How to be more excellent to each other--and yourself
Friday, December 11, 2009
Measuring the value of life, part 2
There is a way of measuring human life that T-Rex is omitting here. We can measure human worth as the impact that a person can be expected to have on the economy. This is one of the best arguments for investment in social programs that work to get drug addicts clean, get homeless people into permanent housing and employment, and integrate ex-convicts into society. These are the three main classes of people whose impact on the economy is a net loss, because what they contribute through labor and (non-black market) spending is less than what they cost to public services such as law enforcement and health care, not to mention the theft that is so common to many of these people as a survival tactic.
Someone who is in prison costs the state something like $50,000 a year. The amount the other two classes of people cost can vary, but I'm going to toss out a figure and say they cost the state, and the local economy, something in the realm of $10,000 to $20,000. They are at least spending money, which goes somewhere in the economy--and if there's one thing economists like, it's for people to spend money.
Now let's say these people make changes in their lives to end their detrimental behaviors, and work a steady job. Making minimum wage (in Oregon), they would be pulling in about $16,000 a year, before taxes. They are now 1) contributing value to a business, through their labor, 2) paying into the state and federal tax system, and 3) spending more money in the local economy. It would be a mistake to say that they're not costing money for state-sponsored social services, but it's now more of an "average" amount, and probably not much more than the average citizen of similar socioeconomic status.
As a simple "back of the envelope" calculation, our hypothetical person now has a net contribution of anywhere between $26,000 and $66,000 per year. They now also have the potential to move upward in the work force, to start earning and contributing more money, and they can also start to spend that money more wisely in long-term investments such as property.
There are already many successful models for these kinds of integration programs, so you may wonder why there aren't more of them (in the United States, at least), since they can easily demonstrate how they are going to have an economic impact that is greater than their initial cost. The most obvious reason is that it makes it look like the state is "coddling" their criminals and homeless people, and being "soft on crime." No politician wants to look like they are soft on crime, and anything that goes wrong is going to be a political liability. If a person in one of these programs happens to commit a violent crime, it will become fodder for attack advertisements in the next election cycle.
But there is another reason, one that is going to seem like some kind of conspiracy theory, and it is this: the prison system in the United States is big business. It started its rapid growth during the Reagan administration, with its "war on drugs" that put more people in prison than any period in American history. We are now the nation with the #1 per capita prison population, and those prisoners are used as a source of cheap labor. Furthermore, the amount that America has invested in private prison systems means that those private companies now have money they can use to influence politicians. Do you really think it's plausible that politicians would want to reduce the prison population through any other means but teaching those criminals a hard-earned lesson?