29 May 2009

Senator Webb's Parade Article

I came across this article on prison reform over at Comrade Kevin's site. In the following excerpt, the Sentator Jim Webb compares Japan and the U.S. The differences are startling:

We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration. Twenty-five years ago, I went to Japan on assignment for PARADE to write a story on that country's prison system. In 1984, Japan had a population half the size of ours and was incarcerating 40,000 sentenced offenders, compared with 580,000 in the United States. As shocking as that disparity was, the difference between the countries now is even more astounding--and profoundly disturbing. Since then, Japan's prison population has not quite doubled to 71,000, while ours has quadrupled to 2.3 million. The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. In addition, more than 5 million people who recently left jail remain under "correctional supervision," which includes parole, probation, and other community sanctions. All told, about one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. This all comes at a very high price to taxpayers: Local, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year.

The Senator points out that much of the prison population is there for petty offenses:

Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity. Indeed, four out of five drug arrests were for possession of illegal substances, while only one out of five was for sales. Three-quarters of the drug offenders in our state prisons were there for nonviolent or purely drug offenses. And although experts have found little statistical difference among racial groups regarding actual drug use, African-Americans--who make up about 12% of the total U.S. population--accounted for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

I think a good argument can be made for the complete legalization of drugs, allowing law enforcement to focus on the few people who are truly violent and need to be removed from society.

17 May 2009

Chris Clugston excerpt

I came across the following in an article by Chris Clugston titled On American Sustainability. If the analysis is correct, our current debate on how to fix the system is just so much hot air.

Further, and even more discouraging, is the fact that the accumulating pool of IOUs—assuming the government ultimately repays them—plus the total projected payroll tax payments by tomorrow’s workers, will fall far short of covering the total projected benefits promised to tomorrow’s expectant beneficiaries. In fact, the magnitude of our social entitlement “fiscal gap”—the present value of the total amount by which the three programs are currently underfunded—exceeded $77 trillion ($77,388) at the end of 2007— $68 trillion of which was attributable to Medicare and Medicaid. And our $77+ trillion fiscal gap increases by $2.7 trillion every year that we fail to take action to eliminate it.

To put our $77 trillion fiscal gap into perspective, our total national net worth—the difference between the total assets and total liabilities associated with all US individuals, corporations, and governments—was only $73 trillion in 2007. We could conceivably sell everything we own and still not be able to fully fund our future social entitlement obligations. Our only options for resolving our social entitlement dilemma are to increase payroll taxes by over 100%, from 15.3% to 33.3% of earnings, immediately and forever;7-14 to cut all social entitlement benefits by at least 50%, immediately and forever; to cut all non-entitlement federal government spending by 77.8%, immediately and forever;7-15 or some combination thereof.

The inescapable consequence associated with our fiscal gap is a permanent and significant reduction in purchasing power—for future program beneficiaries, future workers, or future recipients of non-entitlement federal government spending. And the future starts now, as the 78 million “baby boomers” who expect to receive social entitlement benefits far in excess of their total contributions, begin to reach retirement age.

The difference between cash receipts and cash disbursements for the Medicare Trust Fund (HI) was projected to go “cash negative” in 2008; the Social Security Trust Fund (OASDI) will go cash negative in 2017. Beginning in 2009 for Medicare and in 2018 for Social Security, the government will no longer be able to “borrow” yearly trust fund surpluses, and must actually begin to repay its IOUs to the trust funds through borrowing, taxation, or printing money. Going forward, as the actual net payout amount associated with the “big three” diverges increasingly from the projected net payout amount, purchasing power for a large portion of our population will erode continuously as entitlement benefits are reduced continuously and/or payroll taxes are increased continuously.

This may be so, but I've seen countries much poorer than the U.S. provide free healthcare that was fairly good and cheap, so I have a hard time believing that the problem is the social net itself. I suspect the real problem is the corporate monopolies on health services and the collusion between business interests and government. The problem is, of course, made much worse by the trillion dollars in direct and indirect costs that goes into the U.S. military military-industrial complex year after year. At any rate, anybody who thinks this gaping wound will disappear with a quick band-aid is delusional.

3 May 2009

What is true luxury?

Trevor Corson has an insightful article on the "luxury" of the Finns. He's definitely on to something. Americans have traded true luxury for ever-larger plastic gizmos from Walmart.

What Finland can teach America about true luxury

Finns value time and solitude – along with a high quality of life for all citizens.
By Trevor Corson

What is true luxury? Just when I thought I'd settled on my answer – a flat-screen TV the size of Kansas and a leather-upholstered car that can travel at triple the speed limit – I made several visits to Finland. Shortly after my return the financial crisis hit. Finland has been on my mind ever since. In these hard times, we could learn a few things about luxury from the Finns.

Strolling the streets of Helsinki, the capital, I noticed a lack of grand architecture and opulent homes, and an abundance of modest cars. Helsinki was a nice enough city, and it had some gems of modern design, but part of me felt that Finland was a bit dull. And, strangely, some of the Finns I met seemed to take pride in this.

Finland seemed even duller on my next visit in July. The weather was glorious, but Helsinki felt like a ghost town. I learned that most Finns take a five-week summer vacation, and that many of them disappear for the entire time to tiny, bare-bones cottages in the woods. Curious, I wrangled an invitation to visit one of these secluded cabins. It was meticulously cared for, but lacked any creature comforts. I quickly realized that there was nothing to do and no one to see.

After a couple of days at the cabin I was a convert. It was marvelously relaxing, and I realized the Finns were on to something – a form of luxury that had little to do with high-end products, the quest to acquire them, or the need to show them off. While some Finns pursue the material trappings of success, most seem to feel that the pleasures of time and solitude are more precious.

During my visits, I met some North American expats, including a Canadian who'd lived in the US for years. "I talk to friends back in North America," he told me, "and they tell me about all the latest toys they've bought. Here I'm just puttering away on my little house like a Finn, and that's about it. The pace of life is slower. I like that."

Americans in Finland shared similar sentiments. But they weren't naive about the place, and there was a reason they weren't buying the latest toys. "I'll never become rich in Finland," one explained, "the taxes are just too high." But for him it was a trade-off worth making. "Great healthcare, basically free. My kids get one of the best educations in the world, free." By the way, that includes college, free. He had no plans to move back to the States.

As I spent more time in Helsinki, my own notion of the luxuries available in Finland expanded to include more than just the quiet pleasures of a cabin getaway. Finnish cities are filled with universally well-maintained and high-quality schools, hospitals, buses, trains, and parks. While most Finns might never be able to own a well-appointed SUV or a big house, they value the less-tangible assets they do have, which add up to quality of life and peace of mind.

Finland doesn't pay lip service to providing a level playing field for all its citizens. It really does give the vast majority of its citizens a fair and equal chance in life, in a way that the US just doesn't, no matter how much Americans like to think it does.

Finland has its downsides, of course. The Finns I met described high rates of depression and alcoholism among their countrymen, and admitted that many Finns seem to suffer from low self-esteem. When I returned to the dynamic bustle of New York, I was happy to be back, even with the financial crisis decimating the economy.

Compared with Finns, Americans have qualities I admire and treasure: optimism, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to be opinionated, for starters. These qualities will help us fight our way back to economic health.

But let's face it: The single-minded pursuit of outsized material consumption helped get us into this mess. As we struggle to get back on our feet, perhaps we should pause for our own "Finnish moment."

2 May 2009

That natural silicon look

Let's get this straight (no pun intended)--Miss California, who's on the rightwing talk circuit spreading the word that gay sex is unnatural, got a boob job paid for by the California pagaent? You mean to tell me that in a state of 37 million people, they can't find a single pretty woman with big boobs so they've got to build one up from scratch? And if they were going to put her under the knife, couldn't they chip in a few bucks for a cerebral chip and some tolerance-enhancing drugs?

1 May 2009

Ah, the irony!