Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Public Prisons, Private Profits

This is Bernie Madoff's prison. He's high on the production chain.

Megan McArdle has shown an extraordinary devotion to the profits of the health care industry, but she is not a one-trick pony. She also supports making a profit off of the justice system, namely, adding a thick padding of profit onto the taxpayer's prison bill. People who are wealthy and well-connected can make a small fortune off of the private industry/public administration/intellectually intimidating academic circular track. Her social class and network of Ivy League school chums will reap the benefits.
If you’re in the business of running a private prison, you’ve had a bad couple of weeks.
Naturally, McArdle looks at the problem from the point of view of a CEO, although she will never be one. Was she disappointed when Tim Robbins' character escaped from Shawshank Prison?  Did McArdle root for the Nazis when she watched The Great Escape? By escaping from the prison, the allied prisoners were misappropriating their place in the production chain of Farben and Siemens.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced that the U.S. Justice Department would be reducing its reliance on private prisons after a report by its inspector general suggested they weren’t doing such a great job.
McArdle, as always, attempts to minimize any damage to corporate images.
Now the government is looking at ending the use of private facilities to detain illegal immigrants. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called it “an important step in the right direction” and “exactly what I campaigned on as a candidate for president.” Investors weren’t such big fans; shares of prison corporations slid accordingly.
You think profiting off human misery is all fun and games until the evil government takes away your ball.
This is undoubtedly a victory for people who have campaigned against privately managed prisons.
People don't make logical decisions based on data, they have quirks and likes and dislikes, and those are the basis for their decisions. Their ideas come from nowhere, or maybe everywhere.

But is it a victory that the rest of us should celebrate?
To answer that question, we need to know whether private prisons are better or worse than public ones — which is to say, we need to know what there is to dislike about private prisons.
No, we need to look at the data, or read the people who looked at the data.
Here are the main candidates I’m aware of:
That "I'm aware of" is classic McArdle. She could research but eh, but why bother?
1.“It is morally wrong for corporations to profit off the mass incarceration of millions of people in this country.” (Kamala Harris, Attorney General of California.)
2.Private prisons cannot be run as well as public ones, because the profit motive will always cause them to cut corners and deprive the inmates.
3.Whether or not private prisons could theoretically be run as well as public ones, empirically they aren’t.
4.Private prisons create a powerful lobby that will influence legislators to increase our already staggering incarceration levels.
5.Private prisons are apt to have more variance. There will be more good ones, and also, more bad ones.
The first idea plays a strong role in our national debate, even though I think that it’s logically incoherent, for reasons that Michael O’Hare has laid out. All sorts of corporations profit off of the incarceration of millions of people in this country: the makers of guns, razor wire, steel bars and armored vehicles, for example.
Watching McArdle think through moral arguments is hysterical. O'Hare pulled one line off of a fundraising email (which I can't find online). He ignored the fact that a profit-making enterprise will expect to constantly increase profits, a huge incentive to cut labor costs and other expense, all of which have a negative impact on prisoners' well-being. It is moral to care about other people. It is immoral to put profit before human life. It is moral to close for-profit prisons.

And I happen to have the Presbyterian Church of the US, the United Methodist Church, and the Catholic Bishops of the South right here with me, agreeing that private prisons are immoral.

O'Hare's response ignored human well-being to discuss people as consumers, whose fate is determined by their position in a production sequence.
As O’Hare notes, “What Harris says implies that every potato on the inmates’ plates, and every brick in the building, and all the guards’ shoes, must be made by a government agency (or, I guess, donated by a nonprofit), or right there in the prison. Maybe it would not be morally wrong if all that stuff were just confiscated from farmers and manufacturers to be sure they don’t profit? Does she demand that the prison be built entirely by inmates and civil-servant hardhats?”
You don't want to eliminate profit from shoe manufacturers, do you? So why do you want to eliminate profit from human misery? Likewise, slavery was part of the slave-molasses-rum production sequence, so you can't mess with slavery.
On the other hand, despite my basically libertarian beliefs, I was prepared to believe the second and the third arguments. There are some services for which it is hard to make a market, like police forces, and when we find one of those services, we generally have the state provide it instead.
There is a thriving market in private security but it would be incredibly expensive for the rich to protect themselves and their property in every location at every time. They need the police so they are happy to let the taxpayer pay pick up the tab. Free market for thee, socialism for me.
There are reasons that it might be hard to draw up a good contract that lines up the incentives of these kinds of providers with the public’s interest in, say, having a well-run prison that doesn’t abuse its inmates.
Do tell.
Probably the most important feature is simply that the primary “customer,” the inmate, lacks the exit rights that are so important to making markets work.
The problem with conservative pundits is not that they made a few mistakes. The problem is that conservatives reject or ignore data that doesn't confirm conservative ideology. The free market must prevail, so incarceration must exist on a free market basis. McArdle arbitrarily decides the prisoner is the customer, not the product being serviced. It is so obviously wrong that even McArdle must concede the product has no rights, so she can blunder on and give her bullshit defense for monetizing human beings.
If Sears cheats me, I can take my business to another store. Prisoners cannot take their business to another prison. And while contracts can be written to try to enforce quality as well as price metrics, these metrics are cruder than the kind of discipline afforded by a regular market.
So the prisoner isn't a customer, but will be considered one for the purpose of this fake persuasive essay.
That’s why I tend to think that the government should buy its pencils on the open market and run its social services with in-house staff rather than outsourced private agencies; one can be bought in a normal market where customers have exit rights, and the other can’t.
She is as believable as Trump, too. McArdle believes in whatever will benefit her.
But then I actually spoke to some defense attorneys, in Hawaii and the District of Columbia, and it turned out that some inmates actually prefer private prisons — even though in the case of Hawaii, that means a long plane trip to the mainland for family who might want to visit you. Why? Because the mainland private prison wasn’t as overcrowded as the one in Hawaii. They could have televisions in their cells. It had a nice area that allowed “contact visits” — where you can sit down with your family members instead of talking to them across a glass window -- with vending machines where they could buy snacks, and, as one attorney put it, “Have a little picnic.” Here in Washington, a friend who’s a public defender told me, the private prison is right next to the public prison, and there was a period of time where the public one ended visits (which are quite expensive for the prison), and the private one let them go on.
Warden: Ms. McArdle, this is Inmate 8375037.

Megan McArdle: Hi. Why do you like public prisons over government prisons?

Inmate 8375037: They're great, lady. We throw picnics in front of the vending machine and watch tv. My family is happy to chip in so my mother can spend hundreds of dollars to visit me.

McArdle: That's great!

Inmate 8375037: Can I have my blanket back now?
That’s not a slam-dunk case in favor of private prisons, of course, but as someone who favors incarceration reform, it seems to me that we should care what the prisoners prefer. And from what I can gather, it’s not clear that prisoners view private prisons as worse than public ones, though they’re not really overfond of either.
They are not overly fond of either types of prison. Imagine that. Maybe it's not all picnics and butterflies. But why would McArdle care one way or another about prison reform? The idea must have just popped into her head.

I guess the world will never know.
Nor do we have better metrics that might help us make a better decision; data on prison performance and even prison costs is hard to gather, and the best summary of the research out there seems to be equivocal.
Let's cast our minds far, far back in time, to the first paragraph of this endless ode to human misery. McArdle mentioned the Department of Justice report on private prisons, which she minimized by downgrading its conclusions to "suggested [private prisons] weren’t doing such a great job." That was a set-up so she could pretend that nobody knows anything ever, and therefore one shouldn't do anything to upset the perfect equilibrium of the free prison market, unless one wants to remove checks and balances, of course.

        I spent about three seconds googling and then read the report. It is not clear why McArdle refused to do the absolute minimum requirements of her job.

(Heh, it's perfectly clear. She's a hack, a word that goes back to "hackney," a horse especially bred for riding and driving. They have an excellent, slightly showy gait, strength and stamina, according to Wikipedia. Hackneys became popular as hired horses, and a hack became slang for a horse that was easy to hire and ride. The parallels to hack writers are obvious.)
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) initiated this review [of private prisons] to examine how the BOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] monitors these facilities. We also assessed whether contractor performance meets certain inmate safety and security requirements and analyzed how contract prisons and similar BOP institutions compare with regard to inmate safety and security data. We found that, in most key areas, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions and that the OP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas. Throughout this report, we note several important corrective actions the BOP has taken, in response to findings and recommendations in our April 2015 audit of the Reeves County contract prison, to improve its monitoring of contract prisons, including in the areas of health and correctional services.
As we can see, data wasn't too hard to gather, and the best summary was not at all equivocal. Wingnut welfare jobs are awesome.
Private prisons are certainly awful places. But public prisons are also awful places. Prison is awful, no matter who is running it, so that doesn’t really tell us whether governments or corporations will do a better job. Until there’s better data, I’m agnostic on this point.
Corruption is easy. The banality of evil includes lazy indifference, coupled with a profit motive. McArdle ignored the data and then lied about it.

For it is not impossible to find information on prison spending either. It's incredible that McArdle doesn't address the arguments. She simply lies and says data doesn't exist, as if public prisons don't have budgets and reports. It's a step up from lying about data, but not a very high one.

After telling us that there's no way to tell if private prisons are worse than public prisons, McArdle announces that there's also little difference between public prison guards or private prison owners lobbying for more and harsher prison sentences.
What about lobbying? I don’t think the evidence merits the conclusion that private prisons are a unique threat. Prison-guard lobbies are powerful, arguably more so than the private companies, and they lobby for all the tough-on-crime laws that you would expect from a group with a financial interest in incarcerating as many people as possible.
Someone has been whispering fully formed thoughts in Mrs. McArdle's ear. I wonder who.

Eventually one thing becomes clear: McArdle is so busy thinking about the poor beleaguered private prison CEO that she forgets all about the lower classes, namely the prisoners, their families, rank-and-file prison guards, and taxpayers in general. She only addresses the needs of the groups in power.
She ignores or denies any other perverse incentives that would affect the poor, such as denying inmates care and safety or the actions of a CEO of private youth detention facilities who made a deal with two judges: "kids for cash." From an interesting post on a far-left site:
Both guards’ unions and prison profiteers face perverse incentives, but in different ways. Prison profiteering firms are often seen cutting corners in order to cut costs. For example, Corizon is paid to provide healthcare to prisoners, and avoids providing care whenever they can cut costs by doing so. This desire to cut costs is not seen from public employee unions. But the public employee unions face different perverse incentives, largely related to protecting their members from accountability. For example, in Maryland the guards’ union successfully lobbied for “the passage of the Correctional Officers Bill of Rights, which made it much harder to discipline bad correctional officers — thus reducing C.O.s’ accountability and facilitating brutality and corruption scandals,” as Alexander Volokh explained at the Washington Post.
McArdle then pulls some magnetic words at random from her hand bag and arranges them on her refrigerator.
I’m not in favor of such lobbying, but there’s not much evidence we’ll get less of it simply by ending private prisons. Indeed, it’s possible we’d get more, because monopoly providers have more incentives to invest in lobbying than players in fragmented markets. A monopoly provider reaps all of the financial benefit of its lobbying, rather than seeing some of its efforts help competitors, and therefore each dollar invested in lobbying represents more potential profit.
When you throw out all the data, you are left arguing about the proportional size of the private prison lobby.
Argument No. 5 is the most interesting to me, and it was suggested by my friend the public defender. Bureau of Prisons facilities, she said, are pretty much all the same. But in her estimation, you could get very good private prisons, and also very bad ones — and the freedom that enabled the good ones to outshine the public prisons was probably the same thing that allowed the bad ones to sink below those standards.
The free market creates both good and bad prisons, which we must tolerate because freedom is the path to excellence. This belatedly explains the poor prison report that McArdle downplayed earlier, no doubt.
I am of course glad if private prisons allow some facilities to do a better job than a government prison could. However, there’s a minimum standard of decency that we owe to people we’ve incarcerated, and it’s questionable whether we really want to “buy” better prisons for some inmates at the cost of sticking others in especially bad ones. If this really is the case, then we should probably end private prisons. But we don’t have solid empirical data to make this case.
If anyone accuses McArdle of supporting heinous private prisons after the next private prison atrocity, she will point to that paragraph and back up her data lie with her earlier data lies.
Overall, given our state of knowledge, I don’t see a strong case for ending the use of private prison facilities — not without better data, and perhaps, not without trying to see if we can write better contracts that will force the lower-performing private prisons to clean up their acts.
We'll be the best prison negotiators ever. Not like foreign prisons. Sad!
Which is why it's interesting that the issue seems to be suddenly taking off. This may be the swiftest and most high-profile shift in prison policy in many years -- and probably the least important. Privatization is not what makes prison awful, and ending it will not do much to fix our current problems, because as Keith Humphreys has written, “Private prisons are bit players in the sorry drama of mass incarceration.” The overwhelming majority of prisoners are housed in public prisons, where conditions are not obviously better than they are in the private ones.
Conservatives want us to respect their intellectual policy discussions and give them the benefit of the doubt while they lie and cheat.
So why does this issue attract, as Humphreys notes, such “outsize attention"?
I suspect that this is an example of what philosopher Robert Nozick once called “normative sociology”: the study of what the causes of problems ought to be. It seems as if private prisons should be worse than public ones. The idea of profiting off of keeping someone in a cage makes us feel, for want of a better word, kind of squicky. So closing private prisons is a concrete step that can make the public feel better about the fact that so many Americans are locked up in terrible places.
So, so dishonest. Such a sickening affront to reality and truth. 
The problem with normative sociology is that it can become a substitute for social science, and for policy improvements that actually make us better off. Most people in this country will never go to prison, which means most of them will never intimately care about whether they’re decent. That makes prison policy a particularly fertile field in which to plant an empty symbolic gesture and walk away. And meanwhile, in other fields that need deep weeding, the real problems can continue to thrive unchecked.
It ends with the typical McArdle flourish of a pricking of liberal guilt and a dire warning of future disaster.

Applause! Applause! What a pathetic little impotent whine, what a mealy-mouthed defense. A one-woman virtuoso sleaze performance!

1 comment:

Ufotofu9 said...

"If Sears cheats me, I can take my business to another store. Prisoners cannot take their business to another prison."

Of course by that (correct) logic, sick people cannot take their 'business' to another hospital when they are taken to the emergency room. So McCardle believes in nationally funded universal healthcare? Oh right, I forgot that she is intellectually dishonest and inconsistent .