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Introducing Violation Tracker

Posted: 26 Oct 2015 09:54 PM PDT

Violation TrackerViolationTracker_Logo_Development_R3, the first national database on corporate crime, has arrived. For me it is the culmination of nine months of work collecting enforcement data, matching some 25,000 companies in the agency records to their corporate parents and designing the site, all of this done with the help of Rich Puchalsky of Grassroots Connection.

My involvement in this kind of project actually goes back 35 years. While a young researcher for Fortune magazine, I was assigned to a story whose dubious premise was that lawbreaking was a lot more common among small businesses than large corporations. I had serious doubts about that notion and set out to collect as much information as I could about wrongdoing by the Fortune 500.

Looking back

The Hemingway classic was published on Oct. 21, 1940

When Ernest Hemingway’s now-classic novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was released, exactly 75 years ago last Wednesday, the author’s fans had some cause to tamp down their expectations. Hemingway’s stock-in-trade–finely-detailed stories of drinking and sporting in foreign lands–struck some as ill-suited to a period of great suffering.

Read the original TIME review here.

Review

Title: CAUGHT: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics

United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg

United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Author: Marie Gottschalk

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Review by Bob Lane

The United States is a world leader in many areas. Particularly as a carceral state. US “exceptionalism” is certainly true in the numbers of persons incarcerated. Russia is a distant second. Not only does it lock up so many people but it is also exceptional for its “brutal, dehumanizing practices and conditions” throughout its many jails and prisons. Although the public is mostly unaware of the situation of the carceral state, criminologists and even philosophers are beginning to notice:

How did the United States go from a country that incarcerated roughly 500,000 citizens in 1980 to one that incarcerates roughly 2.3 million today? Civil unrest and rising crime were used to focus public debate on ideals of law and order. Those ideals were then employed to justify a criminal-justice system that, given social conditions, runs counter to race-neutral, fair ideals of law and order. But absent an account of how the misapplication of these ideals was overlooked, the story is only partial.

What allowed “the misapplication of these ideals” to be overlooked, argues Jason Stanley (Yale), is “dehumanizing propaganda.” Stanley makes the case in “The War on Thugs” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

CAUGHT is an impressive accomplishment. A central theme is “how the deep penetration of neoliberalism into nearly all aspects of U.S. public policy and politics is fostering economic and political inequalities and eroding democratic institutions.” [“Neoliberalism” is a term used often. Gottschalk defines it thus, “Neoliberalism is an ideology and package of policies that deify low taxes, macroeconomic stabilization … financial and trade deregulation, privatization of public assets and services, and the retrenchment of the welfare state.] A large and densely written book (almost 300 pages and nearly another 300 pages of notes and index) its story begins with a description of the country’s extraordinary incarceration rate, proceeds to analyze how this came about by looking at the history and causes of crime, and offers some suggestions for a much needed reform. It is a scholarly work full of notes, bibliography, index and useful charts. A “well done” for the inclusion of a table of abbreviations to help one through the thicket of abbreviations and acronyms.

In the twelve chapters comprising the book we learn how the carceral state has grown over the last 75 years in the United States and how it is that “the prison industry” has become such a big player in the politics and culture of the country. We learn, in short, that crime pays; there is an immense profit from mass imprisonment for the private companies involved in the building and maintenance of the prisons. One growth area is in immigrant detention facilities which “have been a booming business for private, for-profit prison companies.” We learn some interesting and shocking numbers from the incarceration rate of 2009: (p. 209)

  • 2,300/100,000 for non-Hispanic blacks
  • 1,000/100,000 for Hispanics
  • 400/100,000 for non-Hispanic whites

We are invited to think about the purpose of incarceration. To protect the public? Yes, but clearly not all of the millions incarcerated are a danger to the public. To rehabilitate prisoners so that they can become tax-paying productive citizens? Not very successful. In fact studies show that “no skills-based, education-based, or attitude-based employment programs have succeeded in lifting a large portion of poor people out of poverty.” (p. 89) Evidence shows that instead of changing something about workers (skill, education, and attitude) we need to focus on the labor market to make more high quality jobs available. To “get tough on crime” as a way of deterring future crime? Well “recent state-of-the-art research in criminology has largely substantiated Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria’s claim from the 18th century that the certainly of punishment is a far greater deterrent to crime than the severity of the punishment.” (p. 176)

Language usage is one of the subjects to consider. The United States and several of its states are enamored, not of facts, but of catchy and truculent phrases like “War on crime”, “War on Drugs”, “War on Illegals”, and “War on Sex Crimes” and so on. War seems to be in the US DNA. And, of course, wars are costly and often poor policy. Perhaps the main evidence based policy recommendation is that what is needed is a war on emotional response policy that gives citizens the false belief that something worthwhile is being done by the policy makers. Evidence points directly to the fact that “The crime crisis is directly related to deeper structural problems in ways that the crisis of the carceral state is not.” (p. 260)

Why should we care? Because “. . . the carceral state is not only upending individual lives and certain communities but is also upending key democratic and governing institutions in the US.” (p. 257)

  • Civil death – in 2010 almost 65 million people in the USA have a criminal record leading to bans on voting, employment, and serving on juries.
  • Surveillance – post-prison controls.
  • Employment discrimination.
  • Disenfranchisement – in 2010 some 2.5% of the voting-age population were ineligible to vote.

CAUGHT is a wake-up call for evidence based action to reform a system and a public attitude that has led to the United States holding a world record for incarcerating more of its people than any other country.

Recent action in the USA.

A brief report from Dr. Laura Shanner’s IPP talk

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 19.39.51 - Laura Shanner

Dr Laura Shanner is a wonderful public speaker.

At her IPP talk on October 22, she covered a gamut of topics, from public policy to personal responsibility, and painted a picture of epidemology that showed we were unprepared in Canada for the SARS outbreaks of the early nougthies, a remnant of public health legislation that was and is often outdated.

She covered some basic terminology to explain outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics, and went over historical examples, such as the Black Plague pandemic in Europe, and more recent ones such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. She also gave some estimates over how large a pandemic might need to be before its ripple effect throughout a population could bring life as we know to a halt. (The answer: Initially not that large, on the order of 15-20% of people affected directly, with a much larger, secondary ripple effect that spreads out and causes much greater disruption.)

A recurring theme throughout her presentation was the need to prepare NOW, rather than having to apply some form of ‘lifeboat ethics’ at the time of a major event, when ethical choices about who might receive treatment and who might not will always result in outcomes that are far less than ideal. Lifeboat ethics are always an exercise in tragic choices, in her words.

Dr Shanner also brought home some excellent points about how our own brains get in the way of being prepared, for an array of different reasons, such as our tendency not to pay heed to probabilistic predictions, being in denial of what might happen or what is happening around us (the latter witnessed during in the Ebola outbreak), and so forth.

Since the SARS outbreak, a whole body of work has sprung up that purports to provide ethical guidelines for public health preparedness and that outlines a framework for steps to take in reaction to events. She used these a couple of specific articles to go over some examples, and these articles turn out to be available online:

The response taken by public health officials needs to be effective, proportional, necessary, infringes on individuals as little as possible and can be justified publicly (in the Childress version). Upshur’s article has a similar framework that also includes the notion of reciprocity–how health care workers can be expect to be treated in return for potentially putting their lives on the line. Upshur also specifically invokes John Sutart Mill’s harm principle to help qualify how a public health response might need be formed.

There was much, much more discussed at Dr Shanner’s IPP talk, and I cannot go into all of it here. She started out with a disclaimer that she did not want to be alarmist, but the message in the end was clear: There is a great deal of work left to be done in the public health policy arena before we can consider ourselves well prepared, not just in developing nations, but also in those places that are considered reasonably well off, such as Canada.

Dinner at Asteras on Wesley Street after the talk was equally excellent, and a lively conversation continued until almost 9 PM. Overall, a wonderful evening and one that more than lived up to the expectations of an IPP talk!

Harper’s on China

Chongqing in China

Chongqing in China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Report — From the November 2015 issue

The New China Syndrome

American business meets its new master

It’s May Day, and a rambunctious crowd of well-dressed people, many carrying blue and yellow parasols, has pushed into a Ford dealership just north of Chongqing, China. Mist from a car wash catches the sun, and I watch a man in a striped shirt poke at the gleaming engine of a midsize Mondeo while his wife sits in the driver’s seat and turns the wheel. Overhead, a giant banner of a Mustang painted Communist Party red ripples in the spring breeze.