Study of the Week: Are Public Dollars Better Spent on Prisons Than On Schools?

We’re in the middle of a criminal justice reform movement that has demanded change in all manner of ways. Increasingly, activists have tied our criminal justice system into the broader social context, arguing that we must address our incarceration problem by concentrating on our education system and our economy as well. Only by looking at the entire life cycle can we begin to reduce our prison population. Key to this argument is the question of scarce resources, namely tax dollars. Activists point out that it is far cheaper to put someone through the school system than it is to imprison them in the penal system – inviting the question of what we actually value in this country.

But what if that’s wrong? What if, in fact, when it comes to educational outcomes and overall quality of life of our children, public money is better spent on prisons than on schools? What if you could raise test scores not by spending more on schools, but on spending more on prisons? And should progressives change their political commitments in response to this new evidence?

Those are questions raised by a provocative new study from the University of Mississippi. As anyone with experience in education research knows, Mississippi suffers from truly discouraging education metrics, with some of the worst test scores, high school graduation rates, and college attendance numbers in the country. Researchers at Ole Miss wanted to take a fresh look at just what could be done to improve this condition – and weren’t afraid to court controversy in doing so. They conducted a discriminant function analysis on a large data set of Mississippi residents as they moved through the school system, the employment world, and/or the penal system. They then compared various life outcomes like tendency to commit a felony or college graduation percentage to state expenditures on both the justice system and the school system. Thanks to the power of quadratic regression, they were able to decompose out these various inputs to determine what actually improved academic outcomes more, dollars spent on education or dollars spent on prisons. And the results may upend a lot of progressive assumptions about how best to build a healthy society.

Figure 1. Scatterplot of data

OK, I’ll level with you. There is no Mississippi study. This post is a con, a ruse. It’s a trap. People keep commenting on my work – getting into long debates with me and others, sharing it on social media, referring to it later on to prove some other point – when they clearly have not read the piece that they’re talking about. People are utterly shameless and unapologetic about it. I get paragraphs-long email responses from people that make assertions about what I’ve said that are directly and unambiguously contradicted by the text. My Facebook is a daily exercise in despair as I wade through response after response that demonstrates they maybe read the first couple paragraphs. So I’m out to snooker some of them, in the hopes that they will be shamed and change their ways in the future.

And I genuinely apologize to my serious readers for this. I really do. But I am exhausted and spent by the culture of not-reading that has deepened online. I know people are always skeptical of arguments that such conditions are getting worse – hey, people have never read! – but I just can’t go along with that. In my time writing online, which is approaching 10 years now, I’ve never seen anything like the current moment when it comes to the utter collapse of any communal expectation that people will read the work they’re commenting on.

I will read an interesting article, want to see what people are saying about it, pop the link in the Twitter search bar, and I will be absolutely amazed at what % of the reactions demonstrate that the people talking about it haven’t actually read the piece. You will see conversations about various essays that go on for dozens and dozens of exchanges where it is glaringly clear that not one person in the conversation actually has a grasp of what the essay says. And these aren’t just randoms, either, but usually writers themselves, people who have built careers producing text. Go to any event where established people give young writers advice and they always say, you have to read to write! But my impression is that many, many professional writers don’t.

I get that there are structural reasons that professional writers don’t read. I get that it’s not all a character or integrity issue. I get that the modern media economy forces people to be producing at a pace that makes reading enough difficult. I’m not unsympathetic. But at some point people have to make the personal decision to say “I’m not going to comment on something I haven’t read.”

I meet people IRL who know me from writing a lot more often, now that I live in New York. And sometimes there’s tension. I’ll be introduced by a friend of a friend to someone who is sure they don’t like me. If I get the chance, I’ll eventually try to tease out which of my opinions they reject. Likewise, I sometimes challenge people on social media or in my email to list their actual grievances, to tell me what I believe that is so objectionable. Often enough – maybe a majority of the time – it will turn out that they are mad at me about something I don’t believe and have never said. I am fine with being controversial or personally disliked for what I actually think and have actually said. But at present my online reputation has almost nothing to do with me or my actual beliefs, because no one online reads anything.

Read. If you’re going to engage with writing, read it first. If you are a private citizen who is not interested in reading and would like to be left alone, go with God. But if you are someone who regularly engages with writing, who comments or shares or writes response essays or generally takes part in the public conversation about what people have written, then I am literally begging you to read what you talk about. I entreat you. I implore you. I beseech you. Read. If you are a writer, read. If you want to be politically involved, read. If you are an activist, read. If you intend to change the world, read. If you are going to comment on writing publicly, read. If you are prepared to be offended by something, read. If you are looking to be convinced, read. If you are already convinced, read. Please. Please read. Please please please. Please read.

This is a fishing expedition. I apologize for taking some of you along with me. But I’m about to catch a lot of fish. And hey, if you see someone responding to this without reading it, screencap it for me.

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