Everything is connected. We can all agree on that can't we? For each and every action there is an equal, and equally important, reaction. This realization pervades so much of what I believe and how I live. It leads me to question and research policies and practices. And I see a connection to three major policy issues, what I call the 3e's: education, equality and environment. And the way we develop our policies in these three areas impacts every aspect of our lives, our future, our well being and our country.
Here are a few facts that I find very disturbing about our policy decisions:
- Spending per student $10,560, 2011
- Spending per prisoner $26,094, increase of 33 percent in a decade, 2001 - 2011
In Tennessee, the first state to allow private for-profit prisons, the gap for youth is huge:
- Cost per student for public education10,000
- Cost per youth incarcerated88,000
So how is this fiscally conservative or beneficial to our national security or public safety?
During the time period from the 1980s, and the creation of private for-profit prisons in the United States, and today, we have seen our prisons become overcrowded and our schools receive less and less funding. Why is that? Is there a connection, and if so how did it happen, and is it in the best interest of our country? Most experts, and even some sonservatives like Condaleeza Rice, think it is time we recognize that our national security is suffering, and our lack of support for education is a big part of why.
Here is another question I think we need to ask: Why do we have 2.3 million citizens behind bars but only 1.8 million who received bachelor's degrees?
I feel like our country is in the midst of a bad dream with a trail of broken promises. What happened to the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? How did the U.S. end up trailing other countries in math and science but leading in prison population? And what about our environment? How does our investment and regulation and specific policy decisions impact our way of life?
I think the answer is simple -- where you spend your money shows what you value. Vice President Biden made this point very well with regard to the Federal Budget process, he said "... show me your budget and I'll tell you what you value." Look at our Federal and State budgets; from them it would seem we value only war and incarceration, but not education or health care. We have to deal with some hard facts. We have limited funding for programs, we can choose to put those taxpayers dollars to work funding programs that will have a long-term strategic benefit, or we can keep paying to put people in prisons and fight wars.
The same is true of our environmental policy: We give billions every year in tax subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. We underwrite even more of their costs with the invisible subsidies. For example, how much does it cost us to support the infrastructure for oil & gas, including building new homes "ready" for service, but not for solar, wind or geothermal? Why are we continuing to use taxpayer dollars to fund one of the most profitable industries on the planet that is causing massive climate disruption and devastation?
The war on drugs is another example. We spend approximately $50 billion every year, and it has failed. But this failure in our public sector has been very lucrative for private for-profit prisons. Companies like the Corrections Corporation of American, GEO and Community Education Centers have made billions, and they spend millions lobbying Congress and State Legislatures.
Can you guess what they are lobbying for? How does a private for-profit prison make money? More prisoners of course. The private prison lobby has been working closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council to impose mandatory, and in some cases what is described as draconian, sentences. We are filling prisons with non-violent low risk inmates all so a nameless, faceless corporation which is likely hiding its profit offshore can generate revenue.
How did the land of the free and the home of the brave come to this?
Well, I'd say let's follow the money. The two biggest private for-profit prison contractors are making an estimated $3 billion per year, funded entirely by taxpayers.
And why? What is the reason? It is all about the transfer of wealth. It is the redistribution of our taxes to corporate "persons." Far from the fiction that Democrats are taking money from the rich to give to the poor, Republicans are actually taking money from the middle-class and working poor and shoveling it to the wealthy and corporations. Conservatives want to funnel money from our public system to private enterprise. It is the entire goal of "small government, less taxes" and trickle-down economics. They hate to see a dollar spent on a public program, they would rather give that dollar to a private corporation. Why should we fund public education, public prisons, public policy? Conservatives see nothing valuable in that, for them it is all about private enterprise. What is important to Republican values is the free market system at any cost; even the cost of our economy, national security and environment.
So what if we have to lose tens of thousands of good middle class jobs to do it? So what if we have to dismantle our pension system and plunge millions of retired people into poverty? So what if we have to allow fossil fuel fools to literally fracture our planet? And so what if we have to put millions of American's in prison so someone can make a buck?
The American dream has been broken. We have allowed ALEC and conservative dogma to make bad deals, bad decisions and bad promises. And though they profess to be doing all this with the best of intentions, I cannot help but question the motives of people like Grover Norquist and other conservative leaders. Today on CNN Grover was spouting some truly nonsensical, and utterly false, job numbers when he said a "pipeline" that is being blocked would potentially help create "hundreds of thousands" of jobs, a claim debunked even by Fox News.
The fact is, the United States spends less on environmental regulation, education and health care of the poor than other countries. A new study, The Equality of Opportunity Project, cites three factors in deciding if a nation can provide mobility to its citizens: social capital, city layout and public policy. According to Fareed Zakaria on his show today, the first two are difficult to change, but the third can and should be changed in the United States.
We fund our schools based upon property taxes, which means that poor neighborhoods with lower real estate values have less money. Is it any wonder we continue to see a disparity gap? The question is, how do we change it?
We can change it by contacting legislators and meeting them. We can change it by understanding what ALEC is doing to undermine our democracy. We can change it by running for office and supporting candidates and campaigns. We can change it by going to school board meetings and voicing our opinion. We can change it by agreeing to disagree without being disagreeable. And finally, we can do it by returning to the basic American Dream, and remembering education, equality and environment are the three elements of a strong nation.
We the people need to stop ALEC and private for-profit companies from locking up our citizens and defunding our schools. We need to defend our national interest and find our national pride. It is up to us, every one of us, to stand for what we believe in.
I will go on the record here and say proudly, I stand for public education. I stand for equality. And I stand for our environment.
There is nothing more important to me than protection of those three vital aspects of our country, they are our national core. They are our national promise. They are our American Dream.