Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • Will Ryan's Budget Take a Page From the 18th Century and End Progressive Taxation?

    May 1, 2012Mike Konczal

    Jonathan Chait has a great article on Paul Ryan in New York Magazine, which includes an important quote from anti-tax adovcate Grover Norquist: "We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget...

    Jonathan Chait has a great article on Paul Ryan in New York Magazine, which includes an important quote from anti-tax adovcate Grover Norquist: "We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget... Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.” Earlier in the year Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein walked readers of the Washington Monthly through what it would look like to have a Republican House, Senate, and president -- and the likelihood that they would pass the Ryan budget through reconciliation.

    Degressive Taxation

    One of the centerpieces of the Ryan budget's Path to Prosperity is tax reform. The tax overhaul will cut tax expenditures (without naming any) while also reducing the current set of six tax brackets to just two. One bracket will have a tax rate of 10 percent and the other will be 25 percent. Here's a question: should we think of these two rates as a special form of a flat tax? Would this budget be the end of progressive taxation in the United States?

    There's an excellent 1908 book called Progressive Taxation in Theory and Practice (you can download a copy at that google books link). Written by Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman for the American Economic Association, it set out to catalogue every argument in history for and against progressive taxation as well as proportionate taxation (or what we'd now call a flat tax). While walking through all the arguments, he has to classify a set of arguments that aren't strictly either -- something he calls "degressive taxation."

    Degressive taxation is where you have two tax rates: Below a certain income it is one rate, and above that income it is a second, higher rate. Typically it is a zero rate of taxation for income below the poverty line, and a flat, proportionate rate for income above that.

    Arguments for degressive taxation were very common in 18th century Europe. The French political economist François Véron Duverger de Forbonnais argued in 1758 that "the object of taxation is the preservation of property; and property is nil if it does not afford subsistence. Hence, the physical subsistence of every family is a privileged part of all income. Only the surplus above this minimum can be assigned to the public for the support of government."  Zero taxes for incomes up until poverty, flat tax above poverty.

    Dean Woodward put the argument even more strongly in 1768. "Before we begin to tax any income for the poor, we must deduct from it as much as is requisite to purchase for the possessor and his family the absolute necessaries of life.  No man can be bound to give to another what is essential to his own subsistence.  To this every man has the exclusive right on which the very claim of the poor is founded."

    Even though it isn't a flat tax across the entirety of income, as there are two distinct tax brackets, none of these people viewed their project as one of progressive taxation. Lord Auckland, debating England's first income tax in 1799, exempted 60 pounds for taxation as the minimum of subsistence but rejected progressive taxation "because of the implied inference, that because a man possesses much, therefore more shall be taken from him than is proportionably taken from others." As Seligman noted, surveying the arguments, "in degression the ideal is proportional taxation, although a concession is made, through lower rates or exemptions or abatements, to the poorest classes who ought theoretically to pay the same rate but who are deemed to be unable to do so."

    How Does The Ryan Plan Stack Up Against the 18th Century?

    I think it is fair to characterize the Ryan plan as, in its ideal, a degressive taxation plan. A low rate for those with little and a flat tax for everyone else. There are a few things that complicate this picture. It isn't clear where the 10 percent bracket ends and the 25 percent bracket starts (the 25 percent bracket now runs from $35,351 - $85,650 for singles, so in theory the 10 percent could run from $0 to $35,350). As James Kwak and many others point out, the numbers don't work -- this would be a major tax cut for the rich and a major tax hike for the working and middle classes.

    However, would people making poverty wages pay ten percent under the Ryan Plan, or zero percent? People working for poverty wages now don't often pay income taxes because of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). But would Ryan look to cut the EITC tax break? As this fantastic New York Times chart shows, some sets of tax expenditures tilts to the 1% and some tilt to the bottom 40 percent:

    Refundable tax credits, like the EITC, benefit the bottom 40 percent of Americans. The preferential treatment of capital gains and dividend income benefits the top 20 percent, especially the top 1%. Ryan is clear that he wants to give capital gains and dividends even better treatment. But will he look to cut the EITC, making those in poverty pay more? It's not clear from anything I can find. As Tim Noah writes, Eric Cantor looks pretty set on getting those who pay nothing in income tax to pay something, and cutting the EITC is the way to do that.

    Looking further afield, Yuval Levin's big article "Beyond the Welfare State," the intellectual firepower (Committee on Social Thought-trained) justifying something like the Ryan Plan, mentions only three exemptions "worth keeping" after the conservative new dawn: "retirement savings (which are far preferable to universal cash benefits to retirees), a unified child tax credit (to encourage parenthood and to offset the mistreatment of parents in the tax code), and the charitable-giving deduction (since a reduction in government's role in social welfare must be met with an increase in the role of civil society, which should be encouraged)." Nothing specifically targeted for supplementing the incomes of those making poverty-level wages.

    Which also means that at the turn of the 21st century, after centuries of economic growth, the conservatives in the United States are looking at tax policy potentially far more regressive at a conceptual level toward the poor than classical liberals in the mid 18th century. Forget so-called moderate Republicans of the Eisenhower-era; can we just get a handful of 18th century tax scholars in the Republican party?

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  • Is There a Good Case For Doubling Student Loan Interest Rates?

    Apr 25, 2012Mike Konczal

    Sarah Jaffe recently wrote a story about how yesterday was the estimated day student debt would hit $1 trillion dollars. President Obama has called for Congress to keep interest rates on subsidized student loans at 3.4 percent instead of letting them revert back to 6.8 percent as per the law passed in 2007.

    Sarah Jaffe recently wrote a story about how yesterday was the estimated day student debt would hit $1 trillion dollars. President Obama has called for Congress to keep interest rates on subsidized student loans at 3.4 percent instead of letting them revert back to 6.8 percent as per the law passed in 2007. He has even started a twitter hastag for it, #dontdoublemyrate. It looks like Mitt Romney is also against letting the rate go up.

    Is there any good arguments for letting interest rates on student loans double? I've been trying to find some, so let's take a tour through the right-wing.

    Douglas Holtz-Eakin essentially punts at National Review Online, saying that it is a distraction. "Americans would be better able to afford college if their budgets were less pressured by gasoline, food, and health-insurance premiums."  Umm, sure, I guess, though the rate matters quite a bit to those who will be impacted by it. What does that have to do with what the rate should be?

    "Artificially" Low Rates?

    Heritage quotes Eakins and adds a fun "None of this is to say that the federal government should be doing more to bail out students. It shouldn’t... But the current debate’s origins are in separate legislation passed in 2007 whereby the federal government set interest rates on student loans artificially low." Bailouts! Yes, bailouts.

    Are rates "artifically low," thus bailing out student debtors? Right now, the United States can borrow for 10 years at real, or inflation-adjusted, interest rates that are negative. The 30-year conventional mortgage rate is the lowest its been in over 40 years. The market is using ultra-low interest rates to beg anyone who can make productive use of capital to borrow it  Educating our young citizens in universities that are the envy of the world certainly seems like a productive use of capital. So how is not jacking up interest rates when 10 year government debt yields are at ultra-low 2 percent rates the equivalent of paying AIG creditors at par during the financial bailouts?

    The implication is that they are below market rates. "Below-market" here is a troublesome phrase, as the private market for student loans is incomplete, prone to collapse, thin, and exists either through previous credit guarentees or a reworking of the various rules that govern debt in this country. This constitutes the government stepping up to do the things that the private market won't. As Keynes said, "The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all."

    Cost to Taxpayers

    Cato tries harder to make a case if you can cut through a tangled web of metaphors about being "good parents" to kids. Neal McCluskey argues, "Finally, there’s the cost to taxpayers."

    I like how he doesn't mention that this actually runs a profit for taxpayers. From the Department of Education student loan overview (R-10): "For Direct Loans, the overall weighted average subsidy rate was estimated to be -13.91 percent in FY 2011; that is, the overall program on average was projected to earn about 13.91 percent on each dollar of loans made, thereby providing savings to the Federal Government.” Unless you start making up discount rates, these loans make a profit for taxpayers.

    As Alan White notes, according to the "Congressional Budget Office, $37 billion will flow IN to Treasury from student loans made this fiscal year at the 3.4% rate (on a net present value basis and net of about $1.5 billion to administer them.) " If anything, we should make rates lower than 3.4 percent.

    Lavishing Cheap Credit

    Cato continues by arguing, "the reality is that policymakers have been lavishing cheap money on students for decades...all the cheap aid has enabled colleges to raise their prices at breakneck speeds, rendering the aid largely self-defeating and college pricing insane."

    For aid to be "self-defeating," you'd have to imagine a completely inelastic, fixed supply of higher education, which I hope isn't Cato's argument against keeping current rates. But maybe the author's on to something. If you look at, say, the maximum amount of Pell Grants, do they rise in proportion with increases in tuition? Ummm, no:

    As Demos notes in its 10 points on how student debt is blocking mobility, "In 1980, 39 percent of federal financial aid to undergraduates was in the form of loans, and 55 percent was awarded in grants. By 2008, this had shifted to 64 percent of the funds awarded as loans and only 26 percent as grants. Moreover, today’s maximum Pell Grant covers just over a third of the costs of attending a public 4-year university, down from over two-thirds in 1980."

    Meanwhile, during the same time period, numerous legal restrictions have been put on student debt and protections have been stripped away, which means that the major government changes to student debt involve the it making it a harder, not easier, form of debt to manage. Nondischargeability went from five years to seven years in 1990, until it was revoked permanently in 1998 (when the statute of limitations was also removed). That was extended to for-profit student loans in 2005. Social Security became eligible for student loan collections in 1996. The argument that student debt became "lavish" during the past 20 years requires some additional work.

    And though some of the lower rates are captured by increased tuition because of inelastic supply -- an argument that is equivalent to saying that free, "public option" public universities would thus contain runaway costs -- current tuition movements look like they are being driven more by states cutting support for public universities during the Great Recession. As the CBPP notes, at least 43 states cut services to public higher education. That's what is going to drive serious tuition increases in the next few years.

    (Digging into some of this research, the lack of decent empirical work linking increased aid to tuition increases is startling given how much movement conservatives rely on such an argument.)

    There Are Better Subsidies

    Friend-of-the-blog Josh Barro at Forbes has the another set of arguments against blocking rate increases. First Josh argues that we need to think of a low rate as a subsidy: "A below-market interest rate for Stafford Loans is just another subsidy mechanism—essentially, you can think of the present value of the interest savings as a partial subsidy of a student’s tuition payments." Josh also notes that "Instead of extending the policy of holding Stafford Loan interest rates very low, why not let rates go back up and redirect the cost of the subsidy into an expansion of Pell Grants and refundable tuition tax credits?"

    Sure, but right now these loans are profitable. As noted above, we spent the last 20 years stripping out protections from these loans to guarantee a high recovery rate. There's no decent market rate to compare this to, given how thin and incomplete the private lending market is in this space. So why not fund it closer to where the government can borrow, adding in a small spread for administration and to cover losses?
     
    Pell grants should be considered in their own right. But this is a specific conversation about what the government should charge when it is acting as a lender to young people, collecting the spread between the rate it can borrow and what students will pay. If that spread is very high because capital markets want the government to borrow, that doesn't strike me as an excuse for the government to squeeze borrowers more and use the extra profit it makes at 6.8 percent to do something different. Even if it is a good idea to raise Pell Grants, that doesn't change the nature of how low interest rates are right now, and how the government should approach the rates it sets for students in a way that is fair.
     
    So what's left as far as arguments go?

     

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  • A Year of Ben Bernanke Press Conferences

    Apr 25, 2012Mike Konczal

    A year ago, in April of 2011, Ben Bernanke gave his first press conference.  I wrote it up for the American Prospect here.  Looking back, I had flagged that more of the questions asked Bernanke whether he was doing too much, rather than too little, to stimulate the economy.  I noted:

    A year ago, in April of 2011, Ben Bernanke gave his first press conference.  I wrote it up for the American Prospect here.  Looking back, I had flagged that more of the questions asked Bernanke whether he was doing too much, rather than too little, to stimulate the economy.  I noted:

    the press conference, roughly nine questions worried about inflation, a weak dollar, the country's S&P rating, oil prices, and whether the government can fashion an appropriate response to the financial crisis or long-term unemployment at all. These all reflect the worry that government is doing too much instead of too little. Meanwhile, there were only two questions asking why the Federal Reserve wasn't doing more to lower unemployment. When Binyamin Appelbaum asked, "Is it in the Fed's power to reduce the rate of unemployment more quickly? How would you do that? Why are you not doing it?" it was almost out of place.

    That wasn't the case today.  The questions were much harder and more frequently about why Bernanke wasn't doing more to get the economy going.  They took for granted, as the first questioner pointed out, that "unemployment is still high, the economy is slowing, inflation is subdued" and Bernanke and the FOMC is, to their critics, "still being too cautious."  I count, on a quick scan, five questions related to the idea that the Federal Reserve has the ability to do more and is choosing not to do it, with only two more related to concerns of inflation hawks or a "bond bubble."

    There's a lot of reasons for this: the wasted year of 2011 for the economy, the continued low interest rates of the United States even after a ratings downgrade, growing fears of a permanent decrease in the labor force participation rate and hysteresis, and more.  But part of this change is the result of the economics blogosphere pushing the debate about monetary policy at the zero-lower bound into the mainstream of financial and economics journalism.  The econoblogsphere should be proud of itself, and I will try to do more to advance this important conversation to whatever extent I can.

    A year ago I held an event for the Roosevelt Institute on the Future of the Federal Reserve.  It was the same day as the Bernanke press conference, and as such we asked each of the participants to ask Bernanke a question, and we put them online.  Matt Yglesias' question was:  "I would ask him about his own paper on self-induced paralysis in Japan and what he has changed his mind about since then."  This change from Ben Bernanke the professor who called for aggressive monetary action to the Ben Bernanke we see now must have been on the minds of all the reporters in the room, as it is the subject of a great Krugman New York Times Magazine article this upcoming weekend.  The question finally got asked by Binyamin Appelbaum, who, as we note above, asked the hardest question about the Fed not doing enough a year ago at the first conference.  Bernanke's full answer:

    Binyamin Appelbaum: Unemployment is too high and you said you expect it to remain too high for years to come, inflation is under control and you expect it to remain under control. You said you have additional tools available for you to use, but you're not using them right now. Under these circumstances, it's really hard for a lot of people to understand why you are not using those tools right now. Could you address that? And specifically, could you  address whether your current views are inconsistent with the views on that subject you held as an academic.
     
    Ben Bernanke: Yeah, let me tackle that second part first. So there's this, uh, view circulating that the views I expressed about 15 years ago on the Bank of Japan are somehow inconsistent with our current policies. That is absolutely incorrect. My views and our policies today are completely consistent with the views that I held at that time. I made two points at that time. To the Bank of Japan, the first was that I believe a determined central bank could, and should, work to eliminate deflation, that it's falling prices. The second point that I made was that, um, when short-term interest rates hit zero, the tools of a central bank are no longer, are not exhausted there, are still other things that, um, that the central bank can do to create additional accommodation.
     
    Now looking at the current situation in the United States, we are not in deflation. When deflation became a significant risk in late 2010 or at least a moderate risk in late 2010, we used additional balance sheet tools to return inflation close to the 2% target. Likewise, we've been aggressive and creative in using nonfederal funds rate centered tools to achieve additional accommodation for the U.S. economy. So the, the very critical difference between the Japanese situation 15 years ago and the U.S. situation today is that, Japan was in deflation and clearly, when you're in deflation and in recession, then both sides of your mandate, so to speak, are demanding additional deflation. 
     
    Why don't we do more? I would reiterate, we're doing a great deal of policies extraordinarily accommodative. You know all the things we've done to try to provide support to the economy. I guess the, uh, the question is, um, does it make sense to actively seek a higher inflation rate in order to, uh, achieve a slightly increased pace of reduction in the unemployment rate? The view of the committee is that that would be very, uh, uh, reckless. We have, uh, we, the Federal Reserve, have spent 30 years building up credibility for low and stable inflation, which has proved extremely valuable, in that we've been able to take strong accommodative actions in the last four or five years to support the economy without leading to a, [indiscernible] expectations or destabilization of inflation. To risk that asset, for, what I think would be quite tentative and, uh, perhaps doubtful gains, on the real side would be an unwise thing to do.
    Watch the video - Bernanke gets really agitated answering this question.  That's the argument to deal with.  I need to think this through more, but on its face it seems like they think they need to maintain their credability in order to keep rates at or below their target.  There's no tradeoff here - the credibility at best has allowed Bernanke to fight off opportunistic disinflation from becoming a goal (which may, in fact, be a victory).  
     
    Meanwhile if the Bernanke wants to maintain credibility the best way to do it isn't by keeping the economy in a permanent quasi-recession but instead annoucing an NGDP target or announcing what he wants and what he is willing to tolerate to get it - say 3% inflation until unemployment is below 7%, like Chicago Fed President Charles Evans has suggested.
     
    Important other notes: In response to a question about the dropping labor force participation, Bernanke noted that the rate was dropping because they are "no longer getting increased participation from women... society ages and also, for other reasons, male participation has been declining over time."  However a lot of it "represent cyclical factors, much of it is young people, for example, who presumably are not out of the labor force indefinitely, but given the, uh, weak job market, they are going to school or doing something else, rather than, than working."  As such "the unemployment rate may not fall as quickly going forward," because when the economy picks up "many of these folks are going to come back into the labor force looking for work."
     
    Bernanke notes that in the absense of a zero lower bound the interest rate would be negative but that they've done other things to counteract this.  "We, we see monetary policy as being approximately in the right place at this point. Based on the analysis that we've been doing of the economy and the outlook."
     
    All in all, the media has gotten a lot better pushing the Federal Reserve to account for its role in the weak economy over the past year.  Let's take victories where we can get them.
     

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  • The "Buffett Should Volunteer to Pay More Taxes" Canard

    Apr 25, 2012Mike Konczal

    The Buffett Rule is all about fairness in tax law. So why do its opponents keep talking about charity?

    The Buffett Rule is all about fairness in tax law. So why do its opponents keep talking about charity?

    Adam Ozimek jumps in on the "should Warren Buffett just donate money to the government?" conversation here, with "Should people who want higher taxes donate to the government?" He builds off of Matt Zwolinski, who asks "if Buffett really believes that he ought to be paying more taxes, then what’s stopping him?" Will Wilkinson brings up that this requires us to discuss collective actions and "the rationality of complying with a rule that (1) you support, but (2) will only have its desired effect if general compliance with the rule is high, and (3) you suspect general compliance will not be high." All these discussions pivot off the idea that the government provides charity, and if Warren Buffett wants the government to provide more charity, why does he do his charity through private means?

    Wilkinson has an important point, but they are all approaching the debate with the assumption that Warren Buffett wants the government to spend an additional dollar. I don't see Warren Buffett saying that, and it isn't even required for him to call for higher taxes on himself and similar earners to make his famous argument. The crucial comparsion in Buffett's discussion isn't Buffett's rates now versus the rates he'd pay in a social democratic country, but the rate that he pays versus the rate his secretary pays. Warren Buffett could want the government cut in half and for his tax rate to go up. He could want a government so small it could drown in a bathtub yet find it unfair that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

    This means the central discussion isn't about the government collecting more and providing more, but the two central principles of fairness in taxation: vertical equity – those with more pay more – and horizontal equity, where people who are the same should be taxed the same. (Whether these are necessarily two principles of equity or one is a debate for another day.) It isn't necessary for Buffett's argument that the government should do more, or even that it should do what it does now, so suggesting he donate to charity doesn't carry weight. His argument is that the way taxes are collected now violates general principles of equity and fairness.

    Zwolinski argues that since people don't donate to the government, "(3)Therefore, they don't believe that giving money to government is a good way to help others... It is therefore (from 3) odd for people to press for increased rates of taxation on the grounds that increased taxes will allow the government to help people." But even if Warren Buffett didn't care about helping others and believed that the only purpose of government is to turn his property claims on his vast wealth into property rights, and provide the costly night watchman apparatus required to do so, he could believe that vertical equity in the taxation required to raise those funds is still a requirement of tax fairness.

    (Indeed, why does Zwolinski use "charity" as an example? Why not private police? The United States has had more private security guards than public police officers for some time. If someone thinks there should be more police, why not donate that money to the government rather than hire a private guard? Would following his logic provide proof that most people are anarcho-capitalists who want privatized systems of policing and adjudication? Zwolinski might need to change his webpage if that's the case. It is likely other factors are in play.)

    Unless you believe that United States taxation should be based on a head tax -- where everyone pays the same exact dollar amount regardless of wealth or income -- you probably believe in vertical equity. (As Jeremy Bentham said, "a capitation tax is bad; because a man has a head, it does not follow that he has anything else.") That could be proportionate taxation, progressive taxation, a kind of progressive taxation where wages up to the poverty line are tax-free with proporationate taxation on income above that, and more. We don't even have to assume progressive taxation for Buffett to say he should be taxed more -- his objection is that he pays a lower proportionate rate.

    Beyond vertical equity, if someone made the same amount of money through labor that Buffett and Romney make through capital, the laborer would pay a much higher tax rate, violating our sense of horizontal equity. These are the crucial issues that the Buffett Rule is trying to address, issues that come even before what is the proper scope of government.

    Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • Article on Mass Incarceration at Jacobin

    Apr 25, 2012Mike Konczal

    The Spring 2012 issue of Jacobin is now online.  It has a lot of great content in it; make sure to check out Megan Erickson's addition to the "unschooling" debate that goes back and forth in parts of the internet.

    The Spring 2012 issue of Jacobin is now online.  It has a lot of great content in it; make sure to check out Megan Erickson's addition to the "unschooling" debate that goes back and forth in parts of the internet.

    I have a piece - Against Law, For Order - on ideology, governmentality and "policy" in an era of mass incarceration.  It's about how criminal laws informs our markets and government policy.  Bits and pieces of it have appeared in this blog, but here it is in one place.  The piece ends up reviewing a lot of recent books on policing, with special attention to Bernard Harcourt's work on neoliberalism and policing, as well as Jonathan Simon's work on "governing through crime" - how policy is reworked to use the language and techniques of policing.  I hope you check it out!

    I wrote it a while ago so I didn't get to reference two of the big events in policing and incarceration that happened recently, but I think they fit into the framework I try to build.  The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman appears to be, in large part, about Zimmerman believing Martin didn't belong in the neighborhood he lived in.  Maintaining order, seperating insiders from outsiders, and who gets to make those calls and what consequences they have is a central part of the neoconservative vision of policing I outline.

    Meanwhile the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington held that "Jail strip searches do not require reasonable suspicion, at least so long as the arrestee is being admitted into the general jail population."  Reading Justice Kennedy's logic, it looks like that since people put into a prison population could be dangers to themselves, guards and other prisoners, the guards have the ability to institute whatever techniques they believe are necessary.  Kennedy looks uninterested or unwilling to second guess the prison system.  Which means that people within the criminal justice system exist in a sphere of total government control and competency, a way of thinking I link back to the neoliberal vision of governance.

    Sadly I couldn't find a way to link in one of the more interesting pieces I've read recently, one I'm still grappling with, Kate Redburn's Hate on Me at New Inquiry.  It's about the GLBTQ groups - including The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, FIERCE, Queers for Economic Justice, the Peter Cicchino Youth Project, and the Audre Lorde Project - who oppose New York State's "Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act," which "would make violence against gender-nonconforming people a hate crime."

    This is governing through crime - the best way to react to the social problems of violence and hate aimed at the GLBTQ community is to increase the policing and incarceration of those who do the violence.  Mandatory minimums, which translates into higher guilty pleas, which translates to more bodies in jail.  These groups oppose this because the police themselves are part of the problems they face, not part of the solution.  As Redburn argues, "Hate crimes legislation not only doesn’t change institutional bias; it further empowers this broken system by increasing law enforcement’s ability to arrest and imprison."  I find the challenges posed here important to understand as we all try to find a way to have a governance project built outside the logic of mass incareceration.

     

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