The High Cost of Crime and Punishment

by Burt on July 28, 2015

On the subject of crime, as Thomas Sowell has noted, liberals and conservatives often talk past each other. They don’t agree on what causes crime, or how it can be prevented.

Conservatives, for example, see crime in society as inevitable. Human nature is flawed, and thus some people will rob, cheat, or injure others if an advantage can be gained by doing so. To prevent anarchy in society, deterrents against crime (e.g. jails and fines) must be firmly in place and faithfully supported by law. Potential criminals need to see that the costs of being caught outweigh the gains from the crime. When institutions–families, churches, and schools–train children to behave lawfully, everyone gains.

Liberals, however, often disagree about the causes of crime. They see human nature as basically good. The problems come from within society itself. For example, poverty or poor education can sidetrack normally good people into lives of crime. The solution, therefore, is in government intervention–a war on poverty or more education so that the goodness in people will at last emerge and crime will decline.

Neither side is completely right or wrong, but the conservative view prevailed in the U.S. until about 1900, when the Progressive Era began. Since then, the liberal view has dominated prison reform, and we can see the signs of this everywhere.

Prison leaders in the 1800s believed in incarceration as a punishment and deterrent, but around 1900 they began stressing rehabilitation and parole for good behavior. Prisons became “departments of corrections,” with the implication being that prisoners had committed crimes because of false or inadequate knowledge. In prison, they would be rehabilitated, or “corrected”, and then released when that occurred.

In the last one hundred years, the massive increase in crime, the huge costs of operating prisons, and the stunningly high rate of recidivism suggest that the liberal view has failed. As many states teeter on bankruptcy, the high cost of crime and punishment has become a national issue. Thousands of inmates are being released due to overcrowding.

I have seen maximum-security prisons first hand every year for the last 32 years when I visit my friend Mitchell Rutledge, who is in an Alabama prison serving life without parole. Ironically, Mitch, who is ineligible for parole, is one of the few inside who is actually rehabilitated.

In 1983, TIME magazine wrote Mitch off as a hopeless case. “To most people,” TIME wrote, “the life of a foolish punk like Rutledge does not count for much. He is defective. His death would not be unbearably sad.” At the time, Mitch was on death row, illiterate and friendless. But he had just become a Christian and that spiritual change, not prison, would be his transformation. “I just want to let everybody know that I am sorry for what I did,” Mitch told TIME about his murder of a drug dealer.

Mitch’s words haunted me all day and night. I couldn’t sleep. I decided to write this inmate, and when I did I discovered one of the most remarkable human dramas one can imagine. My wife Anita and I have written a new book, Death on Hold, which is the story of Mitch’s transformation from that of an illiterate street kid to a mature, self-controlled man who is an elected leader in the prison honor dorm and a speaker to at-risk youth.

What about rehabilitation, and the high rate of recidivism? “The environment in prison,” Mitch says, “tends to be survival of the fittest. Most who leave here are worse off than when they came.”

The prisons do sometimes allow Christians to put on programs, and Mitch is encouraged by that. It leads to change from the inside out. That change seems to be far more effective than rehabilitation and corrections.

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Death On Hold

by Burt on July 23, 2015

Did you ever visit anyone in prison? Or talk on the phone with an inmate there?

Sometimes those opportunities come from unexpected places. In 1983, my wife Anita and I read a TIME magazine article about the death penalty. The article quoted inmates from selected prisons around the country who were on death row, awaiting execution. I was struck by the story of one man, Mitchell Rutledge, who said he was sorry for what he had done. But the TIME article said, “The life of a foolish punk like Rutledge does not count for much. He is defective. . . . Let Rutledge sit and stew in his 8-ft. by 5 ft. pen in Alabama. Forget him.”

Mitch had been high on drugs and alcohol two years earlier when he shot a drug dealer. At the age of 21, he found himself in Holman Prison, awaiting execution in the electric chair. I couldn’t stop thinking about this young man who had led such a tragic life. I wrote Mitch a letter and he responded, beginning a friendship that has lasted to this day. Anita and I first visited Mitch in 1984, and our visits still take place regularly.

In the 32 years that my wife and I have known Mitch, he has become a leader in his prison community. He taught himself to read on death row, and after two re-sentencing hearings had his sentence reduced to life without parole. Once he was off death row, he earned his GED and then college credits. He was elected to office in the prison’s honor dorm, and his impassioned speeches to at-risk youths have been taped and distributed throughout the Alabama school system.

Anita and I tell the remarkable story of Mitch’s life in our new book, Death on Hold, to be released by Thomas Nelson Publishing on August 11th. This book is quite a departure from our usual texts on economic history, but it is the riveting story of a transformation.

By any measure, Mitchell Rutledge has been rehabilitated.

Mitch traces his rehabilitation to one event: his decision to trust Jesus Christ with his life. “You have to rehabilitate yourself,” Mitch says, “because the flow of prison life is negative. If you don’t have God as your anchor, you will probably be swept up by the overcrowding, the frustration, and the violence inside prison.”

Some argue that poverty and broken families create crime, but Mitch says they only create the conditions conducive to crime. “The issue is one of choices,” Mitch says. “We all make choices every day; I made some bad choices and now I make much better ones.” Mitch was born into poverty to a thirteen year old unwed black girl. She died when Mitch was a teenager, and he began living a life of crime in the streets.

During Mitch’s youth, he twice had contact with government programs: the public schools and Job Corps. Neither one motivated Mitch. Even though he couldn’t read, he was passed from grade to grade.

But when he was faced with a first-degree murder charge, he asked God to be a part of his life. Mitch changed from the inside out, and he began making choices that would give him a life and a future. Instead of being executed on death row, as Mitch says, “God put my death on hold.”

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What Is the Ex-Im Bank?

by Anita on May 7, 2015

Posted by Anita Folsom

The Ex-Im Bank (Export Import Bank) is in the news these days.  But what is it?

“Created in 1934, the Export-Import Bank was a product of [Franklin] Roosevelt’s New Deal.  FDR initially wanted the Ex-Im Bank as a foreign policy tool to make easy credit available to nations he liked….  The Ex-Im Bank often expected to lose money because it was making risky loans, or giving subsidies, to favored countries or favored American corporations.  The Ex-Im could lose money regularly and get replenished in annual appropriations” from the federal government.  (Uncle Sam Can’t Count, Chapter 7)

That spending pattern has continued to this day, and the Ex-Im Bank comes up for renewal in a few weeks.  But many Americans are waking up to the waste and political corruption caused by such a government entity.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, former Texas Governor Rick Perry announced “Why I’m Changing My Mind and Opposing the Ex-Im Bank.” First of all,  on April 13 an Ex-Im loan officer, Johnny Gutierrez, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes on nineteen separate occasions from clients of the bank.  And that doesn’t include the 31 corruption and fraud investigations still pending in regard to mismanagement at the Ex-Im.

Perry admits that during his tenure as governor, he liked the fact that 1200 Texas businesses received help from the Ex-Im Bank in funding more than $24 billion in exports.  The economy of Texas was thriving and job creation was Perry’s number one priority.

Now Perry is pointing to the sluggish national economy, and he realizes that bank loans from the government don’t fuel a robust economy.  No one can overtax segments of the population to create prosperity in another segment without damaging the people’s ability to invest and create new jobs.  Here is Perry’s three-point plan to revitalize the American free market system:

(1)  Simplify the tax code and reduce corporate taxes.   The corporate tax rate in the U.S. is among the highest for industrialized nations.  Start-up companies face an avalanche of regulations just to open their doors.

(2)  Reduce the federal debt by reducing spending, and no new tax increases.

(3)  The U.S. needs a regulatory system that is stable.  Regulations under Obamacare, the EPA, and the IRS have grown by the thousands under the Obama administration.  If regulations change rapidly or constantly increase, businesses tend to locate in other countries, avoiding the U.S.

From 2008 until 2011, more American businesses closed their doors than opened them.  This dismal statistic serves as a wake-call to all Americans, including Rick Perry.  The Ex-Im Bank under both Democratic and Republican presidents has been a ready-made candy jar from which to dollop handfuls of cash – in the millions – to political allies.  That is what the Ex-Im Bank was set up to be, that’s what it has been for years, and that’s what it is today.  It is time to abolish the Ex-Im Bank.

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Is This the Most Difficult of Times?

by Anita on April 9, 2015

Posted by Anita Folsom

Is this the most difficult of times for Americans?  As a comparison, let’s look at two earlier periods in our history.

On this date 150 years ago, the Civil War finally came to an end as General Robert E. Lee surrendered to U. S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.  About 620,000 men had died during the previous four years of fighting, all on American soil.  Almost another half million men had been wounded.  Many cities in the country were devastated waste lands.  And four million former slaves were free, but where could they live and what was to become of them?

Such wars have long lasting effects on society.  The Civil War created hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans.  Among soldiers on both sides, doctors estimated that there were 60,000 amputees, which meant that tens of thousands of men had to adjust to a different way of life after the war.

The national debt had exploded to $2.7 billion, and some wondered if the country would ever pay that debt.  But because of limited government after the war and frugal budgets, two-thirds of the national debt was paid in the next 28 years. With a society that valued inventions and entrepreneurs, the United States became the world leader in industrial production.

On this date seventy years ago, World War II was coming to a climax.  American soldiers, sailors, and Marines were fighting in every corner of the globe.  U. S. deaths in WWII totaled 405,000, not as many as during the Civil War.  Better medical treatment was the reason that more soldiers survived, including the immunizations given to all American personnel when they entered military service.  In World War II, epidemics didn’t ravage our troops.  And penicillin became available by 1944, saving thousands of lives.  DDT is controversial now, but during WWII its use saved millions of people in Europe and the Pacific from contracting typhus, malaria, and dengue fever, spread by fleas, lice, and mosquitoes. (See FDR Goes to War for more on this.)

About 14 million American men served in the military during the war.  Many were away from their families for years at a time.  In 1945, Americans were also prisoners of war in German and Japanese camps.  The odds of surviving captivity varied from camp to camp.  POWs in Germany – 93, 941 Americans – usually survived because German policy followed the guidelines of the Geneva Convention for the Treatment of Prisoners of War (unless the Americans were also Jewish). POWs in Japanese camps suffered a different reality.  With a death rate of 40%, American POWs in Japan received starvation rations and performed hard labor for their captors.

On the home front in the U. S., shortages of everything from tires to shoes to sugar were the reality during the war years. Intrusive government regulations covered every aspect of society.  Taxes devoured extra income of two-thirds of Americans.

Yet at the end of WWII, Americans chose to cut taxes and abolish many wartime regulations.  FDR had loved high taxes, because he wanted the government to direct the economy.  But with lower taxes in 1946 and 1947, politicians were amazed to see the economy soar while the federal government still reaped larger tax amounts than expected.  Why?  Because the American people were free to invest and build and invent without much government interference, and without federal taxes that sucked away productivity.

So, how does our current situation in the United States compare to 1865 and 1945?  Are times uncertain?  Yes.  Does violence seem to abound?  Yes.  Is government too intrusive?  Yes!  Are many Americans sacrificing themselves to defend our country?  Yes.

During these challenging days, if we study history we learn that generations before us faced huge problems.  Times have been uncertain.  Yet the standard for each generation of Americans is to deal with the problems at hand while maintaining the principles that have made the United States an exceptional nation:  limited government, rule of law, charity and compassion for those in need, property rights, equality of opportunity.  And each generation has been forced to press through the problems of its time, believing that these American principles are worth preserving.  That is the challenge of our time.

 

 

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I Paid My Income Tax Today

by Anita on April 1, 2015

Posted by Anita Folsom

“I paid my income tax today.

I never felt so proud before,

To be right there with the millions more

Who paid their income tax today.”   (Song lyrics by Irving Berlin)

Are you ready to sing those lyrics by the tax deadline on April 15? Probably not.

This musical ditty was actually a propaganda masterpiece used by the federal government during World War II.  Knowing that the war would cost billions of dollars, President Franklin Roosevelt used the war emergency to push a new tax program through the federal bureaucracy.  But how could FDR’s administration whip up patriotic fervor and encourage Americans to pay so much in taxes?  The answer:  Use all types of media with the message that paying taxes would help to win the war.

Two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, composer Irving Berlin penned a tune about paying taxes entitled “I Paid My Income Tax Today,” and the government asked radio stations across the country to play the recording early and often.  The goal:  remind the public to pay their income taxes before the new deadline of March 15, 1942. (For more information and more verses to Berlin’s lyrics, see FDR Goes to War, Chapter 9.)

Roosevelt and his advisors had tried for years before the war to begin a system that would tax a majority of Americans. Before World War II, only about 6% of American citizens with the highest incomes paid any income tax at all.

But suddenly the United States was fighting a two-front war on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. So during World War II, FDR’s administration pushed through new regulations that meant about two-thirds of Americans would pay income tax beginning in 1942. And those Americans with the highest incomes would pay 94% of their total income to the government!

“Pay as you go,” or what we now call “withholding,” became a part of American life.  Employers were responsible for deducting wages from each employee’s compensation during each pay period and sending those funds to the government.  Voila!  Uncle Sam had a new stream of cash flowing into federal coffers–permanently.

The government also appealed to the public with slogans and posters.  One of the most popular pro-tax mottos was “taxes to beat the Axis!”

Even Walt Disney’s studios became a part of the propaganda machine. The Treasury Department asked Disney to produce an eight-minute film, The New Spirit, to play in movie theaters. The program showed Donald Duck paying his taxes and then seeing the weapons produced to win the war. The narrator concluded at the end of the script, “Taxes will keep democracy on the march!”

Unlike many Disney films, the story of American taxation does not have a happy ending after World War II.  The income tax for most Americans was kept in place and even expanded.  Withholding became an integral part of American society. And the battle for freedom from usurious taxes continues to this day.

 

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Basketball and Taxes

by Burt March 19, 2015

This time of year, Americans are thinking primarily about two things: basketball and taxes. As the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament gets underway, millions of fans are filling out their brackets. The winner of each game is easy to determine. Whoever has the most points wins the game. Taxes are a bit more complicated, because of […]

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Equality of Opportunity Is the Framework

by Burt February 26, 2015

The subject of “equality” is the source of much political debate these days. Ever since the founding era, free-market thinkers have argued for equality of opportunity in the economic order. Equality, in other words, is a framework, not a result. In modern terms the goal is a level playing field. Government should be a referee […]

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Disturbing Parallels: Banzai and Allah Akbar

by Anita February 19, 2015

Posted by Anita Folsom Here are the headlines: “Civilians Massacred!” “Contest to Kill 100 Civilians with a Sword!” “Hospital Bombed!” Do these lines describe the Middle East today?  No, they describe atrocities in China 75 years ago.  The Japanese had invaded China in 1937, and until the end of World War II in 1945, the […]

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Is the U.S. an Unjust Nation?

by Burt December 18, 2014

Yes, but only if we are judged by a divine standard. Indeed, by that standard we have many imperfections. One of our nation’s sins, for example, is that at different points in our history we have almost fully denied natural rights to several different groups: Blacks, Indians, Japanese during World War II, and even rich […]

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Let’s Not Relive The Day After Pearl Harbor

by Anita December 8, 2014

Posted by Anita Folsom In recent years, we have discussed the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese:  December 7, 1941.  This event led to the entry of the United States into World War II.  On that day at Pearl Harbor, 2,403 Americans died, the U.S. Pacific fleet was severely damaged, and […]

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