Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • Does the USA Really Soak the Rich?

    Oct 10, 2014Mike Konczal

    There's a new argument about taxes: the United States is already far too progressive with taxation, it says, and if we want to build a better, eglitarian future we can't do it through a "soak the rich" agenda. It's the argument of this recent New York Times editorial by Edward D. Kleinbard, and a longer piece by political scientists Cathie Jo Martin and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez at Vox. I'm going to focus on the Vox piece because it is clearer on what they are arguing.

    There, the researchers note that the countries “that have made the biggest strides in reducing economic inequality do not fund their governments through soak-the-rich, steeply progressive taxes.” They put up this graphic, based on OECD data, to make this point:

    You can quickly see that the concept of "progressivity" is doing all the work here, and I believe the way they are going to use that word will be problematic. What does it mean for Sweden to be one of the least progressive tax state, and the United States the most?

    Let’s graph out two ways of soaking the rich. Here’s Rich Uncle Pennybags in America, and Rik Farbror Påse av Mynt in Sweden, as well as their respective tax bureaus:

    When average people usually talk about soaking the rich, they are talking about the marginal tax rates the highest income earners pay. But as we can see, in Sweden the rich pay a much higher marginal tax rate. As Matt Bruenig at Demos notes, Sweden definitely taxes its rich much more (he also notes that what they do with those taxes is different than what Vox argues).

    At this point many people would argue that our taxes are more progressive because the middle-class in the United States is taxed less than the middle-class in Sweden. But that is not what Jo Martin and Hertel-Fernandez are arguing.

    They are instead looking at the right-side of the above graphic. They are measuring how much of tax revenue comes from the top decile (or, alternatively, the concentration coefficient of tax revenue), and calling that the progressivity of taxation ("how much more (or less) of the tax burden falls on the wealthiest households"). The fact that the United States gets so much more of its tax revenue from the rich when compared to Sweden means we have a much more progressive tax policy, one of the most progressive in the world. Congratulations?

    The problem is, of course, that we get so much of our tax revenue from the rich because we have one of the highest rates of inequality across peer nations. How unequal a country is will be just as much of a driver of the progressivity of taxation as the actual tax polices. In order to understand how absurd this is, even flat taxes on a very unequal income distribution will mean that taxes are “progressive” as more income will come from the top of the income distribution, just because that’s where all the money is. Yet how would that be progressive taxation?

    We can confirm this. Let’s take the OECD data that is likely where their metric of tax progressivity comes from, and plot it against the market distribution. This is the share of taxes that come from the top decile, versus how much market income the top decile takes home:

    As you can see, they are related. (The same goes if you use gini coefficients.)

    Beyond the obvious one, there's a much deeper and more important relationship here. As Saez, Piketty and Stantcheva find, the fall in top tax rates over the past 30 years are a major driver of the explosion of income inequality during that same exact period. Among other ways, lower marginal tax rates give high-end mangagement a greater incentive to bargain for higher wages, and for corporate structures to pay them out. This is an important element for the creation of our recent inequality, and it shouldn't get lost among odd definitions of the word "progressive," a word that always seems to create confusion.

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    There's a new argument about taxes: the United States is already far too progressive with taxation, it says, and if we want to build a better, eglitarian future we can't do it through a "soak the rich" agenda. It's the argument of this recent New York Times editorial by Edward D. Kleinbard, and a longer piece by political scientists Cathie Jo Martin and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez at Vox. I'm going to focus on the Vox piece because it is clearer on what they are arguing.

    There, the researchers note that the countries “that have made the biggest strides in reducing economic inequality do not fund their governments through soak-the-rich, steeply progressive taxes.” They put up this graphic, based on OECD data, to make this point:

    You can quickly see that the concept of "progressivity" is doing all the work here, and I believe the way they are going to use that word will be problematic. What does it mean for Sweden to be one of the least progressive tax state, and the United States the most?

    Let’s graph out two ways of soaking the rich. Here’s Rich Uncle Pennybags in America, and Rik Farbror Påse av Mynt in Sweden, as well as their respective tax bureaus:

    When average people usually talk about soaking the rich, they are talking about the marginal tax rates the highest income earners pay. But as we can see, in Sweden the rich pay a much higher marginal tax rate. As Matt Bruenig at Demos notes, Sweden definitely taxes its rich much more (he also notes that what they do with those taxes is different than what Vox argues).

    At this point many people would argue that our taxes are more progressive because the middle-class in the United States is taxed less than the middle-class in Sweden. But that is not what Jo Martin and Hertel-Fernandez are arguing.

    They are instead looking at the right-side of the above graphic. They are measuring how much of tax revenue comes from the top decile (or, alternatively, the concentration coefficient of tax revenue), and calling that the progressivity of taxation ("how much more (or less) of the tax burden falls on the wealthiest households"). The fact that the United States gets so much more of its tax revenue from the rich when compared to Sweden means we have a much more progressive tax policy, one of the most progressive in the world. Congratulations?

    The problem is, of course, that we get so much of our tax revenue from the rich because we have one of the highest rates of inequality across peer nations. How unequal a country is will be just as much of a driver of the progressivity of taxation as the actual tax polices. In order to understand how absurd this is, even flat taxes on a very unequal income distribution will mean that taxes are “progressive” as more income will come from the top of the income distribution, just because that’s where all the money is. Yet how would that be progressive taxation?

    We can confirm this. Let’s take the OECD data that is likely where their metric of tax progressivity comes from, and plot it against the market distribution. This is the share of taxes that come from the top decile, versus how much market income the top decile takes home:

    As you can see, they are related. (The same goes if you use gini coefficients.)

    Beyond the obvious one, there's a much deeper and more important relationship here. As Saez, Piketty and Stantcheva find, the fall in top tax rates over the past 30 years are a major driver of the explosion of income inequality during that same exact period. Among other ways, lower marginal tax rates give high-end mangagement a greater incentive to bargain for higher wages, and for corporate structures to pay them out. This is an important element for the creation of our recent inequality, and it shouldn't get lost among odd definitions of the word "progressive," a word that always seems to create confusion.

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  • New The Score Column: The Rise of Mass Incarceration

    Sep 29, 2014Mike Konczal

    I have a new column at The Score: Why Prisons Thrive Even When Budgets Shrink. Even as the era of big government was over, the incarceration rate quintupled over just 20 years. It had previously been stable for a century. Logically, three actors set the rate of incarceration: here's how they made this radical transformation of the state.

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    I have a new column at The Score: Why Prisons Thrive Even When Budgets Shrink. Even as the era of big government was over, the incarceration rate quintupled over just 20 years. It had previously been stable for a century. Logically, three actors set the rate of incarceration: here's how they made this radical transformation of the state.

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  • How Much are Local Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses Driven By the Feds? A Reply to Libertarians

    Sep 12, 2014Mike Konczal

    (Wonkish, as they say.)

    I wrote a piece in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson noting that the police violence, rather than a federalized, militarized affair, should be understood as locally driven from the bottom-up. Others made similar points, including Jonathan Chait (“Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments”) and Franklin Foer (“The Greatest Threat to Our Liberty Is Local Governments Run Amok”). Both are smart pieces.

    The Foer piece came into a backlash on a technical point that I want to dig into, in part because I think it is illuminating and helps proves his point. Foer argued that “If there’s a signature policy of this age of unimpeded state and local government, it’s civil-asset forfeiture.” Civil-asset forfeiture is where prosecutors press charges against property for being illicit, a legal tool that is prone to abuse. (I’m going to assume you know the basics. This Sarah Stillman piece is fantastic if you don’t, or even if you do.)

    Two libertarian critics jumped at that line. Jonathan Blanks of the Cato Institute wrote “the rise of civil asset forfeiture is a direct result of federal involvement in local policing. In what are known as ‘equitable sharing’ agreements, federal law enforcement split forfeiture proceeds with state and local law authorities.”

    Equitable sharing is a system where local prosecutors can choose to send their cases to the federal level and, if successful, up to 80 percent of the forfeited funds go back to local law enforcement. So even in states where the law lets law enforcement keep less than 80 percent of funds to try and prevent corruption (by handing the money to, say, roads or schools), “federal equitable sharing rules mandate those proceeds go directly to the law enforcement agencies, circumventing state laws to prevent “‘policing for profit.’”

    Lucy Steigerwald at Vice addresses all three posts, and make a similar point about Foer. “Foer mentions the importance of civil asset forfeiture while skirting around the fact that forfeiture laws incentivize making drug cases into federal ones, so as to get around states with higher burdens of proof for taking property...Include a DEA agent in your drug bust—making it a federal case—and suddenly you get up to 80 percent of the profits from the seized cash or goods. In short, it’s a hell of a lot easier for local police to steal your shit thanks to federal law.”

    Equitable sharing, like all law in this realm, needs to be gutted yesterday, and I’m sure there’s major agreement on across-the-board reforms. But I think there’s three serious problems with viewing federal equitable sharing as the main driver of state and local forfeitures.

    Legibility, Abuse, Innovation

    The first is that we are talking about equitable sharing in part because it’s only part of the law that we are capable of measuring. There’s a reason that virtually every story about civil asset forfeiture highlights equitable sharing [1]. It’s because it’s one of the few places where there are good statistics on how civil asset forfeiture is carried out.

    As the Institute for Justice found when they tried to create a summary of the extent of the use of civil asset forfeiture, only 29 states have a requirement to record the use of civil asset forfeiture at all. But most are under no obligation to share that information, much less make it accessible. It took two years of FOIA requests, and even then 8 of those 29 states didn’t bother responding, and two provided unusable data. There's problematic double-counting and other problems with the data that is available. As they concluded, “Thus, in most states, we know very little about the use of asset forfeiture” at the county and state level.

    We do know about it at the federal level however. You can look up the annual reports of the federal Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund (AFF) and the Treasury Forfeiture Fund (TFF) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. There you can see the expansion of the program over time.

    You simply can’t do this in any way at the county or state levels. You can’t see statistics to see if equitable sharing is a majority of forfeiture cases - though, importantly, equitable sharing was the minority of funds in the few states the Institute for Justice were able to measure, and local forfeitures were growing rapidly - or the relationship between the two. It’s impossible to analyze the number of forfeiture cases (as opposed to amount seized), which is what you’d want to measure to see the increased aggressiveness in its use on small cases.

    This goes to Foer’s point that federal abuses at least receive some daylight, compared to the black boxes of county prosecutor’s offices. This does, in turn, point the flashlight towards the Feds, and gives the overall procedure a Federal focus. But this is a function of how well locals have fought off accountability.

    The second point is that the states already have laws that are more aggressive than the Fed’s. A simple graph will suffice (source). The Feds return 80 percent of forfeited assets to law enforcement. What do the states return?

    Only 15 states have laws that that are below the Fed’s return threshold. Far, far more states already have a more expansive “policing for profit” regime set in at the state level than what is available at the Federal level. It makes sense that for those 15 states equitable sharing changes the incentives [2], of course, and the logic extends to the necessary criterion to make a seizure. But the states, driven no doubt by police, prosecutors and tough-on-crime lawmakers, have written very aggressive laws in this manner. They don't need the Feds to police for profit; if anything they'd get in the way.

    The third is that the innovative expansion of civil asset forfeiture is driven at the local level just as much as the federal level. This is the case if only because equitable sharing can only go into effect if there’s a federal crime being committed. So aggressive forfeiture of cars of drunk drivers or those who hire sex workers (even if it your wife’s car) is a local innovation, because there’s no federal law to advance them.

    There’s a lot of overlap for reform across the political spectrum here, but seeing the states as merely the pawns of the federal government when it comes to forfeiture abuse is problematic. Ironically, we see this precisely because we can’t see what the states are doing, but the hints we do know point to awful abuses, driven by the profit motive from the bottom-up.

    [1]  To take two prominent, excellent recent examples. Stillman at the New Yorker: “through a program called Equitable Sharing…At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture soared from twenty-seven million dollars in 1985 to five hundred and fifty-six million in 1993.”

    And Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Steven Rich of the Washington Post: “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion.”

    If either wanted to get these numbers at the state and local levels it would be impossible.

    [2] I understand why one want to put an empirical point on it, and the law needs to be changed no matter what, but the core empirical work relating payouts to equitable sharing isn’t as aggressive as you’d imagine. Most of the critical results aren’t significant at a 5% level, and even then you are talking about a 25% increase in just equitable sharing (as opposed to the overall amount forfeited by locals, which we can’t measure) relative to 100% change in state law payouts.

    Which makes sense - no prosecutor is going to be fired for bringing in too much money into the school district, if only because money is fungible on the back end.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
     
      

     

    (Wonkish, as they say.)

    I wrote a piece in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson noting that the police violence, rather than a federalized, militarized affair, should be understood as locally driven from the bottom-up. Others made similar points, including Jonathan Chait (“Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments”) and Franklin Foer (“The Greatest Threat to Our Liberty Is Local Governments Run Amok”). Both are smart pieces.

    The Foer piece came into a backlash on a technical point that I want to dig into, in part because I think it is illuminating and helps proves his point. Foer argued that “If there’s a signature policy of this age of unimpeded state and local government, it’s civil-asset forfeiture.” Civil-asset forfeiture is where prosecutors press charges against property for being illicit, a legal tool that is prone to abuse. (I’m going to assume you know the basics. This Sarah Stillman piece is fantastic if you don’t, or even if you do.)

    Two libertarian critics jumped at that line. Jonathan Blanks of the Cato Institute wrote “the rise of civil asset forfeiture is a direct result of federal involvement in local policing. In what are known as ‘equitable sharing’ agreements, federal law enforcement split forfeiture proceeds with state and local law authorities.”

    Equitable sharing is a system where local prosecutors can choose to send their cases to the federal level and, if successful, up to 80 percent of the forfeited funds go back to local law enforcement. So even in states where the law lets law enforcement keep less than 80 percent of funds to try and prevent corruption (by handing the money to, say, roads or schools), “federal equitable sharing rules mandate those proceeds go directly to the law enforcement agencies, circumventing state laws to prevent “‘policing for profit.’”

    Lucy Steigerwald at Vice addresses all three posts, and make a similar point about Foer. “Foer mentions the importance of civil asset forfeiture while skirting around the fact that forfeiture laws incentivize making drug cases into federal ones, so as to get around states with higher burdens of proof for taking property...Include a DEA agent in your drug bust—making it a federal case—and suddenly you get up to 80 percent of the profits from the seized cash or goods. In short, it’s a hell of a lot easier for local police to steal your shit thanks to federal law.”

    Equitable sharing, like all law in this realm, needs to be gutted yesterday, and I’m sure there’s major agreement on across-the-board reforms. But I think there’s three serious problems with viewing federal equitable sharing as the main driver of state and local forfeitures.

    Legibility, Abuse, Innovation

    The first is that we are talking about equitable sharing in part because it’s only part of the law that we are capable of measuring. There’s a reason that virtually every story about civil asset forfeiture highlights equitable sharing [1]. It’s because it’s one of the few places where there are good statistics on how civil asset forfeiture is carried out.

    As the Institute for Justice found when they tried to create a summary of the extent of the use of civil asset forfeiture, only 29 states have a requirement to record the use of civil asset forfeiture at all. But most are under no obligation to share that information, much less make it accessible. It took two years of FOIA requests, and even then 8 of those 29 states didn’t bother responding, and two provided unusable data. There's problematic double-counting and other problems with the data that is available. As they concluded, “Thus, in most states, we know very little about the use of asset forfeiture” at the county and state level.

    We do know about it at the federal level however. You can look up the annual reports of the federal Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund (AFF) and the Treasury Forfeiture Fund (TFF) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. There you can see the expansion of the program over time.

    You simply can’t do this in any way at the county or state levels. You can’t see statistics to see if equitable sharing is a majority of forfeiture cases - though, importantly, equitable sharing was the minority of funds in the few states the Institute for Justice were able to measure, and local forfeitures were growing rapidly - or the relationship between the two. It’s impossible to analyze the number of forfeiture cases (as opposed to amount seized), which is what you’d want to measure to see the increased aggressiveness in its use on small cases.

    This goes to Foer’s point that federal abuses at least receive some daylight, compared to the black boxes of county prosecutor’s offices. This does, in turn, point the flashlight towards the Feds, and gives the overall procedure a Federal focus. But this is a function of how well locals have fought off accountability.

    The second point is that the states already have laws that are more aggressive than the Fed’s. A simple graph will suffice (source). The Feds return 80 percent of forfeited assets to law enforcement. What do the states return?

    Only 15 states have laws that that are below the Fed’s return threshold. Far, far more states already have a more expansive “policing for profit” regime set in at the state level than what is available at the Federal level. It makes sense that for those 15 states equitable sharing changes the incentives [2], of course, and the logic extends to the necessary criterion to make a seizure. But the states, driven no doubt by police, prosecutors and tough-on-crime lawmakers, have written very aggressive laws in this manner. They don't need the Feds to police for profit; if anything they'd get in the way.

    The third is that the innovative expansion of civil asset forfeiture is driven at the local level just as much as the federal level. This is the case if only because equitable sharing can only go into effect if there’s a federal crime being committed. So aggressive forfeiture of cars of drunk drivers or those who hire sex workers (even if it your wife’s car) is a local innovation, because there’s no federal law to advance them.

    There’s a lot of overlap for reform across the political spectrum here, but seeing the states as merely the pawns of the federal government when it comes to forfeiture abuse is problematic. Ironically, we see this precisely because we can’t see what the states are doing, but the hints we do know point to awful abuses, driven by the profit motive from the bottom-up.

    [1]  To take two prominent, excellent recent examples. Stillman at the New Yorker: “through a program called Equitable Sharing…At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture soared from twenty-seven million dollars in 1985 to five hundred and fifty-six million in 1993.”

    And Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Steven Rich of the Washington Post: “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion.”

    If either wanted to get these numbers at the state and local levels it would be impossible.

    [2] I understand why one want to put an empirical point on it, and the law needs to be changed no matter what, but the core empirical work relating payouts to equitable sharing isn’t as aggressive as you’d imagine. Most of the critical results aren’t significant at a 5% level, and even then you are talking about a 25% increase in just equitable sharing (as opposed to the overall amount forfeited by locals, which we can’t measure) relative to 100% change in state law payouts.

    Which makes sense - no prosecutor is going to be fired for bringing in too much money into the school district, if only because money is fungible on the back end.

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  • New Piece on Where the ACA Should Go Next

    Sep 5, 2014Mike Konczal

    In light of the increasingly good news about the launch of the Affordable Care Act, I wanted to write about what experts think should be next on the health care front. Particularly with the implosion of the right-wing argument that there would be something like a death spiral, I wanted to flesh out what the left's critique would be at this point. Several people pointed me in the direction of the original bill that passed the House, the one that was abandoned after Scott Brown's upset victory in early 2010 in favor of passing the Senate bill, as a way forward.

    Here's the piece. Hope you check it out.

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    In light of the increasingly good news about the launch of the Affordable Care Act, I wanted to write about what experts think should be next on the health care front. Particularly with the implosion of the right-wing argument that there would be something like a death spiral, I wanted to flesh out what the left's critique would be at this point. Several people pointed me in the direction of the original bill that passed the House, the one that was abandoned after Scott Brown's upset victory in early 2010 in favor of passing the Senate bill, as a way forward.

    Here's the piece. Hope you check it out.

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  • The Ferguson Challenge to the Libertarians

    Aug 22, 2014Mike Konczal

    Many people are pointing to the police violence unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as part of a “libertarian moment.” Dave Weigel of Slate writes “Liberals are up in arms about police militarization. Libertarians are saying: What took you so long?” Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner notes that the events in Ferguson bolster the claim that we are experiencing a libertarian moment because “libertarianism’s warnings today ring truer than ever.”

    It will be a great thing if the horror of what is going on builds a broader coalition for putting the excess of the carceral state in check. But I also think that Ferguson presents a problem for libertarian theory about this situation in particular and the state in general. Their argument is a public choice-like story in which the federal government is the main villain. But this will only tell a partial story, and probably not even the most important one. And, as the deeper story of the town is told, the disturbing economics of the city look similar to what the right thinks is the ideal state. Let’s take these in turn.

    Bottom-Up Militarization

    People on the right are telling a story where the problems of the police are primarily driven by the federal government. As Rand Paul said: “Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem.” Big government here is strictly a federal phenomenon though, one where “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts.” Paul Ryan’s comment on Ferguson is telling: "But in all of these things, local control, local government, local authorities who have the jurisdiction, who have the expertise, who are actually there are the people who should be in the lead." (h/t Digby) The culprits in these criticisms are usually programs, accelerated after the start of the War on Terror, that give military surplus to local police.

    But rather than just a top-down phenomenon of centralized, federal bureaucrats, the police violence we see is just as much a bottom-up, locally-driven affair. “Militarized” police equipment didn’t shoot Michael Brown, or kill Eric Garner in a chokehold. And aggressive police reactions to protests haven’t required extensive military equipment over the past 40 years.

    As Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba note in the pages of Jacobin, the idea that there is suddenly a “militarized” police force here betrays that the militarization began in the 1960s in response to the urban crisis. And even though militarized dollars have flowed to all parts of the country, it is in black urban areas where the equipment has been deployed in an aggressive manner by local authorities. And militarization isn't just about equipment, but about the broader framework of mass incarceration and zero-tolerance, order-maintenance policing.

    You can see the consequences of this through simple polls. As Dorian Warren notes, “Because for black Americans, what Sen. Paul disparages as ‘big government’ is actually the government we trust most…blacks are the least likely [racial and economic group] to trust their local governments.” Though these military equipment programs, which give away all kinds of odd things, are a serious problem and should be curtailed, they should be placed within the context of a criminal justice system that is punitive towards minorities and is among the most expansive in the world.

    This has political consequences. Democrats have been weak on criminal justice issues. But for several years Blue Dog Democrats, lead by Jim Webb, have pushed for reform. But Webb's big bill to bring together non-binding suggestions for reform, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, wasn’t blocked by centrist Democrats. It was blocked by libertarians and conservatives. Most Republicans, including Tom Coburn and Rand Paul, voted against it on the basis of “states’ rights.” Commentators on the right found the arguments dubious and scandalous, but this will become more and more of an issue if the problem is just one of the federal government.

    The Right-Wing Dream City

    If you are a libertarian, you probably have two core principles when it comes to how the government carries out its duties. The first is that people should pay taxes in direct proportion to how much they benefit from government services. The government is like another business, and to the extent it can provide public-like goods the market will not, people should pay only as much as they benefit from them. Taxes should essentially be the individual's price of “purchasing” a government service.

    You also probably want as much of what the government does to be privatized as possible. Government services provided by private firms use the profit motive to seek out efficiencies and innovation to provide the best service possible. But even if it doesn’t, the right’s public choice theory tells us that private agents will do a better job tending to services because of the essential impulse of the public state to corruption.

    So what do we see in Ferguson? It’s becoming clear that there’s a deep connection between an out-of-control criminal justice system and debt peonage. As Vox reports, “court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone.”

    These fines that come from small infractions will grow rapidly when people can’t afford to pay them immediately, much less hire lawyers to handle the complicated procedures. So you have a large population with warrants and debts living in a city that functions as a modern debtors’ prison. This leads to people functioning as second-class citizens in their own communities. And as Jelani Cobb notes in the New Yorker, this debtor status keeps many citizens of Ferguson off the streets, not protesting or acting as political agents.

    How did we get here? As Sarah Stillman noted in a blockbuster New Yorker story, this is referred to as an “offender-funded” justice system, one that aims to “to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers.” How? “Often, this means charging petty offenders—such as those with traffic debts—for a government service that was once provided for free.”

    As Stillman notes, this process has grown alongside state-level efforts to privatize probation and other incarceration alternatives by replacing them with for-profit companies. (Missouri is one of many states that does this.) There are significant worries that this privatized probation industry has severe corruption and abuse problems. Crucially, their incentive is less rehabilitation or judging actual threats to the public, and more to keep people in a permanent debt peonage. The state, in turn, gets funded without having to raise any general taxes.

    Having people who “use” the criminal justice system pay for it strikes me as pretty close to the libertarian vision of how taxes should function. And having state power executed by private, profit-seeking entities is the logical outcome of how they think services should function. I’m sure that a libertarian would say that they are against this kind of outcome, though it’s not clear to me how taxation and services along these lines couldn’t do anything other than lead to punitive outcomes. (Perhaps people versed in public choice theory should apply it to what happens when you put public choice theories into practice.)

    This is yet another way in which the growth of market society is wedded to the growth of a carceral state. But thinking through this issue can lead you to interesting places. If you think that this offender-funded system is unfair because the poor don’t have the ability to pay for it, you are basically 90% of the way to an argument for progressive taxation. And if you think private parties using coercive power invites abuse, abuses that should be checked by basic mechanisms of democratic accountability, you are also pretty close to an argument for the modern, professionalized, administrative state. Welcome to the team.

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    Many people are pointing to the police violence unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as part of a “libertarian moment.” Dave Weigel of Slate writes “Liberals are up in arms about police militarization. Libertarians are saying: What took you so long?” Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner notes that the events in Ferguson bolster the claim that we are experiencing a libertarian moment because “libertarianism’s warnings today ring truer than ever.”

    It will be a great thing if the horror of what is going on builds a broader coalition for putting the excess of the carceral state in check. But I also think that Ferguson presents a problem for libertarian theory about this situation in particular and the state in general. Their argument is a public choice-like story in which the federal government is the main villain. But this will only tell a partial story, and probably not even the most important one. And, as the deeper story of the town is told, the disturbing economics of the city look similar to what the right thinks is the ideal state. Let’s take these in turn.

    Bottom-Up Militarization

    People on the right are telling a story where the problems of the police are primarily driven by the federal government. As Rand Paul said: “Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem.” Big government here is strictly a federal phenomenon though, one where “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts.” Paul Ryan’s comment on Ferguson is telling: "But in all of these things, local control, local government, local authorities who have the jurisdiction, who have the expertise, who are actually there are the people who should be in the lead." (h/t Digby) The culprits in these criticisms are usually programs, accelerated after the start of the War on Terror, that give military surplus to local police.

    But rather than just a top-down phenomenon of centralized, federal bureaucrats, the police violence we see is just as much a bottom-up, locally-driven affair. “Militarized” police equipment didn’t shoot Michael Brown, or kill Eric Garner in a chokehold. And aggressive police reactions to protests haven’t required extensive military equipment over the past 40 years.

    As Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba note in the pages of Jacobin, the idea that there is suddenly a “militarized” police force here betrays that the militarization began in the 1960s in response to the urban crisis. And even though militarized dollars have flowed to all parts of the country, it is in black urban areas where the equipment has been deployed in an aggressive manner by local authorities. And militarization isn't just about equipment, but about the broader framework of mass incarceration and zero-tolerance, order-maintenance policing.

    You can see the consequences of this through simple polls. As Dorian Warren notes, “Because for black Americans, what Sen. Paul disparages as ‘big government’ is actually the government we trust most…blacks are the least likely [racial and economic group] to trust their local governments.” Though these military equipment programs, which give away all kinds of odd things, are a serious problem and should be curtailed, they should be placed within the context of a criminal justice system that is punitive towards minorities and is among the most expansive in the world.

    This has political consequences. Democrats have been weak on criminal justice issues. But for several years Blue Dog Democrats, lead by Jim Webb, have pushed for reform. But Webb's big bill to bring together non-binding suggestions for reform, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, wasn’t blocked by centrist Democrats. It was blocked by libertarians and conservatives. Most Republicans, including Tom Coburn and Rand Paul, voted against it on the basis of “states’ rights.” Commentators on the right found the arguments dubious and scandalous, but this will become more and more of an issue if the problem is just one of the federal government.

    The Right-Wing Dream City

    If you are a libertarian, you probably have two core principles when it comes to how the government carries out its duties. The first is that people should pay taxes in direct proportion to how much they benefit from government services. The government is like another business, and to the extent it can provide public-like goods the market will not, people should pay only as much as they benefit from them. Taxes should essentially be the individual's price of “purchasing” a government service.

    You also probably want as much of what the government does to be privatized as possible. Government services provided by private firms use the profit motive to seek out efficiencies and innovation to provide the best service possible. But even if it doesn’t, the right’s public choice theory tells us that private agents will do a better job tending to services because of the essential impulse of the public state to corruption.

    So what do we see in Ferguson? It’s becoming clear that there’s a deep connection between an out-of-control criminal justice system and debt peonage. As Vox reports, “court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone.”

    These fines that come from small infractions will grow rapidly when people can’t afford to pay them immediately, much less hire lawyers to handle the complicated procedures. So you have a large population with warrants and debts living in a city that functions as a modern debtors’ prison. This leads to people functioning as second-class citizens in their own communities. And as Jelani Cobb notes in the New Yorker, this debtor status keeps many citizens of Ferguson off the streets, not protesting or acting as political agents.

    How did we get here? As Sarah Stillman noted in a blockbuster New Yorker story, this is referred to as an “offender-funded” justice system, one that aims to “to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers.” How? “Often, this means charging petty offenders—such as those with traffic debts—for a government service that was once provided for free.”

    As Stillman notes, this process has grown alongside state-level efforts to privatize probation and other incarceration alternatives by replacing them with for-profit companies. (Missouri is one of many states that does this.) There are significant worries that this privatized probation industry has severe corruption and abuse problems. Crucially, their incentive is less rehabilitation or judging actual threats to the public, and more to keep people in a permanent debt peonage. The state, in turn, gets funded without having to raise any general taxes.

    Having people who “use” the criminal justice system pay for it strikes me as pretty close to the libertarian vision of how taxes should function. And having state power executed by private, profit-seeking entities is the logical outcome of how they think services should function. I’m sure that a libertarian would say that they are against this kind of outcome, though it’s not clear to me how taxation and services along these lines couldn’t do anything other than lead to punitive outcomes. (Perhaps people versed in public choice theory should apply it to what happens when you put public choice theories into practice.)

    This is yet another way in which the growth of market society is wedded to the growth of a carceral state. But thinking through this issue can lead you to interesting places. If you think that this offender-funded system is unfair because the poor don’t have the ability to pay for it, you are basically 90% of the way to an argument for progressive taxation. And if you think private parties using coercive power invites abuse, abuses that should be checked by basic mechanisms of democratic accountability, you are also pretty close to an argument for the modern, professionalized, administrative state. Welcome to the team.

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