In recent days, here in Arizona, there’s been discussion about privatization of prisons — hardly anything new — and state parks. The argument seems to be two-pronged: Private, for-profit industries tend to run efficiently; and by passing maintenance and facility costs off to companies, we’re able to free up funds in the tax budget which could be used for other things — or possibly not. In principle, taxes could simply be reduced instead.
To turn our attention to the latter argument first, Arizona has been cutting its state budget, steadily, for some time now. It’s cut so completely that recently, AHCCCS terminated paying for organ transplants and, incidentally, the lives of a few of its own citizens. (Death panel, indeed.) Large portions of state-mandated systems, such as the courts, have found themselves reduced to less than a bare-bones budget, with only a few officials being forced to handle the caseloads of entire counties.
We’ve also done away with rest stops, and for a while the DPS terminated its helicopter service in the Kingman area, essentially leaving all of Mohave County without any kind of aerial search-and-rescue or law-enforcement ability.
However, it’s worth noting that cutting these services has not, in fact, led to a reduction in taxes — so where has the money disappeared to? Is it really possible that the state is running at such a deficit that years of systematic budget and service cuts have had no effect at all on its operation? If so, it might be practical to suggest that no amount of budget cutting will actually do anything to keep the state’s balance in the black.
This conclusion seemingly leaves us with two choices: Raising taxes, or privatizing.
The problem with raising taxes is obvious, and has nothing to do with voter outcry.1 Arizona citizens’ median income — particularly outside of Coconino, Pima, and Maricopa counties — is surprisingly low.2 Our citizens are cash-strapped, and a general rise in taxes could effectively push many of the full-time employed perilously close to poverty. It would seem that privatizing is the only way to keep essential services in place, while at the same time relieving tax stress — or at least damming the worst of the leaks.
Furthermore, it’s argued, a for-profit industry will operate more efficiently and fluidly than a government-run one can. Efficiency often manifests itself as lower costs for consumers. Thus, privatization gives us lower costs.3 While this may or may not actually be the case, it’s easy to argue that paying taxes into support of a service I’ll never personally need seems like a waste of my money.4
Hence, we might be able to significantly reduce Arizona’s budget woes by privatizing out some things that many of us rarely (if ever) use, charging fees to those who actually do use those services, instead of having all of us carry the tax burden.
Perhaps with a rest stop, this makes some sense. I expect that if I had to pay a dollar to use a toilet, I’d be less likely to vandalize that toilet; why cough up a buck to scrawl a tag on a wall that few are likely to see? The fees collected could go to better maintenance and cleanliness.5 At the very least, installation of vending machines could give travelers a chance to refresh themselves, while at the same time providing an extra source of revenue for rest-stop upkeep.6 Finally, in the era of cellular phones, who actually needs a rest-stop telephone?7 Why ever would we want to offer free roadside conveniences to travelers?
With a state park, though, I’m not sure it’s quite so easy. One of the things we’re proud of in Kingman — at least, I think we are — is the Hualapai Mountain range. Just a twenty-minute trip from almost anywhere in town brings you to a completely different landscape, one filled with fresh, bracing air; tall, whispering trees; and a landscape that is made of a balance of tumbling boulders, fecund soil, and myriad animal life.
Settled in that range is Hualapai Mountain State Park. I hope you’ve been there. If you haven’t, try to go. You can spend a very pleasant day hiking, picnicking, barbecuing, or just sitting and enjoying the atmosphere. And because it’s a state park, it’s paid for by your tax dollars, mine, and every other Arizona resident’s.
Now imagine if you had to pay a fee to gain entry. How much would you be willing to pony up? Five dollars? Ten? A buck? A quarter? Would you be willing to pay $15 for a six-visit pass? How about $30 for an annual pass, with unlimited visits? That’s just $2.50 per month. Not too shabby.
The problem is that it’s not a bargain. When you do the math, you discover that it costs the median Arizona taxpayer a dime per month to maintain all 27 parks in the entire Arizona state park system.8 There is no way at all that privatizing the parks will result in a significant reduction in state taxes, nor is it likely to make up for the collateral revenues that our parks bring in as tourist dollars.
These numbers are not a mystery. It only takes an hour or so of research to discover everything. Yet the drumbeat for privatization of parks is rising — so who is leading the march? Who stands to gain from privatization?
When we consider privatizing prisons, these questions only become more pertinent. Since we’ve already seen that handing parks to for-profit concerns won’t significantly lower taxes, and probably won’t increase state revenues, we can justifiably make the inference that the same is so of prisons. There is a well-known link between our state politicians and the corporations that run prisons here; the conclusion is so self-evident that it’s baffling anyone could believe prison-privatization is of benefit to anyone but a select few.
There’s another, subtler danger in running prisons for profit: It reduces the desirability of rehabilitation, and increases the desirability of imprisoning criminals for relatively petty acts.
Rehabilitation is ostensibly ideal, since it (hopefully) reduces recidivism and allows former convicts to find productive, non-criminal livelihood. But if a prison gets money for each prisoner it keeps, and especially if its philosophy is about maintaining the value of the bottom line, there’s little incentive to reduce recidivism. And since, again, more criminals equals more revenue, it’s plausible that pressure is applied to lawmakers to pass more legislation favoring jailable offenses.
Crime actually does pay, if you happen to own a prison.
Most insidious to my mind, though, is that for-profit prisons essentially earn their money from human suffering. In Christianity, this is known as filthy lucre. It should come as no surprise that Buddhism has something to say on the subject as well.
Part of Buddhism’s core philosophy is the Noble Eightfold Path, a set of precepts to keep in order to be a better person, and to help oneself along on the way to enlightenment. The fifth step on this path is Right (or skillful, or appropriate) Livelihood, and it governs how we make a living. If we manufacture or trade in weapons, or if we trade in killing, we’re not maintaining right livelihood. More subtly, if we earn our wages by increasing or profiting from suffering, we’re also not engaged in right livelihood.
As with most things in Buddhism, these precepts are flexible. Strictly speaking, if you work for Glock, you’re not engaged in right livelihood — but on the other hand, if a Glock pistol is used to protect a person from a crime, that would seem to cancel out the objection. To understand the wider ramifications of our jobs, we have to look at these things and balance what we’re doing against its intent. Glock does not manufacture weapons for criminals to purchase and use; that criminals do so is evidence of a larger ill in society, as is our unfortunate need to own a pistol for protection.
Similarly, Lockheed-Martin does not manufacture warbirds to kill innocents or press unjust warfare. Certainly their aircraft have been used to do both, but can we really condemn Lockheed-Martin because of the choices we — and our elected officials — make?
My sense is that this also applies to prisons being run for profit. While we cannot be personally responsible for the actions of a criminal — the criminal has made his own choices — we do have the ability to choose how we respond. It seems to me that making money off of a criminal’s sentence isn’t too far removed from actually profiting from his crime. Furthermore, if we allow our laws to be set up in such a way as to guarantee a higher prison population, it can be argued that we are actively seeking to increase human suffering in prisons for the sake of turning a profit.
For a Christian, the truism the love of money is the root of all evil may come to mind here. While it’s undeniable that capitalism is capable of producing astonishing innovations in the fields of medicine, technology, and industry, it is equally undeniable that unfettered, rapacious capitalism contributes to misery, both for humans and for the other life we share this planet with. A concrete example in BP immediately springs to mind. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is just the most recent in a series of debacles that have caused unguessable amounts of environmental damage and cost dozens of human lives.
Nevertheless, there are those who continue to agitate for reduced regulation over for-profit ventures, which seems odd, since most of those who agitate for this relaxation of the laws don’t actually stand to gain anything from it. Again, who is beating the drums, and who is leading the march?
So what do we do? Regulate corporations to death, socialize everything, and boost taxes to 50% or more for everyone? Or do we deregulate all business, privatize all governmental institutions, and reduce taxes to zero?
I don’t think there are any easy answers. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either omniscient, duped, or operating with an agenda. As with most things, the greatest merit is likely to be found somewhere in the middle. It’s up to each of us to consider what we believe, what our motives are, and what the motives might be in others — particularly those who seem to want us to think they have the answers, or are in some way telling us what to do.9
Personal responsibility, taken seriously, can quickly become improved social responsibility, without a single law having to be passed. However, it is my belief that personal responsibility means not only choosing our actions based on what we believe is the wisest course for ourselves, but what is the course least likely to harm others.
It is my wish that we may all become more personally responsible, one day at a time. Perhaps we can start by analyzing our sources of livelihood.
2. The median income in 2009 was $43,300 for a single wage-earner household. In 2000, Arizona ranked 29th in the US for median income at $47,750. This means that in the last nine years, income in Arizona dropped by $4,450 — a ten-percent reduction in actual wages. In that same time, the inflation rate has weakened the value of the US dollar by about 20%, meaning that the effective income of a wage-earner is now reduced to something in the neighborhood of $35,000. In one decade, median income has effectively dropped by approximately $14,000. See the Inflation Calculator for more information. ^
3. There are some who suggest this is so of the US Postal Service. To them I say: Have you compared the cost of sending a letter via the Post Office against the same service from Federal Express? ^
8. According to the Arizona State Parks Foundation, the entire state park operation uses $8.2mln per year. The median Arizona tax rate in 2008 was 8.5%. Taking from our income statistics in footnote 2, that means about $3700 in taxes per person per year go to the state. In 2009, the state population was about 6.6 million. That’s about $24.2bln in tax revenues. From this we see that about .033% ($1.25) of the median tax goes into state parks. ^
9. I’m not suggesting we should be mistrustful of everyone; however, I think it’s valid for us to require that our trust be earned, especially by those who are somehow in authority, or who apparently wish to be. Contrarily, I believe that those who automatically reject all authority are dupes, every bit as much as those who blindly accept all authority. ^
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