By Robert Reich
Some societies center on social control, others on social investment.
Social-control societies put substantial resources into police, prisons, surveillance, immigration enforcement, and the military. Their purpose is to utilize fear, punishment, and violence to divide people and keep the status quo in place — perpetuating the systemic oppression of Black and brown people, and benefiting no one but wealthy elites.
Social-investment societies put more resources into healthcare, education, affordable housing, jobless benefits, and children. Their purpose is to free people from the risks and anxieties of daily life and give everyone a fair shot at making it.
Donald Trump epitomizes the former. He calls himself the “law and order” president. He even wants to sic the military on Americans protesting horrific police killings.
He has created an unaccountable army of federal agents who go into cities like Portland, Oregon – without showing their identities – and assault innocent Americans.
Trump is the culmination of forty years of increasing social control in the United States and decreasing social investment – a trend which, given the deep-seated history of racism in the United States, falls disproportionately on Black people, indigeneous people, and people of color.
Spending on policing in the United States has almost tripled, from $42.3 billion in 1977 to $114.5 billion in 2017.
America now locks away 2.2 million people in prisons and jails. That’s a 500 percent increase from 40 years ago. The nation now has the largest incarcerated population in the world.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has exploded. More people are now in ICE detention than ever in its history.
Total military spending in the U.S. has soared from $437 billion in 2003 to $935.8 billion this fiscal year.
The more societies spend on social controls, the less they have left for social investment. More police means fewer social services. American taxpayers spend $107.5 billion more on police than on public housing.
More prisons means fewer dollars for education. In fact, America is now spending more money on prisons than on public schools. Fifteen states now spend $27,000 more per person in prison than they do per student.
As spending on controls has increased, spending on public assistance has shrunk. Fewer people are receiving food stamps. Outlays for public health have declined.
America can’t even seem to find money to extend unemployment benefits during this pandemic.
Societies that skimp on social investment end up spending more on social controls that perpetuate violence and oppression. This trend is a deep-seated part of our history.
The United States began as a control society. Slavery – America’s original sin – depended on the harshest conceivable controls. Jim Crow and redlining continued that legacy.
But in the decades following World War II, the nation began inching toward social investment – the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and substantial investments in health and education.
Then America swung backward to social control.
Since Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” four times as many people have been arrested for possessing drugs as for selling them.
Of those arrested for possession, half have been charged with possessing cannabis for their own use. Nixon’s strategy had a devastating effect on Black people that is still felt today: a Black person is nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than a white person, even though they use it at similar rates.
Bill Clinton put 88,000 additional police on the streets and got Congress to mandate life sentences for people convicted of a felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug offenses.
This so-called “three strikes you’re out” law was replicated by many states, and, yet again, disproportionately impacted Black Americans. In California, for instance, Black people were 12 times more likely than white people to be incarcerated under three-strikes laws, until the state reformed the law in 2012. Clinton also “reformed” welfare into a restrictive program that does little for families in poverty today.
Why did America swing back to social control?
Part of the answer has to do with widening inequality. As the middle class collapsed and the ranks of the poor grew, those in power viewed social controls as cheaper than social investment, which would require additional taxes and a massive redistribution of both wealth and power.
Meanwhile, politicians whose power depends on maintaining the status quo, used racism – from Nixon’s “law and order” and Reagan’s “welfare queens” to Trump’s blatantly racist rhetoric – to deflect the anxieties of an increasingly overwhelmed white working class. It’s the same old strategy. So long as racial animosity exists, the poor and working class won’t join together to topple the system that keeps so many Americans in poverty, and Black Americans oppressed.
The last weeks of protests and demonstrations have exposed what’s always been true: social controls are both deadly and unsustainable. They require more and more oppressive means of terrorizing communities and they drain resources that would ensure Black people not only survive, but thrive.
This moment calls on us to relinquish social control and ramp up our commitment to social investment.
It’s time we invest in affordable housing and education, not tear gas, batons, and state-sanctioned murder. It’s time we invest in keeping children fed and out of poverty, not putting their parents behind bars. It’s time to defund the police, and invest in communities. We have no time to waste.