Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Land of the Unfree

America’s Great Recession may have a silver lining.  States facing revenue shortfalls are being forced to re-evaluate the astronomical incarceration rates that make the United States the prison capital of the world.

Paradoxically, the “land of the free” has more people living behind bars than China, Russia, or other hardline regimes, 737 inmates per 100,000 of total population. Many of these jailbirds are non-violent offenders sentenced on drug-related charges.  Many of them are mentally ill, warehoused rather than treated.  And disproportionate numbers of them are poor and black.  Confined to a cage for years, these men and women are torn from their families, isolated and from their communities, and tutored by the professional thugs who are there for more violent crimes.  This is not only a disgrace and human tragedy, but a huge waste of taxpayer’s money.

Lovely little Vermont, one of the safest, most sheltered backwaters anywhere, saw its prison population double between 1996 and 2006, shooting up 80% as national incarceration rates climbed just 18% over the same decade.  Prison spending in the budget-strapped state rose more steeply than the slope of Mt. Mansfield, a 45 degree incline.  

Yesterday, however,  the Governor’s office released a report recommending Vermont’s prisons reduce their numbers--that furloughs be expanded and more home supervision substitute for jail time.  It’s a step in the right direction and long overdue.  A report prepared in 2008 showed it costs over $45,000 a year to keep an inmate locked up in the Green Mountain State.  That’s about the cost of tuition, room and board at an Ivy League College.

Economic hard times are causing Americans everywhere to re-evaluate their spending.  If this round of belt-tightening can push the United States toward a saner prison policy, it will almost be worth a bust in the business cycle.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Confucius, Baseball and Apple Pie

Ask an American what faith they profess and you’ll find Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, and Hindus in abundance, with a liberal sprinkling of Bahai’s, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.  But hardly anyone will confess to being a Confucianist. 

That’s odd, because Confucius is as American as Motherhood and Apple Pie.  Our nation’s founders admired him greatly.  Thomas Paine listed the Chinese sage in the same category as Jesus and Socrates and a manual for public devotion that he helped devise omitted any Biblical passages but included proverbs from Confucius and other Eastern poets.  James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had a portrait of Confucius hanging in his Virginia home.

But it was Benjamin Franklin who first introduced Confucius to the American colonies.  In 1737, Franklin carried a series of papers “From the Morals of Confucius” in his weekly magazine The Pennsylvania GazetteFranklin called the Chinese master’s philosophy “the gateway through which it is necessary to pass to arrive at the sublimest wisdom ….”

Holland Cotter summarizes the Confucian outlook in today’s New York Times as a pragmatic strategy of “you be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you,” getting along by going along.  “He also believed that education, hard work and respect for the past were essential; that excessive anything — money, fun, religion — led to trouble; and that social harmony was best achieved when people interacted courteously, but basically minded their own business.”

Some doubt if Confucianism even qualifies as a religion, because it focuses mainly on ethics rather than on saving souls.  Asked by a follower about life after death, Confucius supposedly replied, “Why worry about the next world when you haven’t yet learned how to live in this one?” For a founding generation of Americans tired of metaphysics, a practical religion that counseled public virtue and civic-mindedness while avoiding hair-splitting doctrine had a definite appeal.  

As the father of a Korean son, I have come to appreciate Confucian culture more and more, as it helped to build civilizations that have endured for thousands of years—valuing decorum, promoting strong families, and instilling reverence for the highest standards of personal conduct. 

So the next time I’m asked what religion I practice, I think I’ll answer “Confucian.”  If it’s good enough for Ben Franklin, it’s good enough for me.