and commentators in countries around the world. Their South African correspondent writes that the opinions of Moeletski Mbeki “arguably carry more clout” than those of his brother the president. If so, that’s good news for South Africa. Judging by his Cato paper “Underdevelopment in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Role of the Private Sector and Political Elites,” Mbeki has a pretty insightful understanding of what Africa suffers from. He blames African poverty on mismanagement and exploitation by political elites that control the state and see it as a source of personal enrichment. Inhibiting wealth creation by the private sector, the elites use marketing boards and taxation to divert agricultural savings to finance their own consumption and to strengthen the apparatus of state repression. He writes that peasants, who constitute the core of the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa, must become the real owners of their primary asset – land – over which they currently have no property rights (in much of sub-Saharan Africa, though South Africa is an exception to this).

    Mencken Fellows Penn & Teller Take Over TCM Tonight!

    Need a cure for a bad case of the Mondays? Tune into Turner Classic Movies tonight, when Cato H.L. Mencken Research Fellows Penn Jillette and Teller take over as special guest programmers.

    A quick look at what Penn & Teller have spooled up:

    • 8 PM—The Marx Bros.’ underappreciated 1939 film At the Circus
    • 9:30 PM—Orson Welles’ controversial 1976 documentary F for Fake, about the brilliant forger Elmyr de Hory
    • 11:15 PM—MGM’s disturbing and highly controversial 1932 film Freaks
    • 12:30 AM—Neil Simon’s 1975 Vaudeville tribute The Sunshine Boys, starring Walter Matthau and George Burns (with then-little-known F. Murray Abraham in a supporting role).
    Topics:

    I was KIDDING! Seriously. Come on, guys.

    This morning’s LA Daily News is abuzz over a debate “gaffe” perpetrated by California Assembly candidate Frank Quintero. After a rough day campaigning for California’s 43rd Assembly District seat, Quintero was asked during a debate with his opponent if he supported school vouchers. His answer: “Yes.”

    Oops.

    Honestly, what would possess someone to support giving low income families the same educational choice that wealthier families already enjoy? The nerve of this Quintero guy intimating that parents, not bureaucrats, should be deciding what and where their children learn. It’s an outrage. It’s…

    Wait a minute, that sounds kinda’ good, doesn’t it? Parental choice in education. More options for kids. Schools no longer being able to take their students for granted and having to compete for the privilege of serving each and every child. So what’s the problem?

    Well, Quintero is a Democrat – the party unduly influenced by the nation’s teachers’ unions. Makes a bit more sense, now, doesn’t it?

    Naturally, California’s biggest teachers’ union quickly mobilized to crush this brazen heretic, staging a rally outside his offices the weekend after the debate. Quintero quickly recanted, explaining that when he said “yes” to vouchers, he meant it in the sense that, um, he was opposed to them.

    Good thing the teachers’ unions are out there to protect us from freedom vouchers.

    Democrats Out of Power

    The Washington Post reports today that the Ds are planning an onslaught of staged media events over the Memorial Day weekend to highlight their discontent over high gasoline prices. The Democrats are kicking off their campaign today in Ohio, where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is scheduled to appear in front of the cameras with Rep. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate candidate there, in front of a giant wind turbine outside a Cleveland science center.

    Presumably, the Democrats think that the windmill symbolizes their commitment to break America’s so-called addiction to oil. In reality, the windmill symbolizes the Democrats’ incoherence on energy policy. Unless they plan to strap those turbines onto the hoods of our cars, wind power cannot substitute for oil because windpower is used to generate electricity and only a trivial amount of oil is used for that purpose.

    “Wherever you live, your gas prices are out of control, and you want to hold someone accountable for it,” Reid said. While Reid predictably blames “Big Oil,” he apparently missed the FTC report out today finding nothing underhanded about gasoline prices in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

    I’m sure you’ll hear all about on tonight’s O’Reilly Factor.

    “Net Neutrality” Grasstroturf

    The opponents of broadband regulation have produced an amusing animation that pretty effectively skewers the campaign for “net neutrality.” Why, yes, of course it’s produced by large corporations seeking after their own interests. But the piece effectively points out that the campaign for federal regulation of broadband is also a product of large corporations seeking after their own interests.

    So, if it’s a debate between two large corporate interests, we can drop the ad hominem and just discuss which group of large corporations is trying to protect its property and its investments, and which group of large corporations is trying to win rents through the legislative and regulatory process. Figured it out yet? Good.

    (Cross-posted from TechLiberationFront)