Liberals have long advocated prison reforms like reduced sentence lengths and alternatives to incarceration. Recently, however, conservatives have put these ideas on the congressional agenda—and their inspiration comes from that bastion of tough-on-crime conservatism, Texas.
Surprising? Perhaps. But seeing this coming didn’t require any sort of crystal ball. One had only to notice the forces driving every trend today: less money, higher expectations, and lower “weight.” Around the world and especially in the United States, both the public and private sectors have been under pressure since the Great Recession to cut costs and make the most of constrained resources. At the same time, consumers have become accustomed to expect better and better performance for their dollars. Many people have dismissed as “immature” or unrealistic the electorate’s expectation that governments provide both lower taxes and more services, but it’s not unreasonable given what the private sector has been able to deliver over the last generation. And the reason for declining cost coupled with higher performance, of course, has been technology that moved the economy in a more and more virtual.
As Diane Coyle observed almost two decades ago, this means a world that is increasingly “weightless”: Every year, an increasing percentage of economic output comes in the services, or, like finance, via electronic media, rather than heavy machinery, consumer goods, or other “things.” Other technological advances have led to the miniaturization of many of the physical goods that are produced. Business organizations are flatter and leaner, firms carry smaller inventories, just-in-time manufacturing and the “sharing economy” require fewer facilities and capital goods to produce more output. Everywhere, places, facilities and things mean less and less—everywhere, that is, except government.