Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lets "Decommodify" People

There is one point on which Adam Smith, the godfather of classical economics, and Karl Marx, its severest critic, are in basic agreement: that our "market society" is founded on the "commodification of labor." To quote Benjamin Radcliff, author of The Political Economy of Human Happiness:" The phrase is designed to illustrate the fact that people's ability to work---which is to say, their human capacity for intelligence, creativity, imagination, and judgment that separates them from the machines they manipulate--is something that is bought and sold in the market like any other commodity." Individuals must, of necessity, "sell their capacity to work--in order to survive." Given the difficulty of separating "who we are" from "what we do," it is well-nigh impossible not to "take the further step and simply think of people themselves being "commodified," i.e. being themselves turned into commodities." As counterintuitive as it may be, the first published exposition of the concept came in 1776, on page 67 of Smith's Wealth of Nations, the "bible" of classical economics,
as well as of today's neo-classical version. As you history and econ majors undoubtedly know, Marx was not even born until 1818. Two of America's most revered political philosophers--Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln--both asserted that labor was necessarily antecedent, and therefore superior, to capital.

Although Smith and Marx are in substantial agreement concerning the logic, advantages, and costs of capitalism, they diverge over the structural differences between the market for labor and that for everything else. Smith regards labor as a unique genus of commodity, and therefore governed by a different set of rules in the marketplace. He concurs with Marx that employers take advantage of their privileged positions to extract a disproportionate share of the "surplus" from their subordinates, that employees are forced to submit to this inequitable bargain because of their absolute need to provide for themselves and their families when the "means of production" are beyond their control, and that "profit" comes from the owner's disproportionate appropriation of the "surplus" or "value" created by the efforts of the workforce. That being the case, increased productivity ought to result in higher wages as well as greater profits, but we all know that the reality is more of a nightmare than a fairy tale. While Smith agrees with Marx that employers will maximize their self-interest by reserving a disproportionately large share of the surplus for themselves and their organizations, he concludes that this disparity can--and should be--remedied by removing what he considers "artificial restraints" on the labor market. Doing so, Smith posits, would establish a genuinely free labor market in which the worker's share of the surplus would be set by the same "invisible hand" that determines the price of every other, non-human kind of commodity. Marx, to the contrary, insists that the guiding hand needs to be "visible," in the form of what John Kenneth Galbraith brilliantly termed "countervailing forces," chiefly the organization of workers and the power of the democratically controlled state. It is precisely that divergence in remedies that still continues to place today's progressives/liberals and conservative/reactionaries at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

The operant question, then, is how to "decommodify" labor in order to bring about "the greatest good for the greatest number." I firmly believe that the most effective and reasonable solution is that laid out by Professor Radcliff in his The Political Economy of Human Happiness. At the risk of oversimplifying his carefully constructed and meticulously researched argument, the task requires three basic elements: Labor Unions, Big Government, and the Welfare State. Transactions in the market economy, Radcliff explains, "depends on an inherent asymmetry in power between two classes of persons, one of which depends for its livelihood on the sale of its labor power as a commodity, and another who purchases that commodity in order to so profit by." Capital is always in a superior position because "its very ownership over the capital resources that allow production ensure that it need not engage in wage or salary labor in order to survive or flourish." (He makes it abundantly clear that this same asymmetry obtains regardless of whether the laborers are unskilled workers toiling for a miniscule wage or a well-educated, highly-skilled, relatively well compensated professional. Although Radcliff avoids using the trite "golden rule" cliché that "he who has the gold makes the rules," the same logic obviously applies.)

The economic advantages of collective versus individual bargaining on wages, hours, working conditions, and "fringe benefits" are too well documented to rehearse here. What is less appreciated is the fact that non-union employees of the same enterprise also share in those benefits, and that union -negotiated contracts enhance pay scales throughout entire industries or professions. (My Dad was  a dues-paying member of the brewery workers union who was often involved in contract negotiations. I remember his anger when his fellow employees who refused to pay union dues were always among the first to press him and his fellow negotiators about what benefits they had secured for everyone.) Unionized workers also wield much more political clout in lobbying for labor-friendly legislation and campaigning in elections. Unionization, Radcliff. argues, "provides the basis for mobilization in the electoral and policy-making processes, wherein unions make financial and human (i.e. activist and volunteer) contributions to progressive parties and movements so as to become, potentially, an organized interest that sees itself as representing all workers. As historian Samuel Hays famously observed about life in the Progressive Era, it is a case of "organize or perish."  Or as various commentators over the years have put it, we live in an economy that provides socialism for the rich, and free enterprise for everyone else. The most affluent Americans passionately extol the benefits of "rugged individualism," while working even more passionately to protect their own advantages by creating ever more convoluted and powerful organizations. Moreover, unions bestow upon their members a sense of "agency"---of belonging to something greater than the individual, of making a difference, of "mattering" in the larger scheme of things, of being more of a valued human being, instead of  just a commodity.

Big Government and the Welfare State are almost inextricably intertwined. It is well-nigh impossible to conceive of a big government that does not include a variety of welfare functions within its scope. It is equally ridiculous to imagine a welfare state that is not a vital component of a vast and complex administrative apparatus. As Radcliff cogently explains, the welfare state "directly transfers income from its a priori market distribution to a politically determined distribution." Specifically, it "distributes unemployment and sickness benefits, family allowances, pensions, and other kinds of income maintenance to those in need." In short, it "decommodifies" persons in a manner that fundamentally changes the basic relationship between workers and employers, and that has profound consequences for both individuals and society. The welfare state reduces poverty and increases standards of living, ameliorates the insecurity endemic in the market system, as well as the pathologies resulting from it. In myriad ways, it also conveys a sense of "agency": the ability to control one's own life and to make free choices. It enables families to maintain an acceptable standard of living "independent of market participation," and "emancipates" them from "the deleterious consequences of the market." 

Besides administering the Welfare State, Big Government attempts to bring some measure of equity and rational order to the economy and the environment. The U.S. has never had an a completely unregulated, laissez-faire economy (not with Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay setting the boundaries), but the marketplace and the desire for untrammeled growth and profit ran amok during most of the 19th century. Government regulation of the economy haltingly began with the Granger Laws of the 1870s, the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. It picked up steam during the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The defining issue of the landmark election campaign of 1912 between TR and WW was whether the "Trusts" (code word for Big Business domination of the economy) should be "busted" or "regulated." Funny thing, small business people, farmers, workers, and just about everyone else regarded mergers producing monopolies or oligopolies to be a threat to their economic well-being. Nowadays we celebrate them as if they benefit everyone. <Who was more savvy--them or us?> The reforms of the Wilson administration--aided by World War I--produced the beginnings of a reasonably effective regulatory state, and those of the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society built upon that foundation. The attempt to roll back the accomplishments of the Progressive Era during the 1920s resulted in the Great Depression, which, in turn, gave impetus to demands for greater federal regulation.

Even Eisenhower, Nixon, and mainstream Republicans generally understood that the Regulatory State and the Welfare State were not only here to stay, but were also the necessary components of a prosperous and equitable economy.So did most of the leaders in business and finance, even though they had to contend with high taxes, reasonably strict regulations, and empowered labor unions. The result was more than three decades of continuous growth and prosperity, the longest and most productive in our history. But it all began to unravel in the 1980s, and has been on a precipitous downward slide ever since. Much of that decline has been due to globalization, cybernation, technological revolution, downsizing, outsourcing and other supposedly "apolitical" developments, but the impact could have been far less devastating if most of the Big Government apparatus had not been systematically and maliciously trashed by reactionary Republicans and  "centrist, third way" Democrats, at the behest of Big Business and even Bigger Finance. For more detailed discussion see my posts of May 20, 2013 ("The Right Wing Juggernaut"), October 23, 2013 (Back to the 19th Century," and Rule and Ruin: the Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party by Geoffrey Kabaservice.

Of course, it goes without saying that Labor Unions, Big Government ,and the Welfare State are the major targets of "commodifiers,",Tea Partiers, and all those who don't understand where their own self-interest really lies. As I stated in my post about The Political Economy of Human Happiness (January 1, 2014), I wholeheartedly agree with Radcliff's argument that everyone---even the super rich and their minions--fare better under a progressive, "decommodified" regime. The historical record on that point is beyond serious dispute. But I am under no illusion that they will experience an epiphany and begin to work with progressives to build a just and humane society. It will have to be forced upon them.They will resist with every weapon at their disposal. It will be a long and bitter conflict, but "the good guys" have triumphed before.  <See my The Income Tax and the Progressive Era for a detailed account of the decades-long  struggle to enact the federal income tax over the ferocious resistance of the super-rich during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.> What can we, as mere mortals, do to bring about "the greatest good for the greatest number"? We can strive to be "active citizens," instead of "passive consumers" or "commodities in the marketplace.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


On an almost purely partisan vote, the Wisconsin State Legislature just passed three bills designed to prevent countless numbers of citizens from exercising our most cherished political right--VOTING!! The first drastically limits extended voting hours into the night and weekends. The second allows "election observers," to stand as close as three feet from people registering to vote or picking up their ballots. (Current law stipulates that the chief inspector of elections or the municipal clerk designate those areas.) The third would permit those "observers" to come from any place within the county limits of the polling place, whereas they now must reside in the same municipality or ward. The lone Republican dissenter was Senator Dale Schultz of Richland Center, who is not planning to run for reelection. "I am not willing to defend them.[i.e., his party's blatantly anti-democratic
measures designed to disenfranchise tens of thousands of legitimate voters, especially those residing in Dane, Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha counties>. I'm just not , and I'm embarrassed by this.." It's "just sad when a political party has lost so much faith in its ideas that it's pouring all of its energy into election mechanics," he continued ." We should be pitching as political parties our ideas for improving things in the future rather than mucking around in the mechanics and making it more confrontational at the voting sites and trying to suppress the vote."

The sponsor of these particular abominations--Republican Senator Glen Grothman of West Bend--disingenuously asserts that "it is important that we do something toward establishing uniformity for early voting around the state." He and the rest of the Republican caucus self-righteously protest--with their usual  disdain for reality and truth--that their only goal is to promote "fairness," because rural and small-town areas don't have the money or the ability to hold extended in-person absentee voting hours. ("Fairness" seems to have superseded--or at least supplemented-- "honesty" as the operant Republican virtue>) The rest of us understand that "fairness" and "honesty" are both euphemisms for disenfranchising large numbers of potential Democratic voters--minorities, college students, the elderly, the homeless, the poor, and inner-city residents in the state's largest municipalities. As the Democratic opposition rightly insists, the proper role of the legislature ought to be to expand voting opportunities, not restrict them. Even if their rationales for these measures are sincere, why should urban voters have to conform to the unfamiliar rhythms of life and work in other parts of the state? Democratic Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee hit the nail right on the head when she charged that "it screams of backward-thinking mentality, all the way back to Jim Crow and you ought to be ashamed." It is an attempt to destroy the work of 225 years of American political history, whose central theme has been to expand the electorate from a handful of propertied white males to all adult citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religious belief, socioeconomic class, or political persuasion. That history has essentially been a refutation of the arrogant utterance of John Jay, our first Attorney-General and later Supreme Court Justice: "The people who own the country ought to run it." The people who "own the country" today are too devious and savvy to openly espouse Jay's rhetoric, but their actions graphically betray their ideology.

For those who have difficulty recalling the sordid details of the  nefarious Great Purge of 2012, I suggest consulting my post of September 27, 2012 entitled "Voter Repression II," as well as the definitive The Truth About Voter Fraud," published by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. For a more up-to-date information, please check out "" It provides information, statistics, and analysis on the various types of voter fraud, and on the "Voter ID Laws" of more than 20 states. It demonstrates how these statutes are crafted to prevent low-income families, students, seniors, and ethnic minorities from exercising their franchise. They have found just 13 cases of in-person voter impersonation out of 649 million votes cast in general elections between 2000 and 2010. Moreover, 12 percent of voting-age citizens do not have a valid form of state ID. To obtain a "free ID," they need a certified birth certificate, which costs from $10 to $45 depending on the state, a passport which costs $85, and certified naturalization papers which cost $19.95. This highly informative website also reveals that electoral "fraud" includes intimidation, vote buying, misinformation, misrecording of votes, misuses of proxy votes, destruction/invalidation of ballots, and tampering with electronic voting machines.

Fortunately for the integrity of our democratic political system, the coldly-calculated purge of 2012 was only sporadically successful. That it was not more devastating was primarily due to two interrelated efforts. The first was a massive "get out the vote" campaign spearheaded by the ACLU, NAACP, LWV, and a host of other progressive organizations. The other was the success of these organizations and the Department of Justice in convincing some courts to issue "stays" against " laws already enacted by Republican-dominated state legislatures. It is an absolute certainty, however, that they are gearing up for an even more ferocious assault  during the current election season, especially since the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, has "greased the wheels" by eliminating most of the enforcement machinery mandated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

All of the nefarious laws enacted prior to the 2012 elections are still on the books, and the "stays" granted in Wisconsin, South Carolina, and other states could conceivably be vacated by other courts.  Voting restrictions like those just instituted in the Badger State are of a different--and more insidious-order because they directly attack democracy itself. They are cynically intended to obfuscate the details concerning when and where and how voting can take place. Rather than "levelling the playing field"---which is the root meaning of "democracy"--they are designed to damage or destroy the "playing field" itself. It is horrendous enough to discriminate against individual voters, but it is an offense of even greater magnitude to deliberately subvert or destroy the very institutions that make it viable The real purpose of challenging individuals by invoking baseless objections is to foment arguments and delays that will frustrate those in line, thereby reducing turnout. They " eat up" already foreshortened time, call into question the legitimacy of the registration and voting processes, and discourage people who have already constricted voting time, due to work or class schedules, childcare limitations, or physical disabilities. In one Ohio precinct in 2012, the actual casting of ballots was not completed until 4:00 am, even though no one was admitted to the premises after the appointed closing time of 7:00 pm. < And why do we continue to designate Tuesday--in the middle of the work and school week--as election day? That may or may not have made sense in the late 18th century, in an agrarian society with primitive communications, and a miniscule electorate composed almost entirely of people with generous leisure time. Today, it is either the dead hand of tradition or a deliberate desire to prevent a lot of people from having sufficient opportunity to cast their ballots. You decide! >

And what is the point of allowing poll watchers to "get in the face" of minorities, the elderly, young people, the handicapped, pregnant women or women trying to keep their pre-school children from running wild, while Mommy tries to concentrate on making decisions that will directly affect their day-to-day lives? "In your face" challenges can easily lead to confrontations--verbal or even physical-that may require intervention by police and security personnel. All that brouhaha will almost certainly disproportionately affect the physically and emotionally vulnerable. It may render them too fearful of experiencing a similar trauma or just disgusted and discouraged. The 1965 VRA explicitly forbid intimidation and interference in the act of voting, but even before Shelby penalties were relatively innocuous and enforcement sporadic Members of "True the Vote," a spinoff of the Tea Party, have  bragged that their actions were calculated to make the voting experience itself like "driving and seeing the police following you."

The ultimate goal  of all these tactics, according to Charles Pierce on, is to make voting "inconvenient," and to make targeted voters "nervous about  moving through the various steps needed to comply." The solution to "the problem of the braver voters who navigate the new landscape" is to "knock them off the rolls".....or simply to get in their faces at the polls and intimidate them directly."


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Republican Senate Task Force Survey

It is obvious that the Republican National Committee has not understood my post of February 21--"Should I 'Renew My Membership in the GOP"?, in which I explained why I could not accept their generous invitation to renew membership in a political party to which I have never belonged. I know this because I have just recently received a copy of the "Republican Senate Task Force Survey Questionnaire," an "official project of the RNC." It is "registered and must be accounted for during tabulation," and should be "signed and returned, using the postage-paid envelope provided," regardless of whether or not I agree to represent my district "in this official Senate Task Force survey." It even has its own "Registration Number," which I do prefer not to reveal, because I want to continue to receive the innermost secrets of the RNC.

Question 1 asks me to rank, from "Very Important" to "Not Important," the "importance of having citizens in my state have leaders in Washington address the following issues": strengthening border security, reducing federal spending, keeping taxes low," keeping our military well trained, equipped and prepared, repealing and replacing ObamaCare, expanding domestic exploration for oil and gas, stimulating job creation in the private sector [emphasis mine], fully investigate the Obama Administration's oversight of the IRS, and "block expansion of the federal debt ceiling unless equal reductions to federal spending are made." Question 2 asks whether I believe that "President Obama's policies and leadership have helped make the economy better, had no impact on the economy, or made the economy worse."

The remaining 28 questions ask for a Yes or No response:
3. Do you want the individuals responsible for the IRS targeting conservative and Tea Party groups
          for harassment to be criminally prosecuted?
4. Are you comfortable having the same IRS officials who led the unit that targeted conservative
          groups now in charge of implementing the IRS collection of ObamaCare taxes?
5. Do you believe President Obama and the Democrats in the U.S. Senate have made creating jobs
          and helping our economic growth their number-one priority?
6. Are you in favor of raising tax rates or imposing a "millionaire's surtax" on financially successful
          individuals and families?
7. Do you believe that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of every law-abiding citizen to
          own firearms?
8. Are you concerned that rising inflation will undercut your savings, devalue your home and increase
         your cost of living?
9. Do you believe that the big government policies and tax increases being pushed by President
        Obama will help create jobs and improve the economy in your area?
10.  Do you support another round of "stimulus" spending by Democrats that adds to the federal debt 
          and provides hundreds of millions of tax dollars for special interest spending projects?
11. Should putting our federal government on a pathway to a balanced budget be a goal of the
         U.S. House and Senate?
12. Would you support a phased-in increase for Social Security benefits that would not affect anyone
         over the age of 55?
13. Should retirees be exempt from property increases on their primary residences?
14. Has the Obama Administration done enough to stop Iran's drive to build nuclear weapons?
15. Should the U.S. expand funding and deployment of our missile defense system?
16. Should Republicans demand that the federal government strengthen border security and reduce
              the immigration laws we have on the books before we pass any new measures?
17. Do you believe Obama's strategy of treating all countries as equals strengthened our security and
              weakened the resolve of our enemies?
18. Do you support efforts to repeal and replace ObamaCare?
19. Are you satisfied that the administration has told the full truth about the terrorist attack in
              Benghazi, Libya?
20. Has the government and news media provided information to ensure that our citizens hav a good
             understanding of the requirements, impact and costs of ObamaCare?
21. Are you concerned that ObamaCare eventually lead to the creation of a single-payer government-
             run health insurance and healthcare system?
22. Do you believe that you can receive the same quality of health care and accessibility through a
             government-run health care system?
23. Do you support Obama's unprecedented decision to stop enforcing and defending the Defense of
             Marriage Act?
24, Do you support overturning Roe v. Wade to allow states to regulate/restrict abortion?
25. Should church-run hospitals and schools be required to pay for birth control and abortion services
              for their employees?
26. Should federal funds be provided to non-profit clinics whose primary function is providing
27. Should the minority in the senate have the power to filibuster to block confirmation of judges and
             cabinet members that embrace radical left-wing views?
28. Do you support allowing parents to use government vouchers to send children to the school of
             their choice?
29. Are you satisfied that Republicans are effectively communicating our reasons for opposing
             President Obama's liberal agenda?  

Several of these questions are of the "when did you stop beating your wife" variety. Most remind me of a questionnaire that I had to fill out for a summer sales job when I was a penurious grad student. The "correct" answers were blatantly obvious and diametrically opposed to my own convictions. Suffice it to say, I did not get the job. These questions are similarly loaded with Republican "buzz words": targeting conservative groups, taxing financially successful individuals and families, special interest groups, radical left-wing views, and Democrat's liberal agenda. are we doing enough to prevent inflation?, (when the economy has been stagnating for years)  Several questions demonstrate their all-consuming obsession with the ACA and their determination to repeal it and replace it. (So far, the score is Repeal 37-Replace 0). Their fixation on abortion and birth control is equally obsessive and just as absurd. The one question which gave me pause was whether the GOP is "effectively communicating our reasons for opposing Obama and the Democrats."? They had better hope that they are not. Anyway, I made the same mistake that I made with that job questionnaire so many years ago. I went with my convictions. I can hardly wait to see my test score.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Voter Suppression, the War on Drugs, and the New Jim Crow

In a speech at Georgetown University, on the actual anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth,
Attorney General Eric Holder advocated for the repeal of laws that prohibit millions of convicted felons from voting--EVER, calling them a vestige of the racist policies pursued by several Southern  states during what is popularly known as "the Jim Crow Era." Most of these policies, legitimized by the ruling of the Supreme Court in Plessey v. Ferguson, persisted until the
the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s. Though he did not specifically mention it in this speech, the enforcement machinery of the Voting Rights Act was eviscerated by the ruling of an equally reactionary Court in Shelby v. Holder last year. <Yes, the same Holder, because Shelby County, Alabama, in effect, sued the U. S. government, and it was the duty of the Attorney General to uphold its duly enacted laws.

According to New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, Holder "has made racial inequities a consistent theme, and in recent months he has made it clear he sees criminal justice and civil rights as inescapably joined." He has sued Texas and North Carolina to overturn voter-identification laws that studies show are more likely to keep minorities and the poor from voting. He is also urging Congress to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offences, and has encouraged low-level drug criminals sentenced during the crack epidemic to apply for clemency. (Because a close relative fell victim to the outrageous mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines , I was an early member of Citizens Against Mandatory Minimums.)  "On all the issues that he's framed, he's put these two themes together and he sees them as very much intertwined," says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "The criminal justice system is the civil rights issue of the 21st century" Mauer opines. "He hasn't used those words, but that is what I hear when I listen to him." Laws banning felons from the voting booth <like mandatory minimum sentences for relatively minor drug offenses>  disproportionately affect minorities. African Americans represent more than a third of the estimated 5.8 million people who are prohibited from voting. By way of comparison, they represent only about 12 percent of the total U.S. population. Nearly every state <and, again remember, it is the individual fifty states that control voting requirements, subject only to the requirements of a few Constitutional Amendments, and--until the Supreme Court moved to eviscerate its enforcement provisions--the Voting Rights Act of 1965.> prohibits actual prisoners from voting, but they vary widely on whether felons can vote once they have been released. Some states allow voting while on parole, others while on probation. Some states require waiting periods or have convoluted processes before felons are allowed to even register, let alone vote. In Mississippi <surprise, surprise> passing a $100 bad check carries a lifetime ban from voting. In Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia, all felons are barred from voting for life unless they receive clemency from the governor. "This isn't just about fairness for those who are released from prison," the Attorney General insists, "It's about who we are as a nation. It's about confronting with clear eyes and in frank terms, disparities and divisions that are unworthy of the greatest justice system the world has ever known,"

Not surprisingly, felons denied the ballot are far more likely to have voted for Democrats than Republicans. A 2002 study conducted by scholars at the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University concluded that the 2000 presidential election <remember that miscarriage by the Supreme Court. Imagine a country governed by Gore instead of W. Think of how many young men and women would have been deprived of the honor of defending our way of life from Iraqi terrorists.> In the never--never-land of Florida, the state the Supreme Court allowed to put W. in office, 10 percent of the population was prevented from voting because of the ban on felons at the polls. <Guess for whom the great majority of those Floridians would have supported?>  According to Appuzo, state laws have generally become more lenient toward felon voting over the past two decades as crime decreased and voters cared less about tough-on-crime policies. Several prominent Libertarians have joined progressive Democrats in pushing for the right of felons to vote, albeit for different reasons. Right-wing Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, for example, has endorsed the efforts of legislative Democrats and Governor Steven L. Beshear to extend the ballot to felons. He has also called for reducing the state's prison population and an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes.

To a significant extent, Holder's Georgetown speech, intentionally or not, reinforces at least some of the thesis put forth by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow:Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (See my post of 1/22/14.) in which she proclaims that "an extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history. What has changed since the supposed end of the Jim Crow system, she asserts, "has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it." Since it is no longer "politically correct" to use race, explicitly as a justification for discrimination exclusion, and social contempt, "we use our criminal justice system to label people of color 'criminals,' and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to  discriminate against African Americans. Once you are labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination-----employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service--are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it."

Reading this book reminded me of Douglas Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name, but with a significantly different twist. Blackmon focuses on the post-Reconstruction South and the use of the criminal justice system to circumnavigate the 14th Amendment. Desperately in need of much  less than cheap labor to replace their newly emancipated slaves, Southern planters and industrialists inaugurated a system similar to the one illuminated by Professor Alexander. Since the 14th amendment allowed the indentured servitude of convicted criminals, Southern police departments and courts responded to this "deeply-felt need" by arresting, convicting, and sentencing large numbers of African Americans for a plethora of petty crimes, real and contrived. The prison system then "hired out" prisoners in chain-gangs and other forms of mass labor. As now, these "felons" were systematically deprived them of all political rights supposedly guaranteed by the 15th Amendment. This subterfuge became part and parcel of the original Jim Crow regime, along with poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and other devices for the disenfranchisement of blacks. Together, these perversions of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments remained in force in most states until they were seemingly invalidated by the federal legislation of the 1960s. As impossible as it has seemed for the past four decades, those rights are once again in jeopardy because of the Supreme Court's "exercise in fantasy" embodied in Shelby v. Holder. Unless that decision can be overturned, the massive disenfranchisement of African Americans in several states is almost a certainty. What makes today's situation even more dire is the fact that Sothern states still needed cheap forced black labor back during the late 19th century. Not so in today's global highly technological economy. "Warehousing" those who are "superfluous" in that economy seems the only "rational" alternative.

Professor Alexander is quick to acknowledge that she has come to this conclusion "reluctantly." She admits that as recently as ten years ago, she would have argued strenuously against the central theme of her own book: "that something akin to a racial caste system exists in the United States." If Barack Obama had been elected president at that time, she would have argued that his electoral victory "marked the nation's triumph over racial caste--the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow." Today, however, she has come to believe that his election has been tempered by "a far more sobering awareness": that what pundits proclaimed a transformative event has made little or no difference in the situation of lower and middle class African Americans. In fact, it has left most of them worse off than before.  It has fostered the debilitating illusion that most Americans have become permanently "colorblind,." that they reside in a Utopia where everyone is fairly measured by the color of their character, rather than by the color of their skin.

Alexander relates the story of her "conversion" in a few pages. Most of it occurred during her tenure as director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU. She gradually shifted her focus from discrimination in employment to criminal justice reform "and dedicated myself to the task of working with others  to identify and eliminate racial bias whenever and wherever it reared its ugly head." By the time she left the ACLU, she had become convinced  that the criminal justice "was not just another institution infected with racial bias--but rather a different beast altogether." It was only "quite  belatedly" that she came to see mass incarceration as a "stunningly comprehensive and "well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow." She admits to a certain amount of frustration in trying to get the traditional civil rights organizations to appreciate that mass incarceration is the linchpin of all other forms of racial discrimination.  People who have been incarcerated, she argues, 'rarely have difficulty identifying the parallels between these systems of social control." She also strongly disputes the argument that the War on Drugs "was launched in response to the crisis caused by crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods."  She insists that the WOD preceded the crack panic and that it "began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline."  It also came at a time when "well-respected criminologists were predicting that the prison system would soon fade away," and when prison populations were steadily declining. .

In the past three decades during which we have waged this ersatz war, Alexander charges, the U.S. penal population has quintupled, from around 300,000 to more than two million, with drug-related convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.  The U.S. now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, surpassing even highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. "The racial dimension of mass incarceration," she avers, "is its most striking feature, even though "people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates." In fact, various studies suggest that young white youths are more likely to engage in drug crimes than are people of color. Why then, she asks, is it that black men in several large cities have been imprisoned for drug crimes at rates of 25 to 50 times greater, and that as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and "are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives."? These, she proclaims, are "a part of a growing undercaste permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society." Her book, Alexander insists, "argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow, and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system."

It is a virtual certainty that Mr. Holder would not agree completely with Professor Alexander's thesis about mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, or if he is even aware of it. Even if he did fully concur ,his position in the Obama administration would prevent him from advocating it publicly. It seems more likely that his view, at this point, would closely mirror her own when she as director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU---that the criminal justice system is just another of the myriad institutions "infected with racial bias." The same is true for his personal opinion of the WOD, whatever it may be. Nevertheless, there are clearly broad areas of concurrence between the Attorney General and the author of The New Jim Crow, including the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing, the restoration of voting rights to felons who have "served their time," and who were convicted of drug-related and other non-violent crimes. Although neither Holder or Alexander has explicitly branded mass incarceration of young black men a disenfranchisement conspiracy, per se, they agree that its continuation will have the same results. (Even Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, the libertarians' libertarian, supports restoring voting rights for felons, and that "there are civil rights components to changing the sentencing laws." While he insists that such laws were "well-intentioned," Paul agrees that their implementation "can go overboard," and that "I don't think it was intended to have a racial outcome, but it did.") Since the Attorney General is also the point man in efforts to overturn--or at least profoundly mitigate--the effects of the Citizens United and Shelby County decisions, it is hard to imagine that he does not see all efforts to disenfranchise African Americans, minorities, and the lower classes as "all of one piece." It is also even harder to believe that Professor Alexander does not see an even more intertwined connection among mass incarceration and other means of voter suppression.