Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Politics of Scarcity

A bad thing about three-day weekends. They give me time to think. For regular readers of this blog, that is a frightening prospect. This one may be worse than others, I'll warn you in advance if you want to go to other posts. Otherwise, don't say I didn't warn you.

One time when I was in high school, I went out cruising one night with a group of lunatics. One of them had obtained a new, very old car that was still capable of impressive speeds. I know this because we obtained them late that evening on the relatively empty Interstate. I remember how the speed made everyone, including the driver, borderline crazy as we cranked the engine up to max and principles of aerodynamics seemed to start coming into play. I remember the giggling and shouts and curses of amazement as we flew along, and it was very clear to me that just one minor thing, a car changing lanes, misjudgment of others' speed, a blown tire, a twitch by the idiot driver, could make this insanity disastrous in a heartbeat.

I was in the backseat between two hyenas, aware that this might possibly be the most dangerous situation I would ever be in in my life (I was unfortunately proven wrong in that a few times too many). I also developed one of the most profound calms I've ever had in my life because I realized that there was nothing I could do, that whatever happened was going to happen and my fate was not in my hands. So I just sat there, not peeing my pants, watching the others and thinking that there are sometimes in individual and group histories when you just don't have control and shouldn't waste your energy and time denying it. Just hope the damage isn't too great and that you can deal with the consequences, good or bad, and try never to let this crap happen again.

Well, obviously, sanity eventually prevailed, the cackling got too shrill, the driver's teen hormones quailed, whatever, and we survived, not necessarily wiser but certainly older. But I've never forgotten that first real foray into fatalism, and it's been popping into my head more and more in the last few years. Mainly because I've realized that this country is that car, the drivers and the people around them are crazy and cackling, and I'm just along for a ride I can't do anything about.

What's brought all this up lately? You may already have an idea from the occasional post that I've put up on the warming this planet is undergoing (save your denials for the Cliff Clavens of the world), the impact of that warming on our energy, water, and way of life (only renewable energy sources don't have giant impact on these and the Dems in the Senate are about to cut out all federal funding for them), and the effect all that will have on state and local budgets, including those for corrections sentencing, that we are overwhelmingly unprepared for. The thing is, though, that I don't really worry about them all that much now. I've reached the point I was at in that car that night.

Why? Because on these overarchingly important needs, I've been in the back seat for 30 years now, thinking "this is crazy, can't anybody see what's happening?, we need to slow down and get things back under control." How do I know it's been 30 years? Because of this book, written in 1977, William Ophuls' Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. (Back when I taught American government, I would spend a full lecture on this book and on one test got a response about "the politics of Scare City." Didn't count off much because, in its own way, it was right.) There's nothing really new in 2007 in Ophuls' description of the ecological crisis that this nation and the world faced and what needed to be done to stop the clear disaster from happening, but it really was in 1977, too, which is my point. Nothing we're talking about now is new. The timing may be more or less off what he predicted, but he nailed just about everything. In 1977. And those of us in the back seat have just been watching the back of the driver's head ever since.

The "Scare City" part of Ophuls' work wasn't really even the ecological predictions. It was his clear delineation of the type of political philosophies and structures that would inevitably be in play to deal with this world of scarcity. Needless to say, full and free deliberation of options and subsequent democratic decision making do not fare well in triage situations. He went back not to Locke and the liberals, writing in their periods of relative progress, but to Hobbes and his ilk, writing in their periods of disorder and, yes, scarcity. That's what we were looking at, he told us, if we didn't get our ecological acts together. Authoritarian governments accepted because people couldn't trust each other in the "dog eat dog," "nasty, brutish, and short" world that would come about. Honestly, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, I was still naive enough to think that we were smart enough and not so self-absorbed to recognize the need for action. Jimmy Carter sat down with us, treated us like adults, and spelled out how great we would be if we stopped the disaster from happening. The rest is history. The car's just going faster and faster, the cackling's louder, the denial and obstruction dwarfs even what we see year after year in corrections sentencing.

It's a good example of the kind of slo-mo calmness of this situation to note that in 1992, 15 years later, Ophuls and a co-writer, A. Stephen Boyan, Jr., republished a revised version, cleverly titled Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revised. How much things had changed in those 15 years is evident from the differences in the subtitles: the 1977 version, Prologue to a Political Theory of the Steady State v. the 1992 version, The Unraveling of the American Dream. Can you guess what they considered the prospects for our future to be?

Which is why, as budgets tighten, housing and currency markets finally correct, our leadership [sic] does its usual, I'm bringing Ophuls up right now. It's been another 15 years. Will we be seeing a revised revised version in a few months? Or will there be only silence? And what would that silence mean? The projection models for the climate change, with their predictions of having 3-4 decades to get this right, are indeed being proven wrong, almost daily, but in the wrong direction for maintaining our status quo. Our culture makes it popular to poo-poo reality, we think we sound smart in doing so, and even when we accept reality, we have a hard time with situations beyond our human historical experience. The yo-yos in Congress are "compromising" with each other, thinking the planet gives a rat's a-s about their compromises, but that's outside their comprehension. Ophuls was right. In times of scarcity of life's essential needs, there has never been a democracy, or a Bill of Rights, or an adversarial criminal justice system. There's no time or tolerance for all that. Yet one more potential effect on what we do in corrections sentencing.

I suspect some of you readers have smiles or raised eyebrows on your faces, thinking, jeez, he's right, don't ever let him have a long weekend again. You're wrong. We have a very limited time now to deal with all this, at much higher cost and intervention than if we'd been grown-ups 30 years ago, especially if we have any hope of retaining the democratic and legal legacies that we've claimed to want to pass on to our grandchildren. Which is the other reason why this is tied to corrections sentencing, beyond the effects on our states such as we've already been seeing in Louisiana and California. For us to react well, we will have to take an evidence-based, not ideologically-based, stance in the world, a pragmatic approach based on what works and what gets the most done best with the resources we'll have available. Which describes what we've been conspicuously needing to do in corrections sentencing for years now. And where are we on that?

I'm in the back of that car again, resigned to being taken to wherever I'm going by a bunch of cackling riders and irrational drivers. Hoping that, as that night, sanity might prevail, but not counting on it after 30 years of watching the craziness, after over a dozen years in corrections sentencing policymaking. Those of you who have just awakened to either disaster area in the last few years, thinking they're both new and susceptible to easy change, well, they've both been out there for a long time and here we are now. With the "politics of scarcity" that are very real, historical, and Scare City. Being naive about this will solve no problems. Corrections sentencing will just get caught up in the wash. TECHNOCORRECTIONS, with all its Ophuls-like ramifications, will be more and more attractive.

(If you made it to the bottom of this, I hope I haven't ruined your holiday. I did try to warn you.)

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