A cartogram makes it easy to compare regional and national GDPs at a glance.
- On these maps, each hexagon represents one-thousandth of the world's economy.
- That makes it easy to compare the GDP of regions and nations across the globe.
- There are versions for nominal GDP and GDP adjusted for purchasing power.
Shanghai's skyline at night. According to the GDP (PPP) map, China is the world's largest economy. But that oft-cited statistic says more about the problems of PPP as a yardstick than about the economic prominence of China per se.Credit: Adi Constantin, CC0 1.0
If you want to rank the regions and countries of the world, area and population are but crude predictors of their importance. A better yardstick is GDP, or gross domestic product, defined as the economic value produced in a given region or country over a year.
Who's hot and who's not
And these two maps are possibly the best instruments to show who's hot and who's not, economically speaking. They are in fact cartograms, meaning they abandon geographic accuracy in order to represent the values of another dataset, in this case GDP: the larger a region or country is shown relative to its actual size, the greater its GDP, and vice versa.
So far, so familiar. What's unique about these maps is how this is done. Both are composed of hexagons, exactly 1,000 each. And each of those hexagons represents 0.1 percent of global GDP. That makes it fascinatingly easy to assess and compare the economic weight of various regions and countries throughout the world.
Did we say easy? Scratch that. GDP comes in two main flavors: nominal and PPP-adjusted, with each map showing one.
Nominal GDP does not take into account differences in standard of living. It simply converts local GDP values into U.S. dollars based on foreign exchange rates. GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) takes into account living standards. $100 buys more stuff in poor countries than it does in rich countries. If you get more bang for your buck in country A, its PPP-adjusted GDP will be relatively higher than in country B.
Nominal GDP is a good way of comparing the crude economic size of various countries and regions, while GDP (PPP) is an attempt to measure the relative living standards between countries and regions. But this is also just an approximation, since it does not measure the distribution of personal income. For that, we have the Gini index, which measures the relative (in)equality of income distribution.
In other words, PPP factors in the high cost of living in mature markets as an economic disadvantage, while giving slightly more room to low-cost economies elsewhere. Think of it as the Peters projection of GDP models.
Who's number one: the U.S. or China?
The economy of the world, divided into a thousand hexagons.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
The difference is important, though, since the versions produce significantly different outcomes. The most salient one: on the nominal GDP map, the United States remains the world's largest economy. But on the PPP-adjusted GDP map, China takes the top spot. However, it is wrong to assume on this basis that China is the world's biggest economy.
As this article explains in some detail, PPP-adjusted GDP is not a good yardstick for comparing the size of economies – nominal GPD is the obvious measure for that. GDP (PPP) is an attempt to compare living standards; but even in that respect, it has its limitations. For example, $100 might buy you more in country B, but you might not be able to buy the stuff you can get in country A.
Both maps, shown below, are based on data from the IMF published in the first quarter of 2021. For the sake of brevity, we will have a closer look at the nominal GDP map and leave comparisons with the PPP map to you.
For the nominal map, global GDP is just over U.S. $93.86 trillion. That means each of the hexagons represents about U.S. $93.86 billion.
The worldwide overview clearly shows which three regions are the world's economic powerhouses. Despite the rise of East Asia (265 hexagons), North America (282) is still number one, with Europe (250) placing a close third. Added up, that's just three hexagons shy of 80 percent of the world's GDP. The remaining one-fifth of the world's economy is spread — rather thinly, by necessity — across Southeast Asia & Oceania (56), South Asia (41), the Middle East (38), South America (32), Africa (27), and North & Central Asia (9).
California über alles
California's economy is bigger than that of all of South America or Africa.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Thanks to the hexagons, the maps get more interesting the closer you zoom in on them.
In North America, the United States (242) overshadows Canada (20) and Mexico (13); and within the U.S., California (37) outperforms not just all other states, but also most other countries — and a few continents — worldwide. To be fair, Texas (21), New York (20), Florida (13), and Illinois (10) also do better than many individual nations.
Interestingly, states that look the same on a "regular" map are way out of each others' leagues on this one. Missouri is four hexagons but Nebraska only one. Alabama has three but Mississippi only one.
The granularity of the map goes beyond the state level, showing (in red) the economic heft of certain Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), within or across state lines. The New York City-Newark-Jersey City one is 20 hexagons, that is, 2 percent of the world's GDP. The Greater Toronto Area is five hexagons, a quarter of all of Canada. And Greater Mexico City is three hexagons. That's the same as the entire state of Oregon.
By comparison, South America (32) and Africa (27) are small fry on the GDP world map. But each little pond has its own big fish. In the former, it's Brazil (16), in particular, the state of São Paulo (5), which on its own is bigger than any other country in South America. In Africa, there is one regional leader each in the north, center, and south: Egypt (4), Nigeria (5), and South Africa (3), respectively.
Economically, Italy is bigger than Russia
Europe's "Big Five" represent three-fifths of the continent's GDP. The Asian part of the former Soviet Union is an economic afterthought.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Europe is bewilderingly diverse, so it helps to focus on the "Big Five" economies: Germany (46), UK (33), France (31), Italy (22), and Spain (16). They comprise three-fifths of Europe's GDP.
Each of these five has one or more regional economic engines. In Germany, it's the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and in France, it's Île de France (both 10). In the UK, it's obviously London (8), in Italy Lombardy (5), and in Spain, it's a photo-finish between Madrid and Catalonia (both 3).
Interesting about Europe's economies are the small countries that punch well above their geographic and/or demographic weight, such as the Netherlands (11) and Switzerland (9).
Slide across to Eastern Europe and things get pretty mono-hexagonal. Poland (7) stands out positively and Russia (18) negatively. The former superpower, spread out over two continents, has an economy smaller than Italy's. Three individual German states have a GDP larger than that of the Moscow Metropolitan Area (5), the seat and bulk of Russia's economic power.
China, the biggest fish in a big pond
Australia and South Korea's GDPs are about equal, and each is about a third of Japan's. But even put together, these three add up to barely half of China's economic weight.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
In the 1980s, the United States was wary of Japan's rise to global prominence. But as this map shows, that fear was misguided — or rather, slightly misdirected. It's China (177) that now dominates the region economically, putting even the land of the Rising Sun (57) in the shade. South Korea (19) and Taiwan (8) look a lot larger than on a "regular" map, but it's clear who rules the roost here.
Interestingly, China's hubs are mainly but not exclusively coastal. Yes, there's Guangdong (19), Jiangsu (18), and Shandong (13), plus a few other provinces with access to the sea. But the inland provinces of Henan (10), Sichuan (9), and Hubei (8) are economically as important as any mid-sized European country. Tibet (1) and Xinjiang (2), huge on the "regular" map, are almost invisible here.
In the ASEAN countries (36), Thailand (6), Singapore (4), and the Indonesian island of Java (7) stand out. Economically, Oceania is virtually synonymous with Australia (17) — sorry, New Zealand (3).
As for South Asia and the Middle East, India (32) is clearly the dominant player, outperforming near neighbors Bangladesh (4) and Pakistan (3), as well as more distant ones like Saudi Arabia (9), Turkey (8), and Iran (7). But that's cold comfort for a country that sees itself as a challenger to China's dominance.
The PPP-adjusted GDP world map looks slightly different from the nominal GDP one. China is the #1 country and East Asia the #1 region.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps #1089
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We have pipelines for oil and natural gas. Why not water?
- The U.S. West suffers from severe — and worsening — water shortages.
- America does not have a water supply problem; it has a water distribution problem.
- We should build water pipelines, akin to the Interstate Highway System.
California's water woes are severe and worsening. A second dry year in a row has diminished the state's water supply, and almost three-quarters of the state is in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, the two highest categories. With the rainy season over and a hot, dry summer ahead, water shortages and brushfires are imminent.
California is not alone. Other Western states are facing severe — and worsening — water shortages. As described by the EPA, stress on water supplies and the nation's aging water treatment systems can lead to a variety of consequences for communities, including higher water prices, increased watering restrictions to manage shortages, seasonal loss of aquatic recreational areas when the human demand for water conflicts with environmental needs, and expensive water treatment projects when local demand overcomes available capacity.
There are both consumption and supply problems, and neither will be easy to fix. However, we have a remedy to suggest for the latter that dovetails nicely with congressional and White House initiatives to improve and expand the nation's infrastructure.
A problem of supply and demand?
Americans use more water per capita than almost anyone else in the world — almost three times as much as the Chinese, double that of Japan, and 14 times more than the Danes. The highest domestic water use is in the driest Western U.S. states; Arizona residents use 147 gallons per day compared to just 51 gallons in Wisconsin. That will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the heavily irrigated golf courses in places like Phoenix and Scottsdale.
America does not have a water supply problem; it has a water distribution problem.
The situation in California — with its outsized population, massive agriculture, and recurrent droughts over much of the past decade — is particularly tenuous: There is a severe deficit of groundwater. For years, farmers in the Central Valley have liberally extracted water from the region's aquifers to compensate for reduced supplies from canals and aqueducts. As water levels have dropped, farmers, homeowners, and municipalities have dug deeper and deeper wells, but such measures only prolong the inevitable: The incidence of well failures is increasing.
Most proposed solutions, which have focused on conservation, have been unpalatable, while few have focused on ways to increase supply. And therein lies the rub: America does not have a water supply problem; it has a water distribution problem.
A pipeline for water
Credit: Justin Sullivan via Getty Images
Therefore, to address the water shortages in Western states, we propose a major new infrastructure project that could revolutionize water distribution in the United States and further development of the western half of the nation: long-distance pipelines and aqueducts.
In much of the West, rain is sparse. Except for parts of the Pacific Northwest, water comes largely from a variety of non-precipitation sources. California, for example, has a hodge-podge of sources, one of the most important of which is the Colorado River, which supplies most of the water for farm irrigation and urban areas in the southern part of the state. Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Mexico all share the river's resources. However, the river is increasingly threatened by drought, with flows having dropped some 20 percent over the last two decades.
The largest eastern river, the Mississippi, has about 30 times the average annual flow of the Colorado, and the Columbia has close to 10 times. Water from these and other large rivers pour unused into the sea. The Great Lakes are another possible source.
Thus, the West's chronic water shortages result from a failure to appropriately redistribute our nation's abundant total water resources. We currently transport oil, but not water, across America, although water can move through pipelines, tunnels, and aqueducts with perfect safety over long distances on a virtually limitless scale.
Interstate Water System
We envision a major combined federal and private hallmark program for the nation — an Interstate Water System (IWS), which would rival in importance and transformative potential the Interstate Highway System, whose formation was championed by President Dwight Eisenhower. America already moves some water and stores it in man-made lakes, and the IWS would be designed to expand America's water-related infrastructure by crossing state boundaries to transport water from where America has an abundance of it to where it is needed. With modifications and expansions over time, no part of America would find itself short of water.
The IWS is practicable. Assume that an initial goal might be doubling the water flow, averaging about 20,000 cubic feet per second, to Colorado River system reservoirs. Pumping Mississippi River water to an altitude of 4,000 to 5,000 feet likely would be needed to supply reservoirs Lake Mead (altitude 1,100 feet) and/or Lake Powell (altitude 3,600 feet). We estimate that it would require fewer than ten power plants of typical one-gigawatt size to provide the energy to move water halfway across the nation to double the flow of the Colorado River. (Gravity-driven flow turning turbines below its reservoir lakes would eventually regenerate much of the input energy required.)
The implications of an IWS would be enormous. It would create innumerable jobs, provide many construction and other business opportunities, and facilitate national growth and development, including greatly enhanced development of many lightly populated dry areas in the West and Southwest.
The IWS would evolve over years, as did the Interstate Highway System. We should start building it now.
Joseph D. Schulman, M.D., a scientist, former professor, and Chairman of Genetics & IVF Institute, lives in the American East and West. John P. Schaefer, Ph.D. is a chemist, former President of the University of Arizona, and Chairman of REhnu, Inc. Henry I. Miller is a physician, molecular biologist, and Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.
U.S. officials suspect a foreign adversary is targeting American personnel with some form of "directed-energy" weapon.
- In recent history, the first reports of a potential directed-energy attack on U.S. personnel came in 2016 from American diplomats working in Cuba.
- There's no "smoking gun" evidence of who's behind the attacks, but some U.S. officials suspect the Russians.
- Supporting that claim is the history of the so-called Moscow Signal, an event in which the Soviets blasted microwaves at the U.S. embassy in Moscow from 1953 to 1976.
Since 2016, more than 130 U.S. government personnel have suffered symptoms linked to Havana syndrome, an acute illness marked by sudden headache, nausea, and the hearing of loud sounds, akin to swarming cicadas. The cause of the illness remains a mystery. But a growing number of U.S. intelligence personnel and researchers fear that some form of "directed-energy" weapon — possibly firing microwave radiation — is to blame.
One of the first cases was reported in Havana, Cuba in 2017. The victim, if it indeed was an attack, was a U.S. Foreign Service officer who was living in a quiet Havana neighborhood among other American personnel. One night she was cleaning her kitchen. If it had been daytime, her kitchen window would have offered a view of a booth outside where Cuban police monitored foreigners like herself.
But at night, the kitchen's interior lights obstructed her view of the booth, The New Yorker reported. As she was cleaning, she suddenly felt a painful burst of pressure inside her head. The pain grew. She had heard rumors of U.S. personnel suffering strange "sonic attacks," and she remembered that a security officer had once advised: to protect yourself, step away from your current position. She did. The pain decreased. But for weeks she suffered headaches, dizziness, and confusion.
Over the past five years, at least 130 U.S. personnel have reported similar symptoms while working in places like China, Russia, and Washington, D.C. The cases vary in severity, but almost all involve sudden headaches and nausea. Some victims may have brain injuries.
A 2019 study published in JAMA found that victims had "significantly smaller" white matter volume and other "significant differences" in brain structure, though it's impossible to determine whether these differences were pre-existing or stem from a directed-energy attack.
What's causing Havana syndrome?
The U.S. hasn't reported a definitive cause of these cases, but intelligence agencies are actively investigating the possibility that bad actors are using some type of directed-energy weapon against U.S. personnel.
A December 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences found that pulsed radiofrequency energy, which includes microwave radiation, "appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered." (Other potential causes included infection and chemicals.)
A microwave weapon seems like a fitting culprit. One reason is that sufferers of Havana syndrome often hear loud noises, which is a phenomenon that's known to happen when people are bombarded with high-powered microwaves. In the 1960s, the American neuroscientist Allan H. Frey demonstrated that exposing people to microwaves can make them hear buzzing, clicking, hissing, and speech — even though the microwave device didn't produce any soundwaves. It was all, quite literally, in their heads.
What Americans Heard in Cuba Attacks: The Sound www.youtube.com
How is that possible? Researchers have hypothesized that the noises are induced by thermoelastic expansion of bones and soft tissue in the body: As microwaves strike people, they slightly warm the body, which causes expansion. This expansion might produce sound waves that travel to the ear. Frey and other researchers have proposed different theories about which parts of the body are expanding — those in the head, or those in the ear — but the principle is the same.
To induce auditory effects, a pulsed-microwave weapon needs to transmit 40 joules per square centimeter, according to a U.S. Army report. How much energy is that? Here's how astrophysicist Dr. Ethan Siegel explained it to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH): "If you are talking about 40 J/cm2 over the entire human body, that's about as much energy as a fully loaded Harley Davidson going 100 mph."
The Moscow Signal
We know such weapons exist, or at least did at one time. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union fired microwaves at the U.S. embassy in Moscow from a nearby apartment building for more than two decades, from 1953 to 1976. The event was dubbed the Moscow Signal.
U.S. intelligence officials initially thought the Soviets were firing the microwaves in an attempt to control the minds of American personnel, but they later reasoned that the Soviets were trying to activate espionage devices inside the building or interfere with the health of the diplomats. To this day, "many questions remain unanswered" about the long-term health effects incurred by Americans who worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, according to a 2019 review.
U.S. Embassy in Moscow, RussiaDzerod
A more recent example of an energy-directed weapon is the active denial system, an American technology that uses non-lethal millimeter waves for crowd control. These waves, which the U.S. says are not classified as microwaves, cause a painful heating sensation on the skin. The U.S. is also developing or has developed stronger directed-energy weapons, including microwave weapons that can destroy electronic systems from a distance.
Still, if energy-directed weapons are indeed causing Havana syndrome, what they look like and how they operate remains a mystery.
Who's behind the directed-energy attacks?
There's currently no "smoking gun" evidence for who's responsible for the attacks. But in December 2020, the CIA established a task force to investigate the more than 130 reported cases of Havana syndrome among U.S. personnel. In April, President Joe Biden's administration recently released a statement:
"The White House is working closely with departments and agencies to address unexplained health incidents and ensure the safety and security of Americans serving around the world. Given that we are still evaluating reported incidents and that we need to protect the privacy of individuals reporting incidents, we cannot provide or confirm specific details at this time."
Although the U.S. hasn't officially announced suspects, an anonymous former national security official involved in investigations recently told Politico that Russia is likely behind the attacks. Specifically, the official pointed to Russia's foreign military intelligence agency, commonly called the GRU, whose operatives were present in the locations where American personnel have reported Havana syndrome.
"It looks, smells, and feels like the GRU," said the official. "When you are looking at the landscape, there are very few people who are willing, capable and have the technology. It's pretty simple forensics."
Why Russia would carry out these attacks remains unclear. But the cases have already had a measurable impact on U.S. foreign policy, namely a 50-percent personnel withdrawal from the American embassy in Cuba, a nation that's long been allied with Russia.
U.S. Embassy in CubaU.S. State Department
While U.S. intelligence agencies now seem to be taking these threats seriously, that wasn't always the case. In the first few years after Americans first reported Havana syndrome, some officials were skeptical of the idea that a foreign adversary would launch such brazen attacks, especially on U.S. soil. Some current and former officials say this skepticism has come at the expense of U.S. personnel.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who was struck by Havana syndrome in a Moscow hotel room in 2017, told the New York Times about a painting created by a fellow CIA officer and Havana syndrome victim. Called "The Gunshot," the painting depicts a red splatter on a black background.
"It signified his feeling that we all wished we had been shot, a visible injury, so that our colleagues would more readily believe us."
Political partisanship might be a treatable condition.
- People who are intolerant of uncertainty are more likely to hold extreme beliefs, according to previous research.
- A new study shows that this phenomenon seems to apply to both the left and the right.
- The results are promising because they suggest political polarization might be mitigated by presenting information in a more neutral fashion and by helping people better tolerate uncertainty.
In 2020, researchers at Stanford and Brown University published a study outlining how political polarization is accelerating quickly in most developed nations and especially in the U.S. The study aligned with prior research showing that more Americans are reporting stronger negative feelings toward people in political parties other than their own.
That may sound obvious. But what's more mysterious are the drivers of political polarization. Some blame news outlets, the proliferation of social media, economic downturns, or political figures.
A new study proposes a psychological hypothesis: The intolerance of uncertainty drives people to see the world through a partisan lens. In other words, people who see the world in black and white are more vulnerable to ideology.
Intolerance of uncertainty
Although previous research has proposed that uncertainty intolerance drives political polarization, the new study is the first to show that this phenomenon seems to apply to both the left and the right.
"One theory posits that polarization arises because holding extreme political views satisfies a need for certain and stable beliefs about the world," the researchers wrote. "This suggests that intolerance to uncertainty may play an outsized role in shaping polarized perceptions."
The researchers invited 22 liberals and 22 conservatives to participate in a study for which they watched three video segments while fMRI recorded their brain activity. The segments included "a neutrally worded news segment on a politically charged topic [abortion; PBS News], an inflammatory debate segment [police brutality and immigration; 2016 CNN Vice Presidential debate], and a nonpolitical nature video [BBC Earth]."
The participants then answered questions about their understanding of and reactions to the videos, political orientation, and tolerance of uncertainty.
A. Participants underwent fMRI and behavioral testing as part of a larger study on political cognition. B. Participants viewed three videos in a fixed order while undergoing fMRI. C. Participants were clearly divided on political ideology. D. Analytical approach.Baar et al.
As uncertainty-intolerant people watched the inflammatory debate, their fMRI data showed remarkably similar activity in regions of the brain associated with social and emotional processing, including the bilateral temporoparietal junction (TPJ), right anterior insula (rAI), and precuneus. But there were differences based on party affiliation: Liberals' activity was synched with other liberals, while conservatives matched other conservatives.
"This suggests that uncertainty-intolerant individuals see the political world through a stronger partisan lens, construing a more biased picture of the political reality," the researchers wrote. "Rather than ideology alone, cognitive traits such as intolerance to uncertainty — which interact with ideology to form a polarized perception of the world — may be the linchpin of political polarization."
Hot-button topics don't have to be polarizing
Interestingly, the video segment on abortion didn't produce much neural synchrony.
"Even though abortion is a highly polarizing topic, the neutrally-worded news video yielded much less ideology-driven neural synchrony than the inflammatory debate video, which suggests that polarized perception is not just driven by ideological differences but also by the way polarizing issues are presented," the researchers wrote.
That bit of the study is promising. It suggests that people might not be as inclined to succumb to ideology when information is presented in a more neutral, level-headed fashion.
Is partisanship a treatable mental health condition?
Also encouraging is the overall finding that uncertainty intolerance exacerbates the formation of rigid political beliefs. That's because uncertainty intolerance can theoretically be changed through interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Encouraging people to tolerate more uncertainty may steer them away from seeing the world through a thick ideological lens, which often "hampers bipartisan cooperation and can even undermine the basic principles of democracy," the researchers wrote.
Still, widespread social and economic unrest can understandably make that a difficult task.
"The growing uncertainty caused by large-scale societal events in the past year (e.g. job loss and a global pandemic) may fuel political polarization by sowing rigidly partisan perceptions of the world," the researchers wrote. "Conversely, interventions against polarization may be successful by addressing citizens' sources of worry."
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.