The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Zombies in America

There are zombies among us.

These days, we hear a great deal about zombies. The Walking Dead has a strong following. World War Z ranks #311 among all purchases and holds top-fifty rankings in several subcategories. There have even been mathematical models developed by academia to describe a zombie outbreak in quantitative terms, albeit to aid in modeling general epidemics rather than out of serious concern for zombies per se.

The thing is, we already have zombies living among us. Every day, more of them arise. Depending on the timing and circumstances, they may seem a mere annoyance. Change the variables slightly, and they become a genuine threat.

Like the zombies of our stories, the ones we find throughout the United States did not begin as zombies. They were living people, probably with dreams and aspirations, perhaps with means, but certainly with potential. They made mistakes. They fell in with the wrong crowds, listened to the wrong people, and were caught doing things they should not -- sometimes horrific things, usually not.

These living people, caught and convicted, then embarked on a journey with an unexpected outcome, irreversible and insidious.

Justice, Then and Now

Crime and punishment go hand-in-hand and have existed since ancient times. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any sort of society, even a few families clustered around a communal fire, that did not have to deal with matters of these sorts. Until recently, however, the relationship between the two yielded a zero-sum equivalence. A person convicted of a crime received a sentence. For egregious crimes for which no offset was possible, the sentence was death, and execution -- which represented a maximal committment of the criminal's resources -- served as a stand-in for balancing the scales even though ancient people knew fully well that the taking of one life was not in truth equivalent to the taking of another (especially when the life taken by the community was guilty and the one taken by the individual had been innocent).

Most crimes, however, were and are not capital offenses. For these, punishment in ancient times and continuing through the early industrial age was generally harsh, with minimal food and forced labor. Strict discipline was enforced with fists and whips, with some additional beatings and whippings thrown in for no particular purpose. Prison was not a pleasant place to be.

Lest we feel too much pity for those convicted, keep in mind that not only were these people who in general were indeed guilty of something, but their punishment also served as rehabilitation. A crime committed was a hole dug in the foundation of society. Punishment served was the refilling of that hole through hard labor, and when it was finished, the criminal was a convict no longer. He or she left prison free, rights restored.

America once worked this way. It does not work this way any longer.

For a wide range of offenses, from egregious acts such as murder and rape to check fraud and grand larceny to possession of even minute quantities of drugs, living people are drawn into a criminal justice system where evidence is presented and, if guilt is established, felony convictions are meted out. Prison terms may follow, and often do; indeed, many offenses now carry minimum-sentence terms spanning years even for first-time non-violent offenders, established by legislators who sought to deprive judges of their traditional roles in hopes of "sending a message."

But in truth, the prison terms don't matter. It is the convictions that carry weight, because unlike criminals of earlier times who endured far worse treatment in prisons than American convicts can even imagine, criminals in our modern system cannot repay their debts to society. The sentences end, but release does not bring a return to life with the scales rebalanced in accordance with thousands of years of human societal traditions. The beings who emerges from jail remain felons, stripped of job prospects and the right to vote, consigned to unending dependence in a status that is not so much life as undeath.

Why should we care?

It's not uncommon for people hearing about the plight of felons to wonder why they should care. After all, while there are instances of improper prosecutions, colluding attorneys, racial profiling, and withholding of evidence, the vast majority of people convicted of crimes are (as has been true since antiquity) actually guilty. They did what they are accused of doing. They deserve punishment. Why pity them?

Here, it is helpful to remember that what our system is doing is not meting out punishment in the classical sense but specifically creating zombies, and if you've read any of the relevant literature or seen the films and television series, you know that zombies are not good.

From the moment of their creation, zombies are no longer able to behave productively. When you see an able-bodied person sitting around begging for change on the side of the road, the odds are high that you're looking at a zombie. He may want to work, but who will hire him? Occasional construction projects, maybe -- but we're in a recession, aren't we? If she has a high school diploma, she could enroll in college, but to what end? Banks and technology firms don't hire felons.

Our country loses out on the productive capacity of zombies en masse, depriving us of the key value of having one of the highest birthrates in the developed world because so many of those born will never earn taxable wages to underpin the social security system or other aspects of our safety net programs. In fact, working-age zombies consume social services, both public and private. They feed off of food pantries and soup kitchens. They obtain SNAP benefits ("Food Stamps") and Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers -- at least where they can. Living people don't like zombies. They see them as parasites; they create walls and gates and regulations to keep them out of their neighborhoods, parks, and fields of vision.

But what happens when you find a cluster of feeding zombies and deprive them of what holds their attention? Again, the literature is illustrative: freed from their distractions, the zombies refocus on living people.

Do you think it's any coincidence that harsh minimum sentencing guidelines and drug-tested access to public social services have led to higher rates of repeat-offenses?(1) No one wants to go to prison. But when one has been to prison and emerges without any means of self-sufficiency because of the zombifying impacts of felony conviction, he or she has few options. Parasitic behavior is the first choice, the preferred choice for a zombie still struggling with echoes of humanity. Cut off the resources, and predatory behavior follows.

And ultimately, that is why we should care.

Our criminal justice system promises to keep us safe, but it actually does the opposite. It takes in people, usually young, often misguided but non-violent, and transforms them into zombies who can't make their way in the world on their own. Our social services system at best placates them but ultimately rejects them, and then they turn back to us, the ones who couldn't be bothered, who refused out of a lingering sense of ancient morality to impose capital punishment for minor offenses but nonetheless saw fit to take the lives of those we couldn't bring ourselves to sentence to death.

Deprived of hope, deprived of dignity and opportunity, the reanimated bodies remaining after felony conviction dwell among us, all around us, and when we sweep them from our vision, they remain. There they are, in the shadows, lurking and waiting. Their numbers grow, and we ensure they are kept hungry.

The zombies will come for us all.

The trend has been in place for decades but continues to accelerate, as entire sections of the population are caught in spirals where young people are drawn to the respect and power that criminals can amass within poverty-ridden neighborhoods.

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