David R. Henderson  

The Bottom One Percent

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UPDATE:
Welcome visitors from Instapundit.

I blogged briefly about the bottom one percent a few months ago and the Hoover Institution has now published an expanded piece on the issue. Here are the opening paragraphs:

We often hear a lot, especially from those who want to tear them down, about the top 1 percent. We don't hear nearly as much about the bottom 1 percent. Who are they? Where are they? Why are they in the bottom 1 percent? And what should we do about them?

It turns out that about two thirds of the people in the bottom 1 percent are in U.S. prisons. And of these people, a few hundred thousand are there for victimless crimes. Letting them out would help them and save us taxpayer money. That's a win-win.


And:
In the United States today, there are about 314 million people. One percent of the U.S. population, therefore, is 3,140,000. In our prisons today are 2.2 million people. We have a higher percent of our people in prison than any other country in the world and the percent of our population in prison has, shockingly, more than doubled since 1980.

And:
It's already unjust that they are in prison since they harmed no one. The person who sold drugs, for example, sold them, which means that someone voluntarily bought them. We may question the wisdom of using such drugs as marijuana and cocaine, but the people who use them should be free to make their own decisions. They might make bad decisions, but should people go to prison for making bad decisions that hurt no one but, perhaps, themselves? Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush have admitted using illegal drugs. Would society have been better off if they had spent time in prison?

I resisted the urge to write a snarky sentence after this apparently-rhetorical-but-not-really-rhetorical question. Snark aside, I think one could seriously argue that society would be better off had both Bush and Obama spent time in prison. The argument might go something as follows: If the rich and powerful were forced to do time in prison for doing drugs, there would be a stronger incentive to end the drug war. As my Hoover colleague Joe McNamara, a former police chief of San Jose and, before that, Kansas City, Missouri, once put it in a talk he gave in Monterey to FED-UP, an anti-drug-war group of which I am treasurer:
If the authorities started making a lot of drug arrests in Pebble Beach and Carmel, the drug war would be over tomorrow.

I think he exaggerated but I think there's a kernel of truth there.


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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime



COMMENTS (29 to date)
chris writes:

A lot of "nonviolent drug offenses" are really prosecutions of people who are involved in violent crime, but prosecuted under drug laws because it's almost impossible to satisfy post-Warren Court evidentiary standards for violent crime.

see: William Stuntz's book "The Collapse of American Criminal Justice"

John Thacker writes:
Snark aside, I think one could seriously argue that society would be better off had both Bush and Obama spent time in prison. The argument might go something as follows: If the rich and powerful were forced to do time in prison for doing drugs, there would be a stronger incentive to end the drug war... I think he exaggerated but I think there's a kernel of truth there.

Hmm. Does that comport with your argument on the similar issue of whether the draft for the rich and powerful would reduce support for war in general?

Is the answer that what we're seeing now with the War on Drugs is what we'd see with conscription-- the affluent and politically powerful seeking and receiving deferments and exemptions? That is, conscription might reduce support for war if the rich and powerful couldn't actually get around it, but they inevitably will spend their time doing so?

David R. Henderson writes:

@John Thacker,
Good reasoning, as is your wont.

Yes, I think it does comport with my drug argument. Here's why. The issue with the draft is whether we have the draft at all. The issue I raised with imprisoning Obama and Bush is whether we do given that there's already a law against drugs. So just as I'm comfortable advocating that we have no draft, I'm comfortable advocating that we have no drug war. If we are to have a drug war, though, and if we are to have a draft, I think that everyone should be vulnerable to it.

And your last line is correct: That is, conscription might reduce support for war if the rich and powerful couldn't actually get around it, but they inevitably will spend their time doing so?

David R. Henderson writes:

@chris,
A lot of "nonviolent drug offenses" are really prosecutions of people who are involved in violent crime, but prosecuted under drug laws because it's almost impossible to satisfy post-Warren Court evidentiary standards for violent crime.
You could well be right, chris. But it's also true that a lot of "nonviolent drug offenses" are simply that: they involve no other violence and no other crime.

kebko writes:

chris:

Having a bunch of bogus crimes that prosecutors can arbitrarily use whenever they can't win their actual cases is a bug, not a feature.

Mike W writes:

What would society do with the bottom 1% if they were not in jail? They have no marketable job skills and we can't even keep the law-abiding unskilled workforce busy. If we did not have a "war on drugs" would we have to invent another war-on as a mechanism for containing the bottom 1%?

mike shupp writes:

If the authorities started making a lot of drug arrests in Pebble Beach and Carmel, the drug war would be over tomorrow.


This argument, in one form or another, has been made for well over forty years in America. No one really doubts it.

It is not a problem of economics. It is a characteristic of American society.

Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush have admitted using illegal drugs.

When did Bush admit that? I've only heard him cop to drinking to excess on occasion.

Ted Levy writes:

Gee, Mike W....if we didn't have a war on drugs, maybe some of the otherwise unemployed 1% could...y'know....sell drugs. I understand those no longer imprisoned for selling Seagrams are doing quite well...

Andrew writes:

End the Prison Industrial Complex

sieben writes:

"They might make bad decisions, but should people go to prison for making bad decisions that hurt no one but, perhaps, themselves?"

David, this is a borderline straw man. By "hurt", you must mean a non-libertarian "hurt", because you cannot commit a crime against yourself. Presumably what you have in mind is that drug-users might hurt their health or waste their money.

But it is entirely possible, and this is a mainstream argument, that drug-users "hurt" others in similar ways. Their habits may disrupt families and cause emotional anguish to loved ones.

So it isn't fair to say that drug users "hurt" no one but themselves. You can make someone else worse off by exercising your libertarian rights.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan,
Here's the link and the relevant line:
He refused to answer reporters' questions about his past behavior, he said, even though it might cost him the election. Defending his approach, Mr. Bush said: "I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried."

David R. Henderson writes:

@sieben,
Good point. I overstated.
But let's put it in perspective. A big part of the problem that the drug user causes for his family is due to the fact that drugs are illegal. Illegality makes the drug market riskier, and the drugs are priced for risk. So money not spent on the family to pay for drugs is money that could be spent on the family if drugs were legal. I know you're probably not thinking only of money, but that's surely one element of it.

Mike W writes:

@Ted Levy

I believe your point was essentially DRH's position in his earlier blog, i.e., the bottom 1% would become productive members of society if they weren't in prison. That seems to me to be naive and simplistic.

The bottom 1%ers are not the movies' sympathetic stoner-slackers pinched for selling weed to undercover cops. Not only does the bottom 1% have no work skills they generally have no ability to function in society (I know folks in the middle 40% that are just barely functioning in terms of the choices they make). Giving the 1% their liberty would likely just convert incarceration into homelessness. It is simplistic to assume that releasing them would save taxpayers $X a year… although I guess if they died on the street that would be a savings.

sieben writes:

David,

I don't disagree with you at all. I just don't want your opponents to read your work and dismiss you out of hand.

It makes more sense to enforce drug laws at the top of society than at the bottom. Drug users at the bottom of society won't do anything worse than mug you. Drug users at the top of society can float through college in a semi-conscious haze, make up for it later by getting their alleged facts from people who were equally stoned, and pass regulations based on their hallucinations. (That's the best explanation for regulations designed to save the commonest compound in the universe by mandating toilets that have to be flushed several times.)

That's pretty weak tea, David. Supposedly he said in a private conversation;

Mr. Bush, who has acknowledged a drinking problem years ago, told Mr. Wead on the tapes that he could withstand scrutiny of his past. He said it involved nothing more than "just, you know, wild behavior." He worried, though, that allegations of cocaine use would surface in the campaign, and he blamed his opponents for stirring rumors. "If nobody shows up, there's no story," he told Mr. Wead, "and if somebody shows up, it is going to be made up." But when Mr. Wead said that Mr. Bush had in the past publicly denied using cocaine, Mr. Bush replied, "I haven't denied anything."

He refused to answer reporters' questions about his past behavior, he said, even though it might cost him the election. Defending his approach, Mr. Bush said: "I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried."

That's hardly an 'admission'.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan,
So when the question was asked specifically about marijuana and he answered that he wouldn't answer a question about marijuana because he "didn't want some little kid doing what he tried," what do you think he was referring to? What do you think he "tried" that he would immediately think of when refusing to answer a question about marijuana?

David R. Henderson writes:

@sieben,
Thanks.

John Thacker writes:

David,

Thanks for answering. That makes sense. Both shouldn't exist, both should be equal if they do exist (I think I could make an argument that strictly buying your way explicitly out of either might even be better than working the rules and influence in an unseen way), but both will not be equal if they do exist.

Mr. Econotarian writes:
Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush have admitted using illegal drugs. Would society have been better off if they had spent time in prison?

This should be the #1 question in the presidential debates for Barack Obama:

"Would the country have been better off if you were arrested, convicted, and jailed for drug possession?"

awp writes:

@sieben

"But it is entirely possible, and this is a mainstream argument, that drug-users "hurt" others in similar ways. Their habits may disrupt families and cause emotional anguish to loved ones."

And throwing them into prison is less disruptive to families and causes no emotional anguish?

It might be first best to subsidize/provide treatment programs for those who are addicted. I don't think throwing them in prison for voluntary* harms is the second best over letting them be.

*The harm suffered by those emotionally close to the victim are also voluntary (except for the children of addicts, but still, throwing parents in jail for being addicts is not really helping the kids)

Steve Sailer writes:

"A lot of "nonviolent drug offenses" are really prosecutions of people who are involved in violent crime, but prosecuted under drug laws"

Similarly, Al Capone went to prison for "nonviolent tax offenses."

A lot of people who are in prison long term for "nonviolent drug offenses" are scary bad guys who terrify potential witnesses into not snitching on them for violent offenses. It's harder to intimidate a forensic chemist than the hooker who saw you off that guy.

Ted Levy writes:

Mike W. SEEMS to be arguing that that 1% at the bottom are there because...well, because they're dregs. Sure, they're in prison, but as it happens prison doesn't much negatively impact them. They'd be equally poorly off even if they weren't in prison. They'd never find work in a market economy not kind enough to toss them in the clink so as to provide room and board. People may have an infinity of wants, but NONE that THESE folks can supply.

I gotta say, it's a stretch. While I'm sure it's true that segments of our society, where large portions of family/friends/neighbors are in or have been in "the joint," develop a culture where doing time is like taking a vacation...getting to see the ol' gang again. No big deal. But the numbers Prof. Henderson mentions are so high, it only seems reasonable that if even a small percentage of them have their lives upended/negatively impacted/destroyed by the physical violence/rapes/poor medical care/numbing repetitive physical routine of prison then that constitutes a significant social cost nonetheless.

The goal, after all, is not to transform the bottom 1% into the next titans of Silicon Valley. But even moving from the bottom 1% to the higher portion of the bottom quintile is probably a big deal for those, unlike Mike W, who habitate that dank percentile.

Granted, it is the nature of percentages that SOME will always be in the bottom 1%, but it does not follow that prison has no negative effects either directly or on one's ability to move out of that ranking. Mike W. is, I think, far too cavalier about the important issues Professor Henderson raises.

RightKlik writes:
Letting them out would help them and save us taxpayer money. That's a win-win.

Sounds like a reasonable idea. But let's try it in your state first.

And don't be surprised if savings on prisons are more than offset by the cost of treating addictions and other diseases.

David R. Henderson writes:

@RightKlik,
Sounds like a reasonable idea. But let's try it in your state first.
Ok. That would be great. This might surprise you, RightKlik, but I don't generally advocate things that I think will make things worse.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

@Mike W,

"If we did not have a "war on drugs" would we have to invent another war-on as a mechanism for containing the bottom 1%?"

How about a "War on Minimum Wage"?

Joe Cushing writes:

"Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush have admitted using illegal drugs. Would society have been better off if they had spent time in prison?"


YES! but not for the drugs they took. They should both be in prison right now for treason. When a president flagrantly ignores the constitution, that should be the highest crime in the land.

Erin Standley writes:

Even victimless prisoners deserve to be in prison. If you are breaking the law, then you deserve to be imprisoned and punished for the crime you have committed. However, I feel that the prison system could be reformed to change how long and where these prisoners stay in prison. If it costs taxpayers roughly $25,000 a year to keep a criminal in prison, something should be changed for the victimless prisoners (http://www.nbc11news.com/home/headlines/84420397.html). This article gave me the information on how much money taxpayers provide to keep someone in jail for a year.

Also, since the criminal imprisoned for the victimless crime technically did not harm another human being, there should be a different route for this prisoner to be reformed before returning to normal society. This prisoner could instead do a certain number of days in prison depending on the depth of the crime committed and then a certain number of community service hours before being "released" into society again. This way, taxpayers are not providing the government with money to allow prisoners to live lifestyles which cost more than some people make in a year.

I believe that people who commit crimes should go to jail following the due process of the law, however caring for the prisoner while in prison with taxpayer money of over $25,000 seems excessive to me when the government's money could be going to something more useful, like a public good.

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