Free trade, Pareto improvements, and redistribution

James Kwak demonstrates that Greg Mankiw is talking through his hat on the trade issue, quoting Mankiw’s own textbook:

Trade can make everyone better off. … [T]he gains of the winners exceed the losses of the losers, so the winners could compensate the losers and still be better off. … But will trade make everyone better off? Probably not. In practice, compensation for the losers from international trade is rare.

We can now see why the debate over trade policy is often contentious. Whenever a policy creates winners and losers, the stage is set for a political battle.

To put it formally:

Reducing barriers to trade creates potential Pareto improvements: making them actual Pareto improvements requires redistribution. But of course it’s precisely the people loudest in their support of “free trade” who are most vehement in their opposition to income redistribution, insisting (mostly falsely) that in a globalized economy capital and the people who own it are necessarily too footloose to be adequately taxed.

There’s no reason in principle that the same web of treaties that reduces tariffs couldn’t also restrain tax-dodging and the associated money-laundering, but that’s not what Greg Mankiw, or the people who support his work, are interested in, so it mostly doesn’t happen.  If the corporate-lobby “free traders” were prepared to talk seriously about shared prosperity, most of the opponents of TPP would be more than willing to meet them halfway.

To be clear, I don’t have a clue about whether TPP is, on balance, good policy. If it helps strengthen a Western Pacific coalition against Chinese attempts at regional hegemony, maybe it’s worth doing for that reason alone. And on an international scale the distributional consequences are way positive; the Vietnamese workers who benefit from better access to U.S. markets for their products are pretty damned poor, and – despite how badly they’re treated in the exporting industries – even very bad factory work kicks the crap out of tending a rice paddy.

But the Theory of Comparative Advantage doesn’t answer the question, and pretending that it does is an insult to everyone’s intelligence. In the absence of a redistributive mechanism, the claim that “economics” proves that “free trade is good for everyone” is no better than a verbal trick.

Footnote  All that is aside from the fact that deals like the TPP embody not very much actual reduction in trade barriers (which are pretty low by now to start with) and lots of less desirable (except to special interests) provisions such as imposing the absurdly inefficient and unjust “intellectual property” regime the patent- and copyright-holders have bought from the U.S. government on the rest of the world, and subordinating local health and safety rules to the whims of unelected international tribunals dominated by servants of big business. (For example, the international tobacco companies are challenging Australia’s plain-pack rule for cigarettes as a WTO violation.) In principle, trade deals could also require respect for labor rights and environmental interests, but  those provisions are mostly for show. 

 

 

 

When graduated re-entry is first-best, not just second-best

Megan McArdle defends the Graduated Re-Entry proposal against critics who would prefer to replace prison with nothing, or perhaps with a menu of social services and income supports designed to help offenders straighten out their lives. She does so on “second-best” grounds: even if you were a prison abolitionist in principle, you ought to prefer Graduated Re-Entry to the status quo, and full-on prison abolitionism isn’t politically feasible and probably never will be. In particular, the rhetorical strategy of shifting the blame for crime from criminals to voters (for supporting policies that generate concentrated multi-generational poverty) strikes McArdle as a sure loser.

On the one hand, I agree. Even from the prison-abolitionist stance, Graduated Re-Entry might look like a reasonable second-best option: the best feasible result even if you don’t think its the best imaginable result.  And surely the attempted moral re-framing is unlikely to command majority support outside the cocoon of activists and their academic sympathizers. If some of the abolitionists want to support Graduated Re-Entry faut de mieux, I’m only too happy to have their backing.

And, indeed, a substantial fraction of prison inmates – less than half, I think, but still a very large number of people – and even larger shares of jail inmates and probationers, could benefit from a good leaving-alone on the part of the criminal justice system. As Marty Horn has remarked, “Go, and sin no more” is a sentence of great antiquity with a highly respectable provenance, and we should use it more than we now do, assuming we can manage to reconcile its use with the need to maintain general deterrence and with the just claim of the victim not to have his victimization treated as a triviality beneath official notice.

But that leaves the question of how to handle the hundreds of thousands of people who are now in prison because they did something really, really bad, and who are as likely as not to do the same sort of thing in the future unless something gets in the way. It is not merely “politics” in the pejorative sense of that term that ought to make us care about the victims: both the past victims, who want to know that the crimes committed against them were not merely shrugged off as “boys will be boys,” and the potential future victims who will suffer if nothing arises to convert current offenders into ex-offenders.

Nor is it obvious that immediate and unconditional liberty would serve the long-term interest of today’s prison inmates, though it would surely accord with their current preferences. A substantial number of those inmates have serious drug problems (especially if we count alcohol as a drug, as we surely should). Evidence from swift-certain-fair community corrections programs shows that testing and the threat of swift-certain-fair sanctions way outperforms any drug treatment program – whether the treatment is voluntary or mandated – in terms of actually getting its subjects stably abstinent. (We’re talking about the difference between 20% success and 80% success.) The freedom to pursue the life of a heroin-addicted burglar is not, in fact, an especially valuable freedom to have; as Ron Corbett remarks, in thirty-plus years as a probation officer and probation manager, he never met a happy probationer.

It would suit my prejudices to find that supportive services turned out always to be the best solution to the problem of people leading disordered lives. But, as far as I can tell, that simply is not the case. What Larry Mead calls “supervisory approaches” also have their role. I hate it when Larry is right, since I have a strong distaste for pushing people around. But that distaste isn’t evidence of anything but my upbringing; it doesn’t provide information about the actual likely results of choosing one course of action rather than another. For that sort of information we have to turn to theoretically-driven empirical investigation, and it seems to me those results are mostly in. I’d still prefer, on principle, services to supervision, and by the same token voluntary services to mandated services, where the observable outcomes are comparable. But where supervision clearly does better, I – along with my fellow liberals – need to swallow hard and just try to make the supervision as helpful, and as consistent with the self-respect of the people subjected to it, as possible.

Footnote Swift-certain-fair community corrections tends to be supervision-only. That’s not true of Graduated Re-Entry, which proposes to  use the money not being spent on a cell on a mix of heavy-duty supervision and an expensive package of supported housing and transitional (we hope) supported work.

 

 

 

 

 

Graduated re-entry and the rhetoric of reaction

This country has about five times as many people in prison and jail (per capita) as it ever had before 1975, and about seven times as many as other economically and socially advanced countries. Unfortunately, and contrary to current myth, most of those people aren’t innocent, and aren’t harmless “NonNonNons.” More than half are currently serving time for a violent offense, and many of the rest have prior convictions involving violence. So we can’t escape the mass incarceration trap by releasing “low-risk” offenders; to get back to a civilized rate of imprisonment, we need to get some seriously guilty people out of cellblocks. The current system of taking someone who is locked up (and fed, clothed, and housed at public expense) one day and turning him loose the next day under sporadic supervision, with $40 and our very best wishes for success in his future endeavors, is obviously idiotic, and the results are predictably rotten.

Angela Hawken, Ross Halperin, and I have proposed an alternative system of early release under tight supervision and with supported transitional work and housing, plus strong incentives – in the form of gradually increasing liberty – to find and hold non-supported employment.  Since nothing precisely like this has been tried before – that’s true of any genuinely original idea – there’s no way to predict precisely what the results would be, but there’s enough data on specific elements of the plan, including the swift-certain-fair approach to sanctioning misconduct and rewarding compliance and achievement, to give us reasonable confidence that some version of “graduated re-entry” would outperform the current system.

Leon Neyfakh at Slate runs the idea past a distinguished criminologist and a leading advocate of decarceration. Their responses illustrate  that the use of  Albert Hirschman’s  “rhetoric of reaction” is not restricted to one side of the political spectrum. Every new idea, Hirschman says, is attacked on three bases: futility, perversity, , and jeopardy. That is, the idea can’t possibly work, will actually have the opposite of its intended effect, and will create appalling risks.

Of course, all of those things might be true about any given proposal – there are a lot more bad new ideas than there are good ones – but they can also serve as mere reflex reactions, designed to cut off debate rather than foster it.

The standard “perversity” argument against more effective community corrections systems is that they will “widen the net”: instead of substituting for incarceration, they will be added on top of incarceration. They are said to be futile on the grounds that punishment has been demonstrated not to work. And the jeopardy is that, since attempts at control are doomed to fail, closer monitoring and more consistent sanctioning will only further entrap offenders in the web of the carceral state.

In fact, properly implemented swift-certain-fair approaches demonstrably succeed in changing behavior, and demonstrably reduce recidivism and days-behind-bars. But the rhetoric of reaction is designed to be fact-proof.

Otherwise it would be hard to figure out how anyone could imagine that a program that starts with people currently in prison and not scheduled to get out would possibly “widen the net.” Obviously, a graduated re-entry program is more restrictive than unconditional release: that’s the whole point. And insofar as we can identify current prisoner who would be good candidates for unconditional release, using graduated re-entry on that population instead of letting them out unconditionally would involve unnecessary expense, unnecessary intrusion, and, yes, the risk that people who would have made it on their own will instead get tripped up in a cycle of technical violation and re-incarceration. But surely there must be some population not safe to simply turn loose but safe enough to turn loose under the right sort of close monitoring. Maybe that population is small, in which case the benefits of graduated re-entry will be limited, though it still might turn out to be true that a phased re-entry will work better than a sudden re-entry.

Here’s my challenge to those who oppose graduated re-entry on the grounds that it’s too tough on offenders: Imagine that you were in prison, or that your son or brother was in prison.  Would you prefer having the next year of that sentence be served in the new “super-min” program, or on a cellblock?  Once you ask the question that way, the answer should be fairly obvious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cannabis policy for conservatives: the unpalatable vesus the disastrous

Josh Barro’s report in the New York Times starts with the debate about the Washington D.C. grow-and-give system and opens out into the broader question of whether it’s possible to create a system of cannabis controls that:

(1) Allows adult access;

(2) Substantially eliminates the harms from organized illicit business;

(3) Minimizes arrest and incarceration;

(4) Minimizes the increase in heavy use and use by minors.

Those seem to me to be the four key objectives in designing a cannabis policy. (Of course supporters of the current laws don’t regard #1 as an objective at all; tax revenue is relatively unimportant substantively, though a winning argument politically.)

Prohibition is a disaster in terms of illicit markets and law enforcement. Decriminalization might reduce the number of arrests, but wouldn’t reduce the extent of the illicit traffic (currently $40B/yr.) or do much incarceration (about 40,000 behind bars at any one time).  No one seriously proposes mounting the sort of enforcement effort that would be required to shrink the illicit trade back to the level of 20 years ago.

So prohibition is no longer a viable option, and the question is what to do instead. There’s no reason to think that commercialization on the alcohol model will have acceptable results in terms of heavy use and use by minors. “Grow and give” is one among a family of options for non-commercial legalization, alongside state-monopoly retailing, cooperative and other not-for-profit production, or production by public-benefit corporations.

Barro quotes David Frum, an adviser to an anti-legalization group, as praising grow-and-give as an “elegant” approach to finding a middle way, but doubting that it’s sustainable in the face of lobbying pressure. I share that doubt. But if a possibly workable option such as grow-and-give is politically unsustainable, what does that say about trying to hold the line on an increasingly unworkable  prohibition?

If the voters are given a choice between the current system and commercial legalization, it’s increasingly clear that they will choose to treat cannabis the way we treat alcohol. So if, like Frum (and me), you’re worried about the bad   consequences of commercialization, you ought to be working hard at building a political coalition to support some non-commercial option, even if (like Frum but not me) you would really prefer prohibition.

Twenty years ago, the anti-pot forces made the historic blunder of resisting the development of cannabis-based medications, leaving the political field clear for the “medical marijuana” bamboozlement.  Now they’re doubling down on that mistake, resisting non-commercial legalization and paving the way for the very Big Marijuana they most fear.

When the predictable upsurge in problem use arrives, the prohibition forces will have the gloomy consolation of being able to say “I told you so.” But what will console the victims of the avoidable increase in cannabis use disorder, and their parents?

John Kenneth Galbraith once defined politics as “the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” I appreciate that Frum finds the thought of people getting stoned unpalatable. But I hope that he, and his allies, will figure out – before it’s too late, if it isn’t already too late – that the results of allowing cannabis to be pushed the way alcohol is pushed are likely to be disastrous.

Standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” is picturesque, but not productive.

“Pre-existing condition” gets personal: the case of Kevin Drum

Kevin Drum explains what would happen to him if ACA were repealed: due to his cancer, he’d be uninsurable. If his current employer folded – not a remote eventuality, in the world of magazine and online journalism – he’d be s.o.l.

Kevin, let us recall, is neither poor nor reckless. He didn’t choose to get cancer. He did choose to have health insurance. Nothing he could have done – short of working for a government or TBTF private outfit – could have protected him from the risk he will face if a Republican is elected President in 2016 and does what he will have promised to do in order to become the Republican nominee.

So, here’s a challenge to my conservative and libertarian readers:  Tell me, if you can, why that would be OK with you.

I promise to publish any literate and coherent reply verbatim, or link to any post elsewhere that answers the challenge.

Update A reader points me to this Megan McArdle post from 2012, which explains in detail how a little-known provision of HIPPA (a law that long pre-existed ACA) would protect someone in the position Kevin would be in should Mother Jones fold. Anyone who has continuously maintained health insurance is, apparently, eligible to buy new insurance without underwriting. That’s not much help to people who, when they lose their jobs, don’t have enough in the bank to keep paying for unsubsidized health insurance. But that’s not Kevin’s situation. Unless some health care wonk tells me otherwise, I’ll count my challenge as having been fully met, and will have to fall back on the other 69,000 reasons Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Republican.

Second update Harold Pollack says there are more twists and turns. Yes, HIPPA protects someone who has been continuously insured, and who can afford to pay for health insurance without an employer subsidy after he’s lost his job. That would include Kevin. But what that person is protected against is only explicit discrimination in premium or coverage based on his pre-existing condition.  He’s still at the mercy of the individual-insurance market, whose products are often designed with “adverse selection” in mind: since some  healthy people who are unemployed or self-employed or employed without health benefits will decide to go uncovered rather than pay the full cost of health insurance, the individual-insurance market will have a higher share of sick people, and insurers tend to tailor their individual plans accordingly.

In the absence of ACA, insurers could and did exercise many non-underwriting strategies to avoid high-cost individuals or to impose high out-of-pocket costs on these individuals. Some of the most obvious issues included stringent annual and lifetime caps on dollar coverage now abolished under ACA. There were also limitations on benefits now included in ACA’s essential health benefit structure. HIPAA left untouched many aspects of coverage important to cancer patients and others with costly conditions. 

As I noted here, groups such as the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society had good reason to rank among the leading supporters of universal coverage.
So while HIPPA did protect a rather narrow group of relatively well-off people against the specific suckage of “underwriting” based on pre-existing conditions, they were still fully exposed to the general suckage of the individual health insurance market.
So, with that amendment to the question, this column is still open to any ACA opponent who wants to explain why we should be willing to subject ourselves to that sort of risk.

 

 

 

Sarah Chayes on kleptocracy as a security issue

Now that the teaching quarter is over, I can get to my piled-up “must-read” list.

Sarah Chayes’s Thieves of State is high on that list. My students doing their master’s project on income maintenance in Afghanistan found it invaluable.

Fortunately, today I was treated to the low-cost substitute for reading a whole book: Chayes gave a talk at UCLA. She wasn’t as funny as she was on The Daily Show, but the analysis was pretty damned compelling.

I’ve always made fun of “corruption” as an academic topic because of its excessive focus on relatively minor cash payoffs, to  the exclusion of other forms of rent-seeking. That’s not an objection that anyone could raise to Chaye’s presentation. Even the talk was too complex to be well-summarized in a blog post, but these seemed to be the key points:

1. The idea of corruption as a malfunction in governance due to poor institutional design misses the point with respect to full-on kleptocracy, which is an increasingly widespread form of government (Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Nigeria). In a real kleptocracy, stealing isn’t something that happens in the course of governing; rather, governing is a means of stealing, and what look like bugs in the system are in fact features from the viewpoint of the people running it.

2. Insurgency, whether it takes a religious form or not, is often motivated primarily by corruption.

3. Petty extortion always involves insult as well as financial injury, and sometimes involves physical injury. That makes people mad; sometimes mad enough to want to kill a cop. When someone from ISIS or Boko Haram (or, I would have added, Sendero Luminoso) hands such a person a gun and tells him that cop-killing is not only justifiable but is a religious or patriotic duty, he may well take up the suggestion.

4. In a real government, taxes are paid by ordinary people and businesses to the central government, and then sent back down to officials and contractors who do the work and to citizens and businesses in the form of services and benefits. In a kleptocracy, lower-level officials exact bribes and extortion payments from citizens and businesses, and pass the money up the chain.

5. Sometimes there’s a single fount of corruption. Sometimes there are cooperating kleptocratic networks. Sometimes those networks compete rather than cooperating, in which case politics becomes a blood sport.

6. Lots of Westerners shrug and say, “Well, that’s the way business is done over there; it’s in the culture.” But no one Chayes has talked to living under kleptocracy has that viewpoint; they’re all outraged.

7. The free flow of international capital, currency convertibility, and the sale of state assets to private parties have increased the opportunities for, and benefits of, massive corruption. A Soviet official could have a dacha, but not much of a Swiss bank account, since the ruble wasn’t actually worth anything. A Russian kleptocrat can have a bank account in London and a $20 million apartment in New York.

8. Ignoring corruption and governance in order to deal with “security issues” – or, worse, making corrupt payments to kleptocrats to keep them on our side (in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example) gets the causal arrows wrong. Corruption and government are security issues, perhaps the paramount ones.

9. Since the money winds up in the West, Western institutions, including governments, have both culpability for allowing the theft to continue and some capacity to tamp it down.

10. A serious attack on kleptocracy would involved the same sort of careful network diagrams that characterize counter-terrorist work. And it would use visa denial and in rem seizure of assets in the U.S. as systematic techniques.

11. Kleptocracy can happen here.

The talk included lots of interesting historical material (including an analysis of Luther’s 95 Theses as an anti-corruption tract) and several terrific illustrative events. Here’s my favorite. Several months before Boko Haram kidnapped 300 girls, the head of the Nigerian Central Bank – brought in to bail out the banking system in the 2009 financial crisis – discovered that $20 billion had gone missing from the state’s oil revenues. When he announced that he was going to examine banking records to figure out who had stolen the money and where had landed, the President of Nigeria fired him.

Chayes then asked how many in the audience knew about the kidnappings (all of us) and how many about the theft of $20B an the firing of the central banker (three out of about 75, at a law school talk advertised as being about corruption). [No, I wasn't among the three.]

The punchline, from Chayes’s viewpoint: when the President of the United States offered the President of Nigeria sympathy, and aid against Boko Haram, in the wake of the kidnapping, no one asked about the $20 billion, or about who had stolen the money that was supposed to pay for the bullets that the Nigerian soldiers fighting Boko Haram didn’t have. Terrorism is punished, or at least is the source of serious outrage; systemic corruption is shrugged at.

Sounds like a problem we ought to do something about. And – for the first time – I now think that there is something to be done about it, over and above my usual prescription of raising the salaries of cops and other civil servants so they can afford to be honest.

Why graduated re-entry isn’t just another halfway house

Chris Ingraham at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog has an interesting take on the graduated re-entry idea.

Ingraham’s piece addresses an obvious question: isn’t graduated re-entry just a halfway house under another name?

The answer to that, as usual, is “Yes and no,” but in this case mostly “No.”

A halfway house is a correctional facility for people being released from prison or jail, or sometimes for people who have been convicted of something that the judge doesn’t want to jail them for but also doesn’t want them to walk away from entirely, even on probation. It’s a physical facility with an actual location: that is, it needs to be built, which means it needs to be sited, which means it has to deal with complaints from the neighbors to their elected officials. Who wants to live across the street from a mini-prison?

A physical building means full-time staffing. That costs money. And neither the building nor the staff disappears if the population shrinks, so creating a halfway house is a long-term fiscal commitment. In most jurisdictions, the houses aren’t public agencies; they’re run by non-profits, raising a host of issues about contracting, governance, and accountability, especially when the contractor is free to lobby and to make campaign contributions. (What the enthusiasts for “contracting-out” often miss is that managing a contractual relationship well is more demanding, in terms of public administration, than managing an agency directly. A jurisdiction that could run its own program tolerably well might be able to find contractor who could do it better; a jurisdiction too incompetent to run its own programs will generally find that the contractors do even worse, even if they’re not simply stealing the money. And no, having them be non-profits rather than for-profits doesn’t do much to solve that problem.)

A halfway house is also a correctional institution; it’s closed, even though it doesn’t have bars, and what me might call the “halfway-in-mates” are under institutional discipline, with staff telling them what to do. Moreover, they’re living with other offenders – not obviously the best way to encourage them to form useful pro-social relationship networks – in congregate housing. It’s better preparation for free life than a cellblock, but that’s about the all that you can say for it as a means of reducing “re-entry shock.”

In the graduated re-entry program that Angela Hawken, Ross Halperin, and I are trying to develop, there’s no single physical facility; instead, there are ordinary-looking apartments, rented from private landlords, scattered around the neighborhood. That doesn’t leave much of a target for the NIMBYs. Living in your own apartment is much more like real life than living in a halfway house. In particular, there’s no reason an ex-offender who graduates out of graduated re-entry couldn’t decide to keep paying rent on the same unit (while the program rents another unit for a new participant). That would make the transition from graduated re-entry to freedom virtually seamless, by contrast with the situation of someone who is released from a halfway house and immediately needs to find new housing.

Some successful halfway-house operations, such as Stefan LoBuglio’s Montgomery County Pre-Release Center, stress jobseeking, and the good results of those efforts gives us reason to think that the employment aspects of graduated re-entry could be made to work well. Others are combined with supported-work programs, though the evaluations of supported work for ex-offenders aren’t especially encouraging. But the combination we propose – close supervision, supported non-congregate housing, and supported work transitioning to non-supported work – is, as far as we know, original.

Compared to a good halfway house – and, again, not all of them are good – a graduate re-entry program might be less successful in delivering certain services (mental health, for example, or job-readiness) simply because all the subjects aren’t immediately available together. And for some participants the addition supervision by live staff and the presence of a ready-made social group might make halfway-house life easier than life on graduated re-entry. Indeed, LoBuglio, whose long experience in this business gives his opinion weight, doubts that graduated re-entry can be made to work. (Of course, in principle, you could do re-entry in phases, with the individual apartment being the next step after the halfway house.) 

But the key point about halfway houses is how few of them there are. I can’t find a number for the total halfway-house population at any one time, but the scattered numbers I’ve identified strongly suggest that the total is well south of 100,000. Expanding that, even substantially in percentage terms, wouldn’t put much of a dent in the 2.3 million Americans now behind bars.

I love pilot programs. But they’re only useful where they can, if successful, be brought up o the relevant scale. Otherwise you get a bunch of attractive but essentially irrelevant boutique programs, which has been the fate of the drug-court idea. Graduated re-entry, if it works, is scalable.

So yes, graduated re-entry is just like a halfway house, but without the house, in the same sense that it’s a prison but without the prison. Analogies can clarify, but they can also obscure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Escaping the mass-incarceration trap

If we want to get our disgraceful incarceration rate back to our own historical level – let alone the lower levels enjoyed by other economically advanced democracies – we have to reduce the prison-plus-jail headcount by about 80%. You read that right: line up five prisoners, and let four of them out.

There are innocent people in prison, and guilty people who didn’t do anything seriously wrong and who wouldn’t threaten public safety if released. But you can’t get from where we are to where we need to be just by letting those people go. More than half of today’s prison inmates are serving time for crimes of violence. So if we’re not content with mass incarceration – as we shouldn’t be – then we have to release some seriously guilty people.

The good news is that you don’t need to lock someone up to control that person’s behavior. We’ve learned that from swift-certain fair community corrections programs such as HOPE in Honolulu, Sobriety 24/7 in South Dakota, and the Swift-and-Certain program now managing 17,000 probationers and parolees in the State of Washington.

The logical next step is to apply the same idea to people now serving prison time. Since prison is expensive, that means you can afford what would otherwise look like expensive interventions, including supported work and supported housing, without breaking the budget.  And the “graduated re-entry” approach solves the hardest problem of all: managing the transition back from prison to the community by making it a slow process rather than a discrete leap from confinement to freedom and from being fed, clothed, and housed at public expense to being on your own.

This VOX essay explores some of the options. We can’t claim now to know what will work. But it should be obvious to everyone that business as usual is not an acceptable choice.

Update More thoughts from Ed Kilgore and BooMan.

Second update Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution thinks this  is a return to the halfway-house idea and worries about excessive supervision.

Halfway houses were a good idea, but problems with staffing, siting (NIMBY), and management mean that they can’t possibly be built on anything like the relevant scale. Moreover, living in a closed facility – while obviously better than living on a cellblock – isn’t very good preparation for living free.

As to over-supervision, recall the first rule of policy analysis: “Compared to What?” This is about managing people who would otherwise be in prison.

Wicked waste: How museum culture cheats citizens out of access to art

Mike O’Hare explains how accounting policies (no, really) make art museums much less useful than they ought to be. The basic problem is that they don’t account for their art as an asset, and therefore don’t feel accountable – and aren’t held accountable – for whether they’re creating a reasonable return on that asset in terms of the experience that actual people have with art. This fits in with the taboo on “de-accessioning” (i.e., selling) art, which keeps paintings that would be important exhibits in second-rung museums isolated instead in the basements of first-rung museums. (There is one Monet on display in the state of Florida, zero in the rest of the south, zero in the Midwest outside Chicago, zero in the Mountain West, zero in the Pacific Northwest. There are twenty Monets not on display in the inventories of American museums.)

By selling 1% (by value; of course, more by item count) of its inventory, any big museum could endow free admission forever. Another 1% would finance 30% more wall space, allowing more art to be displayed. And the stuff sold wouldn’t drop down into a black hole; someone would be seeing it.

That such an obviously good idea is even controversial testifies to how ossified museum practice has become.

O’Hare’s essay is a classic piece of policy analysis; I may assign it for my first-year course. He starts with the fundamental question: What is the public interest to be served here? And then he thinks carefully through the questions of how to serve it better and what organizational and conceptual barriers are in the way.

Let’s face it: the fact that there’s only one Michael O’Hare is a Heavenly judgment on the wickedness of contemporary society. If we’d just been good, there would be at least six of him. But what’s done is done; let’s enjoy the O’Hare we have, and in the meantime let’s get something done about the scandalous waste of resources created by the way our great museums are managed.