Letter From Prison
Greetings from the Texas gulag! And thank you for Jonathan Schell’s insightful and sensitive editorial “Cruel America” [Oct. 17]. I was moved by his mention of the thousands of prisoners held in solitary confinement—often for decades—for frivolous or trumped-up reasons.
When Ronald Reagan defunded state hospitals and mental health facilities in the 1980s, many were left with no place to go but the criminal justice system. And since many can’t be safely absorbed into the general prison population, the prisons are left with no alternative but to place them in long-term, or permanent, isolation.
Here in high-security, or “superseg,” we have prisoners who are blind or confined to wheelchairs, and many whose only crime is being severely mentally handicapped—oh, and being dark-skinned. The US criminal justice system is being used as a means of ethnic and class cleansing, pure and simple.
Sprague River, Ore.
I appreciated Jonathan Schell’s “Cruel America.” I have concluded that the distinction between the cruel and the kind is simply a matter of compassion. Those possessed of compassion are capable of caring about people they do not know. John Perkins, who wrote Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, has told audiences not to judge the CEOs of predatory corporations too harshly, because they love their children. Quite true. However, they do not love my children or your children. Compassion cannot be learned or legislated; it is an existential grace some of us know.
Keynes Takes Pains to Ensure Gains
Kudos to Thomas Geoghegan [“What Would Keynes Do?” Oct. 17] for “rescuing” Keynes and restoring productive labor to the central place in our understanding of how to “fix” the economy. But one other approach should be mentioned: a virtually unknown work by Marxist economist Sydney Coontz, Productive Labor and Effective Demand, Including a Critique of Keynesian Economics, which actually explains why manufacturing (and manufacturing jobs) makes the economy function.
Clearly, Thomas Geoghegan is right that a large trade deficit means that far too much stimulus spending leaks out (and, ironically, more leaks out when the stimulus is tilted toward lower-income taxpayers). It’s also clear that the excessive size of the financial sector invites the wealthy to speculate rather than invest: government should indeed “ensure that liquidity preference is low.”
But what nonfinancial investments are the wealthy to make? Banks and corporations are already awash in cash, so there is no shortage of investable funds. Those funds sit idle or “invest” in short-term paper because returns on productive investment in the United States are too low. Why? Because of “free trade,” which puts high US wages into conflict with high US profits. Keynes (like Marx before him) was wrong to oppose tariffs and quotas, which ensure a market for domestic goods and thereby raise the return to making those goods here. But with globalization arguably too far along to be reversed, we’d be better off simply taxing the wealthy much more, to swell the public coffers, which could then invest in public goods like high-speed rail, mass transit, sewer systems, single-payer healthcare and better schools—all of which raise living standards even at stagnant wages.
As for the argument that “political realities” block government from making those investments, using confiscatory taxes to sap the influence of the rich would go a long way toward addressing that.
Sun Lakes, Ariz.
As Thomas Geoghegan asserts, Keynes would sweet-talk the rich into parting with their money. He would entice idle cash to bankroll long-term improvements to all public facilities by creating a government-owned corporation, perhaps dubbed PIRI (Popular Initiative to Rebuild the Infrastructure), to borrow from the superrich at mouthwatering rates and service the loans with user-fee revenue. PIRI would award design and construction contracts, to be supervised by local public works officials.
The wealthy, thus enticed, would choose to invest in their native country, especially if returns were tax exempt. Graduated interest rates favoring the first in would accelerate the subscription of capital and expedite starts on priority projects. Robotically collected usage data would generate charges to users. An initial share of revenue would go to investors. States, counties and cities would receive proportional shares of the remainder.
Keynes would argue that rewarding the rich is preferable to punishing other classes with draconian cuts in social programs, and that PIRI’s economic invigoration would benefit the population far more, comparatively, than the rich by ending high unemployment, energizing construction and high-tech industries, and enhancing public facilities. He would also adjust tax policy to offset the burden of unpopular new user fees.
We have simply forgotten—or deliberately ignored—successful historical models: toll roads, undersea cables, canals and railroads, to name the most obvious. Such costly enterprises attracted huge sums of private capital and produced enormous returns for early investors while employing hordes of workers in engineering, manufacturing, construction and support occupations. Schemes of the robber barons, absent their rapacity, offer both a short- and long-term escape route from our present immobility.
We Don’t Know Either
I enjoyed Walter Mosley’s “Black, Jew, Torn Apart” [Oct. 17]. I get the reference to “Chaim and LeRoy” and “Aunt Fanny,” but nowhere in my online searching have I been able to find anything on “Fontanot.” (Spiral staircases and francophone spelling of an Italian communist just don’t seem to fit.) Before I lose too much sleep, can someone enlighten me?
Why I Live at the P.O.
St. Peter, Minn.
John Nichols’s “Save the P.O.!” [Oct. 17] is right on. Imagine, an actual person arrives at your home nearly every day, rain or shine, to deliver letters and packages to you. And this service is free to one and all. What would the monthly fee for this service be in the “free” market? $50? $100? You think postage stamps are expensive? Wait till you see the prices private enterprise will bring. Of course, the USPS is socialism, like the public schools and national parks.
John Nichols overlooks one aspect of the Postal Service situation. Veterans in large numbers are employed by the USPS, and it will be one more mistreatment of them to terminate their employment.