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S E P T E M B E R  1 9 9 9

Letters

  • On Parole
  • The Great Disruption
  • Advice & Consent

    On Parole

    I read and reread Sasha Abramsky's thoughtful article about the looming release of large numbers of angry parolees into greater society ("When They Get Out," June Atlantic,) and although I appreciate Abramsky's arguments, I disagree with some of his conclusions.

    I am a career criminal investigator, with about twenty-five years of experience with the men and women who go off to prison. People go to state prison for committing serious offenses. Compassion and sympathy should be reserved for their victims.

    I found it interesting that the criminals described in the article blamed other people, institutions, and laws for their criminality and incarceration. This confirms what I have observed over the years. The offender usually has an excuse for the particular act or omission he chose to commit, which got him arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned.

    Society has concluded that prisons are in existence to punish and isolate the lawless. Prisons should not be euphemistically named, and they should not be designed as comfortable, attractive rehabilitation centers. Nobody should want to go to prison. The fact that some people do go to prison over and over again says to us that some men and women truly are career criminals.

    I agree that it is unacceptable to have so many angry, dangerous people locked up, many of whom will someday be turned loose on us. What is the answer? Do we improve social conditions at large? Do we try to create good citizens out of prisoners? Do we need early intervention with troubled children in schools? Should we stop locking people up and let the rest out?

    In my opinion, we need to accept prison as a place of punishment. We need to give more attention to the art of raising our young. We need to cultivate a less violent culture. We need to keep the dangerous, the violent, the career offenders, in prison. Those released should be supervised closely and returned to prison quickly when they re-offend.

    James W. Miller
    Templeton, Calif.

    Sasha Abramsky writes, "Robert Scully evolved into a murderer while housed in Pelican Bay." How interesting that he can pinpoint the moment that Scully crossed that line. Others might have guessed that Scully's propensity toward murder showed itself when he hacksawed his way out of his cell and attacked a fellow inmate with a knife. That incident took place before Pelican Bay even opened. Abramsky doesn't bother to mention the acts that brought Scully to the attention of the California Youth Authority, but he does mention that Scully "moved" on to robbery. Since robbery is the taking of property by force or the threat of force, I would be willing to bet that his victims saw a violent streak in Scully before he even entered the adult criminal-justice system.

    Abramsky is right to be concerned about the return of violent criminals to the general population. However, blaming the murder of Deputy Sheriff Trejo on Scully's time in isolation ignores Scully's long history of violent behavior, which led him to isolation in the first place. Perhaps society would be better served if Abramsky would look into why a violent criminal who violated his parole after only one month by associating with an "armed acquaintance" was released from prison less than a year later.

    Frank J. Vondrak
    Oak Lawn, Ill.

    Sasha Abramsky replies:

    In response to James Miller's comments, I would agree that we need to find ways to create a less violent culture. I would also agree that violent criminals -- including men like Robert Scully -- should not be allowed to prey on innocents. The point of my article was not to suggest that we mollycoddle the violent but to demonstrate that a social policy that can only create more violence and dysfunction is hardly a sensible policy. If, as I believe, the prisons are magnifying social problems, are becoming vast learning centers for ever more serious crime, then it is time to reform our penal policies. I have never advocated abolishing prisons. But I strongly believe that they should serve as a punishment of last resort. Putting hundreds of thousands of small-time drug users or petty thieves behind bars for decades at a stretch can only harm society down the road. No other democracy does this. Why should America be so very different?

    As for Frank Vondrak's comments on Robert Scully, clearly, Scully was disturbed and violence-prone when he went into prison. For the safety of society he needed to be locked away. But there was no need to put him in solitary confinement for years on end -- in an environment where, common sense would indicate, he would only grow to be more irrational, more violence-prone, and more of a menace to society. It's a sad fact of life that some people do horrendous things and must be punished for their actions. Why also punish society by releasing people straight from isolation into a world in which they can no longer function at all?

    The Great Disruption

    Francis Fukuyama ("The Great Disruption," May Atlantic) is to be commended, both for his synthesis of an enormous body of social research and for his willingness to express views not likely to be popular with the country's opinion-making elite.

    Nonetheless, Fukuyama's article contains factual errors and conceptual flaws that warrant discussion. Fukuyama's basic contention, that technological and economic changes since the 1960s -- which he describes as representing a "momentous shift" from an industrial to an "information age" society -- are responsible for the social pathologies of the late twentieth century, is shaky at best.

    First of all, significant economic changes in the past thirty years do not necessarily signal a transit from an industrial to an "information age" economy. Only a modest part of the complex history of the U.S. economy over the past thirty years has dealt with information technology (IT) or the rise of the information age per se.

    Since about 1980 a pronounced surge in capital investment in IT has occurred. Most of this growth has occurred since 1990, as IT has more than doubled its share of total investment. The rapid rise in IT investment accounts for the surge in capital investment during the current business cycle and for a significant expansion in industrial capacity and national income. But there is virtually no correlation between the social disruptions to which Fukuyama refers and the rapid growth of IT and its diffusion.

    A second fundamental flaw in Fukuyama's argument is that he is not clear about the forces -- economic or otherwise -- responsible for the increase in crime and for the decline in kinship and trust that he has identified. Fukuyama considers three conventional explanations of these social pathologies: poverty and inequitable distribution of income; the effects of the welfare state; and cultural decline. He ultimately rejects each of them in favor of a fourth explanation (his own) -- namely, the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family.

    His own analysis undermines his argument in at least two major ways. To the extent that Fukuyama attributes the rise of social disruption to economic factors, and to the extent that the dominant economic development in the past thirty years was the long-term decline of the U.S. economy, as previously elaborated (rather than the proliferation and diffusion of IT), the conventional explanation relating to economic inequality and unemployment (rejected by Fukuyama) would find support. Thus it would not have been technological and economic advances of the past thirty years resulting in social disruptions as a negative side effect but rather the failure of the U.S. economy to create enough jobs and/or deliver rising real incomes and living standards so as to avoid the conditions that brought on those disruptions. Concomitantly, the recent surge in IT investment and diffusion -- to the extent that it reverses the long-term decline of the economy and ushers in a period of secular expansion -- may actually moderate the incidence of social pathology by causing incomes to rise for all levels of society.

    As for the issue of cultural decline, Fukuyama repeatedly refers to "excessive individualism" as a plausible cause of social disruption. However, individualism is a cultural -- not an economic -- factor. Moreover, it is just the tip of the iceberg of cultural factors that could be contributing to a cultural decline. Although Fukuyama refers to moral relativism as a possible cause, historical and cultural pessimism have had a long and colorful history in Western thought.

    Finally, the optimistic note that Fukuyama strikes for the future rings somewhat hollow and is pure conjecture -- despite reference to "empirical" support, which is nowhere in evidence. Optimism in the political sphere seems particularly misplaced, given the growing non-representativeness of "representative" government, the alarming lack of participation of the electorate in advanced industrialized societies, and the quality and effectiveness of a political leadership that seems incapable of acting in the public -- as opposed to its own narrow - interest.

    Daniel Berger
    Philadelphia, Pa.

    Francis Fukuyama's article implicitly exempts the market system -- whose success he celebrates -- from its share of responsibility for "the promotion of individualistic self-gratification" that he sees as the root of our social disorder. It is the market system that, by exploiting human weakness and irrationality, has created overconsumption. This phenomenon poses not only a grave threat to the environment but also a psychological threat to the addicted American consumer. Consumer debt, at last count totaling $1.3 trillion, represents a form of economic enslavement that demoralizes -- and in some cases destroys -- families and severely restricts freedom of choice in careers. Here it may be worth noting the example set by a nation that boasts of "budget surpluses" while burdened by an indebtedness so tremendous that the President and most other politicians understandably choose not to acknowledge its existence publicly.

    In "77 North Washington Street" The Atlantic'seditors say that Fukuyama "is no unalloyed free-marketeer or apologist for capitalism," citing his book Trust(1995). Yet this book devotes only two pages to a critique of American capitalism, limited to specific negative effects on workers caused by downsizing and corporate relocations. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does Fukuyama acknowledge that the market's competitive ethos has exerted a pervasively negative influence on American values, as critically noted by social commentators from David Riesman and Erich Fromm to John Kenneth Galbraith, Christopher Lasch, and Robert Bellah. Nor does Fukuyama's article, although it calls for moderation and "impulse control" in individual behavior, see fit to discuss excesses in corporate behavior: immoderate concentrations of power, immoderate profits, immoderate executive compensation, immoderate techniques of advertising and marketing.

    Given an economic system based on "winners" and "losers," it is no great surprise to read in the article that "poor and uneducated people tend to be more distrustful than the well-to-do or those who have gone to college."

    Fukuyama says, "The biggest problems we face are in our moral and social life. Everything else is going pretty well." I think this statement, if it is not intended to be ironic, reflects a strange ordering of priorities.

    Robert Cipes
    Ashland, Oreg.

    Francis Fukuyama replies:

    I would advise Daniel Berger to consult my book The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for a full explication of my argument, rather than the necessarily shortened version of it that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. What I have labeled an "information society" is not merely that part of the economy connected to the information-technology industry but the economic system that results from the shift out of industrialism, including the decline of manufacturing and the rise of services. In my more extended analysis I do in fact point to the loss of low-skill manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s -- particularly for men -- as one of the sources of family breakdown, crime, and other social ills. But this kind of analysis can't be the whole story. It does not explain why crime and family breakdown began to rise rapidly a decade earlier, in the mid-1960s, when the United States was enjoying a full-employment economy; it cannot explain why employment of low-skill males (particularly African-Americans) tended not to recover when the economy as a whole recovered, whereas low-skill female employment did; and it cannot explain why family breakdown and crime increased (though not to the same extent) in countries that, like Sweden, have much greater welfare-state protections of poor people. Mr. Berger may be right that I am unduly optimistic about the future, but I think that the reconstitution of ordinary morality depends less on the state of national politics and more on the kinds of factors that I point to in Part II of my book.

    I do not believe that I have exonerated the market system in the way that Robert Cipes asserts I have, since I lay the blame for the Great Disruption at the door of modern capitalism and the technological innovation it fosters. The problem is what we do about it. Those on the left who continue to believe that a more active welfare state can allow us to avoid these problems have simply not taken a hard look at Europe, which has also experienced the Great Disruption but with slower growth and much higher persistent rates of unemployment. Public policy can cushion us against these changes only marginally, and often with unanticipated consequences. The fundamental problem lies in technological change and the liberal individualism that produces it; all of us, free-market conservatives as well as social democrats, got on this escalator at the beginning of the Enlightenment, and it is a little bit late to want to get off now.

    Advice & Consent

    Francine Russo ("The Clinical-Trials Bottleneck," May Atlantic) makes several important points about the development of new cancer treatments. However, the more general discussion may convey several misimpressions.

    Russo states that recent reductions in cancer death rates "represent little real change." Cancer mortality rates peaked in 1990 and have declined each year since then. The decline is accelerating, and through 1997 (most recent statistics) the reduction amounted to nearly eight percent. Each year about 20,000 fewer cancer deaths occur in this country than would occur if 1990 mortality rates still prevailed. In fact, 1997 was the first year in which the actual number, not just the rate, of cancer deaths declined. This is impressive because it occurred despite the growth and the aging of our population -- two demographic trends that tend to increase cancer deaths.

    Russo states that cancer's decline is "attributable primarily to a decrease in smoking among men." We estimated that all prevention efforts, including smoking reduction, had produced about 40 percent of the decline, and that nearly all of the remainder was due to improved medical care.

    The article also states that "even now more patients die of cancer than are cured." Among patients with a diagnosis of invasive cancer the five-year survival rate is 59 percent. This indicates that the ten-year survival rate -- essentially the cure rate -- will be at least 52 percent. And, of course, an ever-increasing proportion of cancer patients are treated while their disease is pre-invasive and highly curable.

    Russo offers a practicing oncologist's statement that most people who die of cancer do so in the first year following diagnosis. This is correct, but just barely so. More important, the proportion of cancer patients who die within one year of diagnosis has declined from 30 percent in 1980 to 23 percent at present.

    Cancer mortality rates almost certainly will continue downward. This view is based on a recent report from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and several other federal agencies. They found that the cancer incidence rate -- the frequency of new diagnoses of cancer -- has declined by about two percent a year since 1992. Declining incidence and improving treatment combined should produce reductions in cancer mortality of at least three percent a year.

    Cancer is a disease that is finally in retreat on all fronts. This view acknowledges that thousands of cancer cases have been prevented and that cancer patients now lead longer and healthier lives. Equally important, it undergirds the realistic expectation that soon there will be considerable further gains.

    Brad Rodu, D.D.S.
    Philip Cole, M.D.
    The University of Alabama at Birmingham
    Birmingham, Ala.

    It was nice to read the poetic tribute to a favorite upland game species -- "Woodcock," by Erica Funkhouser (May Atlantic). Funkhouser did a good job of describing the antics of the bird. Nevertheless, two "facts" she presented about the bird were inaccurate. The female usually lays four eggs, not two. And only the male takes part in the courtship flights. The female waits expectantly on the ground.

    Tom Carney
    Utica, Mich.


    Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; Letters - 99.09; Volume 284, No. 3; page 10-14.