Guest Commentary: Systemic Problem – Crime (U.S. Police Spend Nearly Double What Russia Spends on Its Military)

Militarized Sacramento Police Guard City Hall (photo by Ty Lyman)

By Mark Dempsey 

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets, and stealing their bread.” – Anatole France

A recent opinion piece in the Vanguard (Even For Left-Leaning Publications, The Answer is Still Carceral and That’s Disturbing) reacted to San Francisco’s recall of a less incarceration-oriented prosecutor after billionaire funding opposed him. 

The piece notes that even the political “left” still wants to solve the problem of crime with more incarceration—and it goes on to cite several supposedly left-leaning publications prescribing incarceration as a solution. 

Since the political left are the advocates for the dispossessed and poor, for them to characterize these populations as prison-fodder is doubly troubling. Meanwhile, poverty is endemic in the U.S. The Federal Reserve says that 40 percent of people cannot handle a $400 emergency without selling something or borrowing. Sixty-five percent of seniors have only Social Security to pay for their retirement. 

It’s a predator’s…er, I mean “creditor’s” paradise.

As for “solving” the crime problem by putting people in cages, the U.S. has been using that remedy since Richard Nixon started the “drug war.” While it has five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of (the world’s) prisoners. 

In other words, it cages people at five times the world’s per-capita incarceration rate. Crime is not necessarily a problem that stems from those youthful offenders, either. Canadians’ age demographics are identical to the U.S. but they incarcerate (per-capita) only one seventh as many people. 

Canadian crime rates are about the same as in the U.S., so putting people behind bars is not a crime remedy. Incarceration is also far worse when it comes to treating addiction than medical treatment (rehab), and is about seven times more expensive.

Whether the publications cited by the Vanguard are really left-leaning is debatable (I’ve written about the absence of the political left previously) but the problem of crime is clearly systemic, not just an individual problem. To illustrate the difference between systemic and individual problems, imagine I throw nine bones out my back door and release ten dogs to retrieve a bone. No matter how well-trained, responsible, intelligent, etc. those dogs are, one will return without a bone. That’s a systemic problem. Individual dogs can’t solve it.

Most of the big problems facing humanity now are systemic. Climate, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, healthcare, immigration, and crime are as much products of a system as the individuals caught in the gears of that system. 

For example, Canada—which has that lower incarceration rate—also has single-payer, universal health care. Husbands in Canada do not have to start cooking meth to pay hospital bills (the plot of the Netflix series Breaking Bad). 

Polish economist Michal Kalecki calls this condition “labor discipline.” It sends the message, “You had better take whatever crappy job is on offer, or suffer the indignities of poverty, perhaps even homelessness or starvation. And if you’re extra ornery, we’ll put you in a cage.” 

Labor discipline is the whip in the hand of the plutocrats, and is the motivation for most opposition to social safety nets.

Meanwhile, the political right wants to ignore things systemic and make all problems individual. For example, (Britain’s) Margaret Thatcher declared “…who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families…” 

Roughly like saying, “You don’t have a body, only cells and organs.” Like most politicians, Thatcher was very persuasive, even though childhood poverty tripled in the U.K. when she was done. 

In the U.S., one systemic preventer of crime, welfare, has been tightened in recent years. When Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s congress turned AFDC into TANF, the number of people receiving public assistance declined dramatically. 

Before this change, 76 percent of those needing public assistance got it; after, 26 percent.  Nevertheless, recent studies show better welfare prevents crime

Perhaps most troubling of all is the U.S.’ allegiance to force as the ultimate solution to all systemic problems. Consider the U.S. military budget.

…and U.S. police departments spend about half as much as China does for its entire military, much more than India or Russia.


The idea that “the beatings will continue until morale improves” is simply ridiculous. It reduces all human motivation to “sticks, without carrots.” 

One wouldn’t expect to train a dog with such methods, much less human beings, but putting people in cages still appeals to Americans because the popular narrative pointedly ignores systemic problems



About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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