Why do grownups say stuff like this?

I just got a fundraising email from California Attorney General Kamala Harris, for whom I will almost certainly vote in the senate race this fall. She has jumped on the private prison issue with the following piece of complete nonsense:

It is morally wrong for corporations to profit off the mass incarceration of millions of people in this country.

As it happens, I think prison privatization as usually understood (contract with Wackenhut or some such outfit to just run prisons with private-sector financing, employees, etc.) was a bad idea from the get-go; many years ago Bob Leone and I wrote a chapter for the book MacDonald edited that tried to untangle the false binary choice into a structure that could support intelligent debate.  Our basic take was that everything is privately produced (absent slavery) at the beginning of a production sequence, and the key question was where in a sequence of stages from there to finished product/consumer it was most useful to insert a contract (rather than employment relationships).  Guess what: it turns out to be a complicated and interesting managerial analysis, generally studied under the heading of “make or buy”, and no, it isn’t settled just by comparing prices and taking low bids.

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?

Come on, Kamala: there are plenty of reasons to demand that incarceration be a government function, not contracted out at the end stages of ‘production’, without pandering to people who think profit is an offense to the moral order. And there are plenty of morally appropriate opportunities for corporations to profit by making useful stuff and selling it to governments, including inputs to incarceration, like those bricks.

[corrected 21/VIII/16]

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

16 thoughts on “Why do grownups say stuff like this?”

  1. Perhaps prisoners should be given vouchers and allowed to pick the prison they prefer to be housed in.

  2. Isn't Harris AG today and sorta campaigning for the Senate?

    The effect of California's weird open primary system, leading to two Democrats and no Republican on the ballot, is that Harris is a shoo-in and can afford to be lazy. Her website has no policy position on health.

  3. "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."

    It does? That's not anywhere close to how I interpreted her quote.

  4. Amen Michael. Private prisons are a knee-jerk liberal bugaboo combining that camp’s instinctive dislike of companies and unwillingness to see the flaws of public sector unions and government – it’s as if we should give a cheer if the private prisons went away while the number of people behind bars went up “Sure we have mass incarceration, but at least it’s creating union jobs for government workers– woo hoo!”. Virtually every riot, abuse incident, human rights violation, destructive political lobbying and case of corruption in American prison history has been brought to us by the public sector — focusing on the small slice of the system that is private is a distraction from the fundamental issue that we have way, way, too many people behind bars, period.

    1. Keith, the kind of discrimination you're asking for is giving me a headache. I want an opinion, either way, that derives directly from a pure ideology, not a tedious examination of confusing facts. Either the private sector is evil and abusive, or the public sector is incompetent and wasteful; once you pick your side, you save a lot of time. If you're on the first side, you want to shut down Harvard, Stanford, etc. along with Corinthian and Trump U., you know the National Gallery is worth a visit and the Met a swindle, and a Trabi can beat a Porsche around any track . If you're on the second side, you know from the start that Disneyland is better than Yellowstone and you take your health advice from web ads rather than the CDC.
      Either way, you have more time for your fantasy football picks.

    2. I do consider it an improvement for the prison guards to have a living wage, due process, etc, although I agree that you're right. There's nothing saintly about public prisons in the US – Rikers is probably at least as bad as anything the private prisons have thrown up in operations, if not worse. Prison guard unions are as toxic as private prison lobbies, if not worse.

      Generally speaking, I lean towards public ownership if it's a continuing process or service. Having private companies on perpetual contract tends to make them lazier and more dependent on corruption and favorable lobbying over time, and make politicians much less willing to cut them off because doing so would mean loss of contributions for them and loss of important jobs and business in key areas (looking at you, Too-Big-to-Fail Lockheed Martin).

  5. Mike,

    I think you are asking for a bit more precision than is typical in a fundraising letter. I think most people reading this letter will assume she's talking about the administration of the prisons; those making the basic operational decisions.

    There are reasonable ideological reasons for resisting private prisons. For one, you might believe that only the State should have license for the legitimate use of violence.

    You also do not have to be ideologically against privatization to be against the privatization of prison administration and operations. For example, you might consider it a Bad Idea to create a focused constituency, with a free lobbying hand, interested in expanding the inmate population. Or, you might simply be suspicious that in this particular case that the private operators will be able to perform significantly better than the public ones, while maintaining the same objectives and constraints.

    Last night my better half wondered what someone like James Q. Wilson would have said about prison privatization. Certainly someone who was pro privatization in general, he also recognized that some functions were important enough, difficult enough, unpleasant enough, and unprofitable enough that they were best left to the government. Fairly treating a population that most of the electorate would happily throw under the bus could be one such function.

    — dave j

    1. For example, you might consider it a Bad Idea to create a focused constituency, with a free lobbying hand, interested in expanding the inmate population.

      That pretty much describes public sector guard's unions to a T — when I was inspecting prisons in California, we used to judge what string they were pulling on by which limb Governor Davis was waving at that moment.

      1. Are none of the privately run prisons union shops? They seem like (at least potentially) orthogonal issues.

        Also, the unions incentives seem somewhat different, and in some ways less noxious than the prison owners. For a private owner, adding inmates is a first-order goal: making more money. For unions, adding inmates is only a goal if it leads to more guards, and even then, that only benefits existing members by increasing the power of the union, a second order effect. The union, on the other hand, has a strong incentive to lobby for more guards per prisoner, which seems in opposition to what a prison owner would want. Which is more aligned with the public's interests, you probably know better than I.

  6. I think that part of the problem here is that (perhaps especially in the US) the term "profit" has come to have two different connotations. One is what an ordinary business does when they deliver a fairly-priced product or service and pay their workers decent wages. The other is what an unregulated monopolist does, or a private-equity firm that votes itself special dividends and management fees that more than cover its original investment before the firm it has bought goes Chapter 11.

    A 50% one-day drop in stock price when one smallish client decides to phase out part of your services suggests the second connotation.

    1. That's backwards — the unregulated monopolist is the public sector, the small and vulnerable sector of the prison economy that is getting crushed by said monopolist (because prisons are shrinking and they are last hired, first fired) are the private facilities.

      I'll have more on this in Washington Post this week, probably tomorrow.

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