Big Think Interview With Glenn Loury

A conversation with the Brown University economist and author of “Race, Incarceration and American Values.”
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What did the Gates incident teach us?

Glen Loury:  Oh, I don't know that it can teach us all that much.  I mean, I thought it was overblown as being emblematic of race relations or profiling, or anything of that sort.  I didn't read it as insightful or really useful in that regard.  Though I do think how we reacted to the incident: what it became, drawing the president in and so on; perhaps would tell us something about, and this was my argument in the piece, how we process racial issues.  How we talk and don't talk about them, maybe how we are quick to repair to some conventional and pat storyline about them.  The country had a problem, has had a problem, is trying to overcome it.  Some people are slower at that than others.  There's a racist behind every bush.  Let's not tolerate the racists; this kind of talk.  And I just thought the Gates' incident, and again, the president's handling of it, showed the thinness of that narrative; how that line was probably not any longer, if ever it was adequate, to capture the reality of our racial condition if you will.

 

Question: What’s the reality of our racial condition?

Glen Loury:  Well, I don't want to pretend to omniscience here, but I'd say there are several aspects of it that I would point out.  One is the continuing fact of a developmental lag, or a gap, between the African-American population taken as a whole, not of course, including every person, on the one hand; and the much of the rest of the country, on the other.  But actually, not the only group of people who manifest certain of the kinds of problems that I would talk about here and that are reflected in policing and prisons.  Problems of poor education and intermittent employment and limited full human development.  Problems of fragile and fractured communities and families of large numbers of under socialized and underdeveloped young people who end up getting into trouble. 

I could go on, and you see the line that this would draw.  It would say that the African American population, taken as a whole, lags behind on the average along many of these dimensions.  This is a stubborn reality and it has consequences.  It can't be easily reconciled with a pat account about racism and discrimination that lets us sort of relax into saying when we finally get this right, when we get rid of racism, when we reach the post-racial society, everything is going to be okay.  Well, no, because along the way here, as we've not yet been in this racial nirvana, facts on the ground have been created. 

Blighted lives have played themselves out and human difficulties have developed.  And these are stark, they're staring us in the face, they're the subtexts for a lot of our politics; they're the story behind the story.  So when Gates, a Harvard professor, God bless him, I certainly intend him no ill will.  But when he trots out this story about a racist, rogue police officer, and when he begins to embrace this rhetoric of racial profiling, frankly -- and when the president buys into this, and unlike what the wisdom that he typically exhibits, President Obama, in conducting public affairs, makes a huge mistake by buying into this.  It is a distraction from the real story. 

The real story -- two and a quarter million Americans, half of whom are black, under lock and key on a given day -- the real story, stop and frisk as the police technique du jour, in city after city around this country where the rubber hits the road, in terms of profiling; where people are getting sent off to Richter's Island because they had a joint in their pocket, and so forth and so on.  Where the real story is kids learning how to be men from other kids who've been locked up for five years and then get out, because they all get out, go back to the same neighborhoods and strut their new bodies and their tattoos and their hardened attitudes as a part of the social counseling that ends up forming the normative structure of these communities.  And I'm talking about tens upon tens, upon tens of thousands of them, in and out, in and out of this system.

If I may say so, how dare a Harvard professor and a president of the United States cheapen the serious political conversation that we have to have about locking up millions of our fellow citizens, by repairing to a pat all too familiar a storyline about racism and profiling in the abstract, against black men in general, even on Martha's Vineyard.  I'm telling you that that is not the politics of change that we were promised during the campaign of 2008.

 

Question: What are the underlying issues we need to discuss?

Glenn Loury: we have to look these real objective differences of acquired capacities in the lives of human beings in the face, as between racial groups, and then think about what to do with it.  To me, the first step along that way, the most important step along that way is constructing a social safe.

In my mind, if we're going to look these problems of disparity between racial groups in the United States, disparity of human development and acquired capacity for functioning.  Look these problems directly on, then the solutions that suggest themselves to me are building a system of social supports, of mutual support that includes everyone, and that, therefore, eases the difficult situation of people who are especially disadvantaged, which people will be disproportionately present in the African American population, in a disadvantage racial minority population. 

So we need to fix the schools.  We, actually, I think, need to spend a lot more than we do spend on educating our young people.  I could go down a litany; I'm going to have a whole lot of policy suggestions to throw out and I'm not sure that's -- this is the time or place for it.  But I'm saying healthcare fixes our attention on one particular issue. 

We can talk about education, we can talk about jobs, we can talk about what we do in our cities.  We can talk about how we deal with the homeless and the mentally ill, and such.  And we can talk about the gated community syndrome, the it's not my problem I don't want to pay any tax.  Whatever.  So this will sound pie in the sky; why don't we have a Northern European style welfare state?  Why is the United States 50 years or more behind in the development of the institutions of social cooperation that we see in other societies, like France and Britain, and Germany, and the Netherlands, and Sweden, and so on?  Canada. 

And how can we countenance this two-tier or multi-tier system of education where we know in advance that we're consigning some of our young people to lives of social marginality.  It's a practically predictable consequence of what we do.  And yet our vested interests are such that those of us who are the best off and the most influential have got our kids taken care of, that we're prepared to countenance.  The land of the free -- we've got an army marching around the world under the banner of freedom, and yet, we are the most un-free society, in terms of institutions of the deprivation of liberty, of incarceration.  The incidents of incarceration is higher in the United States than elsewhere in the world.  How can we countenance, and so on and so forth? 

So my sermon, in answer to the question of what is it to do, and my sermon for us Americans, would be to construct the kind of institutions of mutuality and social cooperation that don't leave 15 or 20 percent of our people falling through the cracks.  We can do it.  It's not like we don't know what to do.  It's not like there aren't models there.  It's not like this isn't being done elsewhere.  It's not like we can't afford to do it.  It's a question of political will and it's about our definition as a people.  What kind of community are we?  So, that's where I would start the sermon.  How to translate that into policy?  Well easier said than done.  I'm aware of that, but that's how I see it.

 

Question: What would you change about our criminal justice system?

Glen Loury:  Our sentences are way too long.  Okay.  I mean, let's just start with something very specific and very concrete.  You can put a person in jail for 5 years, for 10 years, or 20 years, for the same crime.  We're deciding on 10 years to 20 years, when 5 years would be enough.  Okay.  The deterrent value, the additional amount of leverage that you get over a criminal to keep them from breaking the law in the first place, associated with making the sentences longer, is de minimous; it's essentially nothing.  The research shows this.  Three strikes and you're out laws; the laws that say if you do a crime three times, you can be sentenced to 25 years, for life.  The laws that have got the jails of California overflowing are -- they're madness, as policy.  They're expressive political symbols, capturing the anger of people at social dysfunction and allowing politicians to show that they're responsive to that anger. 

Three strikes' laws make no sense as policy.  They are more about the politicians responding to the people’s desire to see their fury at social dysfunction reflected in the law.  Our sentences are way too long.  We need to look at the war on drugs, which is to say we need to look and this is easier said than done.  Once again, politically, not an easy lift at all.  Nevertheless, our policy is self-defeating.  We're not keeping people from using the substances.  We're creating a huge black market, just like we did under prohibition, which attracts all kinds of criminal enterprise.

We are engaging in a vastly unequal allocation of pain and suffering in the society, attendant to the enforcement of our drug policy, in that just about everybody uses illegal drugs.  I mean, not every individual, but it's a high rate in all the surveys and all the social strata, by race, by economic level, geography, whatever.  There's a lot of illegal drug use going on out there.  But it's a black market which attracts on the commercial side, on the side of the selling and handling of it, the most miserable and marginal in the society; the ones who basically don't have another way of making a living.  I'm not making excuses for them, I'm just trying to explain why it is that you're not going to see a random draw in the population engaged in drug-trafficking, even though you're likely to see a more or less random draw on the population engaged in drug use. 

So we have this punitive regime where we imprison, sometimes for amazingly long periods of time, people who are caught up in this black market.  Even though the market wouldn't exist but for the hedonistic desires for altering our consciousness and getting high, that are embraced by pretty much every corner of the society.  We say as if it's a little bit like we blame the women for street prostitution.  The street-walkers, right.  They're out there on the corner, but in fact, they wouldn't be out there if there weren't a market for their services, and that market is largely driven by married guys with $100 bills waving out of the windows of BMWs. 

Likewise, we have a serious issue in our society about people escaping from reality through imbibing of various illicit substances.  It's a deep 100 million, 150 million person problem.  It's not something that just lingers in the dark corners of society.  And yet we've responded to that problem with a policy regime that freights most of the weight on the most marginal of our fellow citizens. 

So that is something this is radical talk -- sorry, that needs to be rethought.  We need to take the profit out of imprisoning people.  The California Corrections Officers' Union.  I mean no disrespect to people who serve their state by working as guards in prisons.  I'm just here to tell you that they shouldn't be making criminal justice policy for the state, and that their interests, as a union, in job security, wages, overtime, and careers, ought not to be driving policies like three strikes and you're out, where it's the tail wagging the dog.  And the larger public interest is not being served. 

And many other examples could be cited.  I shouldn't just pick on working people, but I have to tell you, I think that the Corrections Officers' Union is a part of the problem; and the small towns that want to see prisons built there because it gives people something to do and generates additional tax revenues for the municipalities, without generating additional voters from those inner-city communities where the young men who are housed there are taken.  They could also be listed as a part of the problem, and many others as well. 

 

Question: How have your own run-ins with the law affected your views of the criminal justice system?

Glenn Loury: I've had some problems with the law, including being arrested for possession of a controlled substance.  And I've just advocated decriminalizing the possession of controlled substances.  That sounds a bit self-serving.  And perhaps it is.  Certainly, having the personal experience of being locked up -- not for a long time.  I was locked up overnight.  Being accused of a serious crime; I was accused of assaulting someone.  The charges were later dropped, in the context of a dispute-laden personal relationship, the charges were later dropped. 

For what it's worth, I was not guilty of the charge but I was accused of assaulting somebody and, therefore, confronting real criminal liability, at least potentially.  It didn't work out that way, but there I was in that spotlight.  The stigma when you're singled out as someone who has done something wrong, that stays with you.  Even if you haven't done the thing that people think you might have done, and so forth and so on.  I suppose that also has affected me. 

            I'd also say that the way that I came up, in Chicago, not a poor family, not a sort of stereotypical, sort of ghetto upbringing if you will.  But nevertheless, one with some rough edges and one where there were people with one foot to either side of the law, who were regular presences in my young world, as a boy and young man growing up in Chicago.  My uncle would take me to the state pen to visit friends of his who were incarcerated.  He wanted me to have the experience of going there.  There, but for the grace of God, go I, he would say to me about these people who were in prison.  I think that kind of thing surely has had some effect on me also..

Question: Should we legalize all drugs?

Glenn Loury: I think I'd decriminalize.  I think I would heavily regulate the control.  I think I, if you're asking me, and my mouth is no prayer book, but my view is, I'd view addiction to these substances as a medical problem and I would treat it accordingly.  What little I know about the history of drug control policy in the United States leaves me thinking that a hugely important moment came when the lawyers win out over the doctors on this matter. 

That is to say, when the medical profession basically surrendered, and perhaps they had no choice in the matter, their autonomy to handle the difficult problems of addiction to substances, which is a medical problem, to the anti-drug crusaders, legal crusaders who wanted to make everything against the law and then throw people in prison.  Just as we can see in retrospect that criminalizing the consumption of alcohol proves not to be the solution to the very real problem of drunkenness.  So to what I want to say is the very real problem of the human susceptibility to addiction isn't best dealt with by building prisons and throwing people into jails. 

 

Question: What keeps you up at night?

Glen Loury:  Well, I think the War on Terror is something that I'm most terrified of.  Now that may seem to be coming out of, I don't know, left field or the stratosphere.  I'm not sure where that comes from, 'cause we've been talking about race and domestic American policy, and drugs, and whatnot.  And I'm not a foreign policy expert by any means.  I'm not.  I'm not.  And yet Iraq, Afghanistan, not just that, but the whole kind of taking over of our defense and security establishment by this mentality, this kind of Orwellian war against a shape-shifting and faceless, and almost indefinable enemy. 

The war that never ends.  I mean, when is it going to be over?  The war that someone even dare not say we're not fighting it any more.  I mean it's kind of -- I'm not only talking about the threats to our civil liberties from surveillance.  I'm not only talking about the damage to our national reputation, from the actions that we've taken with enemy combatants and others; detaining these people, kidnapping these people, torturing these people.  I'm not only talking about that; I'm talking about getting used to being at war.  The country's been at war for ten years, for a decade.  We're settling in to being at war.  That's terrifying in the extreme to me. 

We've defined this problem like we were little Israel, sitting there surrounded by great Arab armies in the myth, in the storyline.  Like we're, we're, we've got to engage in the drone-operated assassinations of potential enemies.  We've got to accept as standard operating procedure, the collateral damage in which whole families are wiped out, sometimes by accident, sometimes because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And the best we have to say for it is that it wasn't our intention to kill them. 

We've got this volunteer army where nine-tenths of the populations sits back on our haunches, hoping that the price of gasoline doesn't go too high, while we've got a professionalized fighting class.  And what do you think those people are going to do when we're finished with them in Afghanistan and Iraq?  They're coming home.  They're coming home with all of the scars of battle, with all of the habituated attitudes of violence; with everything that's serving in a theater of combat, sometimes two and three times over, will effect, in the life of a human being. 

We're biting off a huge, huge, huge, headache here.  And the fact that we don’t' talk about it, that we don't have a politics in which this question of war and peace can even get onto the table, so that we can open up our Orwell, our 1984, or Animal Farm, or whatever, and read the political text that's being spotted to us on the television right off of the page; the fact that we don't have a politics robust enough to actually debate whether or not we want to be a country permanently at war.  That's what keeps me from sleeping at night..

 

Question: What are you?

Glenn Loury: I'm left.  Okay.  And sometimes radically, and sometimes I even shock myself with the degree of radicalness in my own--that I'm allowing to come out in my old age.  On the other hand, there's some of my--I got the reputation of being a conservative because I was one of these personal responsibility guys.  Before Bill Cosby made it popular, talking about how black people needed to pull up our socks, how we needed to take better care of our children, and get our acts together, and how that was an internal difficulty that we needed to actually address within ourselves. 

I even flirted a little bit with sort of Black Nationalism.  I mean, I had more than a kind word to say about the minister, Louis Farrakhan.  I once wrote a piece about the Million Man March, 1995 Million Man March, Washington D.C., Louis Farrakhan, which is remembered, I think nowadays, mostly because Farrakhan gave a very odd and rambling, and in places incoherent and in other places kind of weird, speech.  It went on for 90 minutes, or something like that, at this Million Man March.  But the thing that I remember was one million, more or less, African-American men, assembled in one place, emphasizing communal uplift, responsibility, and a positive agenda.  And I was very much taken by that.  And I guess that still lingers in me to some degree. 

I also have this anti-political correctness thing that's a part of my persona.  I mean, I just haven't drunk anybody's kool-aid, you know what I mean.  I mean, I just can't go with, with the flow.  I mean, when Chris Matthews thinks Obama is great, that's when I start saying, okay, let me take another look at this Obama.  You know what I mean.  'Cause this is so I just can't -- and therefore, I may be hard to pigeon-hole, because I'm going to be on the contrary of side, or whatever the thing might be. 

I think the War on Terror is horrible.  I hated what the Bush administration was doing.  On the other hand, I didn't think that we should criminalize those policy differences by going after these people after the fact.  And I thought that all that band-wagging stuff about how Eric Holder ought to -- let's prosecute him and let's edict Bush and Chaney, and how I thought it was crazy and irresponsible.  I'm I'm likely to say something like that.  I don't know.  Enough about me, right?

 

Question: Is Obama being treated fairly in the press?

Glenn Loury: The progressive forces in our country including those in the press, I don’t think do the cause any good by not reporting with brutal, critical candor, and scrutiny, on this administration, every bit as much as they would do on any other administration.

Now I hope that in the fullness of time -- we're only nine months, eight months into this, I will be proven wrong about this.  But I have detected from time to time, a reticence and a kind of, as if the campaign were still going on, and we all kind of know that people who are covering campaigns in the press, develop allegiances, and that colors the way in which they do their reporting.  I don't think that's disputable.  I think there's plenty of evidence to that effect on all sides.  But the campaign is long since over and we really need a hard-hitting, critical press.  I mean, I see elements of it, but I don't see it to it's full extent. 

I'm talking about, for example, on these questions of war and peace.  I don't take it as a given at all that we need to be doubling down in Afghanistan.  I don't take that as a given at all.  That's the direction in which the president is going.  I want hard-hitting, critical assessment of that, from the liberal and progressive media, not merely a, he's our guy, we got to protect him, kind of reaction that is somehow what I feel like I'm getting.  From my little small part of my little corner of the public policy world, and I write about race and affirmative action, and race discrimination, and domestic policy and prisons, and all this kind of thing.  I'm sure determined to do that.  I'm determined as I was trying to do in reaction to this Henry Louis Gates affair, to call the president out when I think he's making mistakes or when I think he's guided wrong.  And to do that as a part of my responsibility as a public intellectual, and so forth and so on.  So for what that may be worth, I'll say that.

 

Question: Who are your heroes?

Glenn Loury: I got some heroes, though, you're right about that.  That's right.  My pastor; this little church that I used to go to when I was a better Christian than I am now -- and his wife have devoted, they're physicians, Harvard trained physician.  He's devoted his entire life to building a church in a community in Boston, and has helped thousands and thousands of people.  And is as pious and as serious, and as humane a human being as you might imagine.  Reverend Ray Hammond.  I'm glad to be able to put him at the top of my list.  No, I'm not running for anything in Boston; I don't need his endorsement.  But he's certainly a good man. 

Another guy I think of, who I admire tremendously, is Ernesto Cortez, who's a well-known community organizer; the Industrial Areas Foundation.  He works out of Austin, Texas but he's organizing throughout the southwest.  I've known him for 25 years.  And I tell you that these community organizers in some of these places in New Orleans and in Houston, and San Antonio, and L.A., and various cities around the southwest.  I've had a chance to interact with them. 

Down in the Rio Grande Valley, they have Mexican Immigrant population and stuff like that; organizer.  I've been to Holiday Inns at the airport and 500 people wearing the same t-shirt have been jumping up and down inside of auditorium, talking about they were going to get a community college education so they could run one of these MRI machines at the hospital, or something like that.  They were talking about, we want $25 an hour jobs, not minimum wage jobs.  And we're prepared to --

I just see, not to go on too long about it, but here's a guy who is spending his life, he's a thoughtful, he's an intellectual, this is Ernesto Cortez, the organizer.  He's an intellectual but he's also a practical politician.  And when I say that, I don't mean that he's running for office, but I mean he's dealing with the kind of small pea politics; getting people together, getting them talking to each other, getting them to feel that they have the capacity to change their lives.  Getting them organized.  I have tremendous respect for that work.  So that would be another one.

 

Question: How important is it that Obama wins on healthcare?

Glenn Loury: The president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, elected comfortably, in his first year with a very ambitious agenda, inheriting a economic crisis, passing massive fiscal legislation in this stimulus package which has huge implications down the road; budgetary, tax wise, and so forth and so on; and having at the top of his agenda, reforming healthcare, needs to win this one.  Right.  He wins this one, he gets this done, he is a long way toward a successful first term. 

He's a long way toward minimizing whatever setbacks the Democrats might have in the 2010 mid-year elections.  Mid-term elections.  And he's up there with LBJ and FDR in terms of solidifying the 20th, 21st, century American Welfare State.  This is major.  Healthcare is major.  So the politics of this as the right-wing understands very, very well, is tremendously profound.  So I see, I see the policy issues, I see the politics, but I also see the moral issue.  Because this really is about who we are as a people here.  And this healthcare debate--now everybody knows the history; Clintons' tried; they failed early in their administration.  And they suffered serious setbacks in the '94 elections and the rest is history.  Obama is teetering here.  He tries, he fails; then we've got two failures, right, to try to do this. 

And the fact that we are the only advanced industrial democracy where people can get sick and languish because they can't afford care.  Or where people are blocked in access to the system because they don't have access to insurance, which is only available through certain narrow portals and under certain very restricted conditions.  The fact that we're the only society that hasn't embraced this idea that no one should go without access to these services, regardless of their financial condition.  And no one should be saddled with a lifetime of debt because they have the misfortune of falling ill.  That's a major moral issue.  So I see it as a moment of big moral challenge for the country.  Those are the broad outlines that I see. 

 

Question: What do you think of the administration’s plan?

 

Glenn Loury: I want the president to succeed here and I want the country to move in this direction.  There's a lot to pick over and argue about on the policy front.  I get the public option, because it's the stalking horse -- I know I'm not supposed to say this, I know that this is not the line -- it's the camel's nose under the tent for what I think is the correct solution to this problem, which is the so-called single payer system.  Which is Medicare for all, which is the government stands behind, collects the taxes to pay for, regulates the provision of but stands behind the provision of these services to everybody.  That's not to stop somebody who has a lot of money from buying something extra.  That's to say, here's the government and we're providing this to everybody. 

Now people have said that they can't get that done, politically, here in the United States, and I see that very clearly.  The vitriolic and hysterical attacks against the president's efforts to reform healthcare, labeling them socialism, talking with them in terms of fascist and government profound government intrusion into the lives of people.  When in fact, what it is what every other advanced, wealthy, democratic, industrialized country has done, and nothing more, shows me that to come straight out for the single payer system would probably meet with political failure.  Therefore, we have had to invent this end run around the political realities and as I understand the public option, and I know there'd be a lot of debate about this, that's the main role of it. 

They say compete with insurance companies.  I think what it actually means is compel or coerce, or drive insurance companies into a mode of behavior.  We're not going to get rid of the insurance middleman, here, with a single payer system, but we're going to create a public presence in the insurance industry, powerful enough to drive the direction of the industry in the way that we, together with regulation, want it to go.  And so therein lies the big policy debate.  What I think about that is I wish that we had the capacity to go directly at the single payer system.  I think what we're doing is messy; so messy that the president can't explain it.  And he's pretty good.  He's pretty good at explaining stuff and people still don't really get what's going on because it's messy. 

There's a lot of -- there's a lot of demagogic rhetoric and not only on the right there's some of this rhetoric about the insurance companies that I hear coming, for example, from the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, I wish would be reconsidered.  I say this as a guy who, I think of myself as on the left.  But I think that if you have a system where you say you're selling insurance to people, it's very natural that the company selling the insurance are going to try to vet claims and minimize the amount of payments that they have to make. 

If you have a system that says everybody who needs healthcare gets it and we're going to make sure that it gets paid for by raising your taxes and providing the requirements on individuals where they have the ability to pay, such as we determine as appropriate, then the insurance issue doesn't come up.  So what am I trying to say about the insurance companies.  I think the talk about insurance company profit and insurance company venality, as the source of this problem, is a by-product of our unwillingness to confront head-on, the sort of deeper, moral issue, which is that we should provide the services, in terms of healthcare, to the people who need them, more or less, regardless of their ability to pay.  And it's divisive.  It's divisive, political rhetoric. 

I don't necessarily buy all these claims that the president and other people are making about the savings, magically, that are going to come from preventive care and all of that.  Again, if one reads the studies and not the hype, my understanding of it -- I don't claim to be an expert, but I'm an intelligent consumer of the literature -- is that oftentimes preventive screening ends up costing more because you have to screen the universal population.  It's good health policy, because screening allows you to do preventable interventions for the people who have a malady, but if one in ten women have breast cancer and you do the tests for everybody, that's going to be ten times for everyone that you catch, et cetera, et cetera.  The arithmetic need not work out to cost savings, which is not an argument for not testing everybody, it's just an argument that the imagined cost-savings may not materialize, and so on and so forth. 

So it's the right thing for us to do.  It's a complex policy move, it's hugely, politically important for President Obama, and the opposition recognizes that.  There is a lot of demagoguery and hype on all sides.  The cost implications of what we're planning to do are substantial and I think, have probably been underestimated by the proponents.  It's not a reason for us not doing it, but it is a reason to look straight into the eye of what it is that we undertake here, to make sure that we provide properly for paying for it, and so on. 

 

Recorded on: August 18, 2009