Friday, March 25, 2016

Governor Dayton is Correct: The Lessons of Private Prisons–Don’t Do It!

Note:  This is a preview of an op-ed of mine that will appear in Minnpost next week.

Private prisons are a major public policy mistake.  Contrary to their supporters, they are not less expense and better than public facilities.  Instead, their track record on cost, rehabilitation, and safety are generally inferior to public facilities, and their use has been to facilitate a war on drugs and petty crimes that has been racially discriminatory.
The debate to reopen a private prison in Appleton, Minnesota is reminiscent of one that took place 18 years ago.  In 1998 Minnesota was building a new correctional facility in Rush City.  State Senator Randy Kelly pushed hard for it to be privatized.  I was part of a team of impartial national experts at the Institute of Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School hired by the State to research what we then knew about the performance of private prisons across the country.  We looked at cost, recidivism, rehabilitation, safety, and legal  issues. We examined all of the studies  that then had been done on private prisons, we did extensive interviews across the country, and we toured public and private prisons. The final 1999 report, Privatization of Correctional Services:  Evaluating the Role of Private Prison Management in Minnesota, was sharply critical of the claims made by its advocates for privatization.
Initially there is a significant ethical and moral question regarding whether the punishment of crimes and offers should be done on a for-profit basis.  This is human exploitation at its worst.  One can also argue that the use of punishment and force by private individuals against another is inherently a governmental function and not something that should be privatized.  Our report raised these questions, but it went beyond the normative considerations to the empirical–what was the actual track record of private prisons, especially when compared to publicly-operated ones?
First, we found that many of the claims of cost savings were widely aggregated.  The stand measure of cost for prisons–per diem costs per inmate–did not always stand up.  Yes in some cases private prisons were less expensive per diem, but not always.   For example, in the State of Oklahoma where publicly-operated prisons had to compete with private operators for contracts to run individual facilities, the public institutions came out less expensive about half the time.  Cost was a wash.  But even here the numbers failed to reveal hidden costs.  In most of the contracts awarded to private prisons, the state was still on the hook for many medical expenses and it would be required to take back control of the prisons as a result of default or to deploy security in event of  riots.  Public dollars subsidized private prisons to make them profitable and look like they were cheaper than the public facilities.  Additionally, by the time one added in the public dollars to oversee and regulate the private prisons the savings to the taxpayer disappeared.
We also found that there were costs associated with the savings.  The areas where private prisons saved money was in first in terms of salary and skill level for corrections officers.  Public  facilities were generally well paid unions jobs that demanded a minimum skill level.   Prison privatization across the country often was a union busting activity that hired less skilled officers at much lower wages.  Second, private prisons scrimped on educational and rehabilitation services.  Third, they scrimped on everything else, leading, in the case of Oklahoma, to contracts than ran a hundred pages or more so as to require private operators to provide a range of services of sufficient quality that they tried to avoid in order to maximize profits.
What did all this mean?  In general private prisons have more safety problems than public  facilities.  There was more prisoner or innate to inmate violence and more civil rights violations in private as opposed to public facilities.  There was less emphasis on rehabilitation and higher recidivism rates in private prisons. Part of all this is a consequence of trying to save money by not providing services.  But something else was also going on.  No warden in a public prison was repeat  business.  On the other hand private prisons have a financial interest in recidivism.  The interests of the state and private prison operators is contradictory.
Finally, there is also one other major problem we found then with private prisons: the employees are not public and therefore they can go on strike.  Public prisons operated by the government employing public employees can prevent by them by state law from striking.   Private prisons and their labor relations are governed by federal law, preempting and state laws that would  bar strikes.  The potential of a strike or other labor problems raises many questions about safety.
In the 17 years since the Minnesota report was issued I have continued to research and teach  about private prisons.  For six of those years I also taught criminal justice courses.  Subsequent reports and studies largely reconfirmed the conclusions found in the 1999 report.  But the last 17 years have revealed some lessons we could not have seen then.  The rise of private prisons occurred along side the war on drugs, the broken windows theory of crime (arrest for the petty stuff before it escalates), mandatory minimum sentences, and three strikes and you’re out laws.
Nationally these laws exacted a racially discriminatory war against people of color.  In Minnesota, they led to an explosion in a prison population that has the worst racial disparities in the nation.  Private prisons have become what Nina Moore argues in The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice, a linchpin in creating a separate criminal justice system for people of color that is separate and unequal.  The private prison industrial complex is central to all the problems that Black Lives Matters rightly protests.
In sum, the lesson of prison privatization is that they are a bad option for Minnesota and Governor Dayton is correct in vetoing any bill that would allow this to happen.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Signals v Noises: How and Why the Pundits, Pollsters, Politicians, and Polticial Scientists are Confused About the 2016 Elections

Trump and Sanders perplex the professional politicians, pundits, pollsters, and even political scientists.  When I say Trump and Sanders I do not just mean them but instead they are proxies for the entire US 2016 presidential process thus far and probably until election day November 8.  No less than Nate Silver, Politics 538, and the pollsters blew it with the Michigan Democratic Primary last week.  The forecast was for a double digit Clinton victory, prompting Nate Silver to give Clinton a 98% chance winning that state’s primary.

So the question is why?  The core reason is laziness–assuming and following conventional wisdom is correct and failing to see the proper signals suggesting that something was unique about the 2016 election cycle.

Take us back to May 2015.  Back then the conventional wisdom among political insiders–and that includes politicians, political operatives, and pundits (journalists and commentators)–was that  Clinton and Bush would march to their party nominations and that the final general election would be a contest between these two predicted candidates.  Furthermore, even though Jeb Bush was going to win, the GOP had other strong candidates in Christie, Walker, and Jindal for example such that they would mount a powerful lineup against the inevitable Hillary Clinton.  Sanders campaign was dismissed as Quixote at best, with polls pointing to 60-70% leads by Clinton over him.  Trump too was dismissed as at best a vanity candidate would repeatedly implode, especially after each one of his insulting statements that all were sure would doom him.  But now of course nine months later and well into the primary season Trump is in a terrific position to win the nomination and Clinton, while leading Sanders in committed delegates, is not guaranteed and there are still reasonable scenarios for the Vermont Senator to win.  Even moving forward, assuming a Trump-Clinton contest the received wisdom is
that Clinton wins.

From my perspective all of this is wrong.  Last May I wrote about the chances of Trump and Sanders potentially winning, and I think that in a Trump-Clinton race Trump may win.  So why did do many get it so wrong?

Laziness is the issue.  Better yet, the answer is “Inside the Parkway” or “institutional disease.”  Specifically, those making the predictions are all politicians or pundits who are part of the establishment.  They are located with the narrow confines of Washington, D.C., viewing the world from that perspective.  They share the same world.  Look at CNN, MSNBC, FOX.  All the journalists know one another, their guests are from there.  They all share the same biases and perspectives and fail to see how the world looks from outside the parkway, outside of the formal institutions of power-Washington government on big  corporate for-profit
media–and they do not write from the perspective of how people view the world from the fly over regions of America.  Watch these dreary  shows, read all the on-line publications, and not just th partisan ones, and they reinforce one’s another’s biases.  They have a tight little club with the regular suspects of commentators or analysts  and none of them really look at the world from a different perspective beyond what they see from  their desks and studios in Washington.  They drool out conventional wisdom about how they view or think the world should operate, failing to recognize that just because they so it does not make it so.

What they missed of course then is the depth of anti-institutionalism pervading American society.  They confuse what has politically worked in the past with what is happening now or what will work in the future.  They simply think that the past is a certain predictor of the future without asking if there are any changed conditions that might suggest a new reality this year.  This is the laziness I speak of; and it is the source of confusing signals and noise.

What are some signals that should have been seen?  First, few appreciate the generational shift occurring in American politics.  Baby Boomers just don’t get this.  They are near clueless that  the power shifted from Boomers to Gen Xers with Obama and now it is shifting to Millennials.  They seem clueless to the different objective conditions driving Millennial politics.  This is a structural shift in politics and Clinton and her supporters largely fail to understand this.  Clinton represents old style politics–the type that brought us the Iraq War, massive student loan debt, a grim economic future, and global warming. The Boomers wanted a revolution to change the world and they not only failed but handed Millennials a crappy future.  The politicians and pundit class are Boomers.

But what is also missed is something else.  In a bipartisan fashion the policies of both the Democrats and Republicans over the last two generations have screwed over most people.  Republicans have explicitly become the party of plutocrats, losing track of the strategy Kevin Phillips endorsed in 1969 The Emerging Republican Majority which said that Nixon and the Republicans could capture the silent middle class majority by developing policies to help them. Reagan walked away from this strategy and the GOP has done little to address the economic problems of their base.  Similarly, the Democrats, especially Bill Clinton, became corporate Democrats, and they too have done little for middle class America. This is even true of Obama who worried more about restructuring Wall Street with tepid laws than in helping homeowners. He never supported reform to labor or union laws, never pushed on the minimum wage. Trump and Sanders  emerge as challengers to this anger.

The Republican and Democratic leadership has simply assumed they are the party and do what they want and often do not think that what others think matters.  Yes we have primaries and caucuses, but the GOP establishment has their silent primaries to pick who they want and the Democrats have their super delegates as the fail safe against  the people.  In both cases the leaders of the party are saying that the real people do not matter.  Create an insulated structure like this and it is no wonder the parties failed to see what is happening.

But the other signal missed this year is not understanding on the one hand that presidential politics is mostly television-driven, assuming what I have said is a politainment status that favors candidates who look and speak well on television.  Thus Trump.  But politics also goes to those who can best master new communication forms, and again Trump and Sanders have an advantage.  But at the same time one of the noises confusing so many is that too many come to believe all that is posted on the Internet or that simple spin is enough or that if one blurts out enough rage that will be  enough to change minds or win votes.  In effect, too many people are inferring too much from the social media in terms of what it tells us about the election.

Another noise has been the polls.  Polls have become rarefied and objectified into the belief they are firm predictors of the future. Remember, polls are snap sots of public opinion in time that  reflect knowledge and awareness at a point T in time.  People’s opinions change and they gather information and pay attention.  Pollsters have assumptions about who will participate or vote they are often flawed and even the best polls may not sample properly (this is especially the case with younger cell phone users).  Finally, statistically even the best polls run at least a 5% chance of being wrong, and this does not count sampling errors.

Overall, the point is that laziness, inside the beltway disease, group think, and a host of biases and failures to see signals versus noises is what is making it so hard for so many to make sense out of the 2016 elections.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Super Delegates, Diversity, and Party Democracy

My recent blog and Minnpost essay sharply criticized party democracy in both the Republican and Democratic parties, expressing concern about who is the party and the clash between party elite and rank and file or voters.   One issue was the role of super delegates within the Democratic Party.  Less the point was missed, one part of the story about them is how their introduction in the 1970s was in fact to democratize the party.  More specifically, until the 1970s the face of the Democratic Party was White Caucasian male.  The delegates expressed little diversity and the same could be said about the party leadership.
Super delegates were a reform measure.  They brought women, people of color, and other groups and voices into the Democratic Party.  For that the super delegates should be applauded.  The issue one should not ignore is that balancing democracy with diversity, or majority rule with minority rights is a central tension for all societies including the US, and it also a problem for the parties.   I generally remain concerned about the role that Super Delegates have in the Democratic Party but also think we should not lose track of another overriding concern–inclusion and diversity.  Should there be an effort to get rid of the super delegates one must also make sure processes are in place to guarantee diversity and respect for a range of voice and perspectives within the party, including those who represent the next generation of members.
For the Democrats the challenge seems to be with bringing in and accommodating the Millennials in the party.  The Democratic Party is really torn now between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers (to a lesser extent) and more strongly Boomers and Millennials. Clinton is challenged to reach out to those who are younger than 30, and it is not clear that they will turn out for her should she secure the nomination.    Moreover, even among those who support Clinton, including  people of color, their turnout is weaker than for Obama in 2008 and overall the enthusiasm factor for her among Democrats tepid.  For Clinton to win she needs to bridge these gaps, and part of her problem still is about constructing a narrative for her presidency as well as about her being the candidate of status quo and the establishment in a year yet again about change and the anti-establishment.
For Republicans the issue of inclusion pits the main line members against the core Trump supporters.  Many Republicans want the party to change and shed its plutocratic and socially conservative image.  This too is a debate about party democracy and inclusion of diverse view points.

The States that Matter
There is an Internet post that points to Clinton doing well in Republican states a Democrat will not win in November and how Sanders is doing well in swing states. That post makes a good point.   As I argue in my new book all things considered the presidential race is effectively over in 40 states and there are only 10 swing states that will decide the fate of the presidency.  Among those 10 swing states, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada.  These five states also happen to have already had Democratic caucuses or primaries.  Sanders has won two (Colorado and New Hampshire), Clinton two (Virginia and Nevada), and one was essentially tie (Iowa).   More or less they are even in the swing states so far.
Yet one needs to worry about the average turnout in these states for Democrats compared to Republicans.  Second, in thinking about the general election the winner of these and the other swing states will be the candidate who can mobilize the swing voters.  Swing voters really do not swing that much between Republican and Democrat, but instead swing in or out of voting, with people of color, single and suburban woman, and young voters being the most important.  These are the people Democrats need this November and it is not clear (as noted above) they will vote or turnout in the numbers Democrats need.  Finally, among swing voters, Clinton and Trump and not viewed favorably and instead have 50%+ negatives.
In sum, the presidential election is about how swing voters in swing states view Clinton and Trump, assuming they are the nominees.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Amid the 2016 presidential campaign, tension rises over an enduring political question: 'Who is the party?'

Note:  Today's blog in Minnpost on March 2, 2016.

Although neither prevailed in Minnesota, Super Tuesday was good for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The overall winners nationally, they amassed a lot of delegates in their quests for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. Yet their candidacies, in different ways, are demonstrating an important fact about contemporary American party politics: It remains elitist and anti-democratic.

Trump is the anti-establishment candidate, Clinton the pick of the party elites. Both the leadership of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) think they are serving as the guardians of orthodoxy against the insurgents, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders respectively. The committee leaders think they are the party and that they have the right to decide who gets the nomination through an invisible primary. Many political scientists, especially those who support strong parties, also agree. But should that be so?

Historically, “Who is the party?” has been a contested issue in American politics. Early on in the 19th century, before universal franchise, party elites picked candidates in the proverbial smoke-filled backrooms. There was no democracy — no primaries or caucuses, no people's choice. The party was the personal property or domain of its elites. But as franchise expanded and parties opened up, presidential candidate selection changed. It morphed from backrooms to conventions. But conventions still represented an elite — party regulars and insiders who made the choices. Enter the rise of primaries and caucuses in the 1960s.

A setback in '68, and another move forward
Primaries and caucuses were a major move forward, democratizing the party selection of presidential candidates. In theory open to the party faithful to vote, they were a huge step forward. But in 1968 when insurgent Sen. Eugene McCarthy challenged the presumed Democratic Party nominee President Lyndon Johnson and the Chicago Democratic National Convention virtually ignored him and those who supported McCarthy, that showed how closed the DNC remained. As a result, the McGovern-Fraser Commission proposed more reforms to open up that party. It was yet again another leap toward redefining the party to mean not just the elites but perhaps more average voters, but including women, the young, and people of color. Republicans, too, opened up their party more, and together the two parties expanded caucuses and primaries as a way to enrich and expanded participation. But now the 2016 elections demonstrate the limits of party democracy.

Consider first the Democrats. Prior to Super Tuesday, Clinton had only a modest lead over Sanders in pledged delegates. Yet she had an enormous advantage with superdelegates in the invisible primary. These are individuals who are not selected by the people in primaries and caucuses – they are party leaders and elected officials. In 2008 Clinton and Obama battled over them, and now in 2016 Clinton’s ultimate advantage may lie with them. Their existence may be enough to give her a lock on the nomination in simply a matter of a couple of weeks. These delegates serve effectively as anti-democratic checks upon the people attending caucuses and primaries, potentially thwarting majority rule or biasing the presidential selection process from the get-go. They are analogous to the electors and the Electoral College, serving as an outdated feature of a political system once elite-driven and hardly democratic.

Clinton’s probable party nomination through superdelegates is increasingly seen by a new generation of voters – mostly the millennials – as illegitimate and anti-democratic. Clinton may win this way, but it does the Democratic Party no good. It appears to disenfranchise a new generation of party members and, moreover, it forestalls the ability of the Democratic Party to evolve to reflect the preferences of a new generation. It is effectively reactionary party politics freezing the party in the mind of its leaders.

A displeased Republican leadership
Trump’s challenge is fascinating as rumors circulate that the Republican orthodoxy is displeased with his probable nomination. Efforts to back Rubio as the alternative, or stories of how perhaps party leaders are signaling to GOP candidates that they can distance themself from Trump show that the party leaders think they know what is best for the party. Yes, his rhetoric is awful, but there is one thing good about Trump: He is possibly facilitating needed party change. The Republican Party needs to evolve; it faces a demographic time bomb ready to explode; and its policy positions are often out of sync with those found in public-opinion polls. Yet mainstream Republicans want to deny this need to evolve. And since the Republicans do not have superdelegates, it may be easier for that party to change than for the Democrats to do so. The stance of the RNC leadership thus is bad long-term politics, and also a sign of how noncommittal that party, too, is toward real democracy.

We can hope that 2016 will be the year the Republicans and Democrats take the next step toward democracy by making the people and not the leadership the definition of who is the party. Party leadership should not stand in the way of change; they need to let the people – the real party – decide what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat and not themselves. A party that is truly strong is one that is democratic and listens to its people and not just to its invisible leaders.

Postscript:  Reinforcing my point that there is less than majority rule in the two major parties, consider two facts.  First despite Sanders winning 61% of the caucus vote in Minnesota on Tuesday Clinton wins almost as many delegates as Sanders  because of the super delegates. And now consider the GOP efforts to denounce Trump despite what the Republican voters are saying.  It seems either we should have majority rule within parties and let the members decide or just abandon the charade of  having caucuses and primaries where the people decide and just have the leaders decide.  Why bother with the facade of  primaries except for the fact they are a way to give an illusion of choice.