The House I Live In

December 31, 2013

When a system persists despite repeated failure at its stated purpose, look at what it actually succeeds in doing to understand why it's allowed to endure.

The House I Live In is a documentary about the costs of the so-called “War on Drugs,” a 40-year campaign begun during the Nixon administration to reduce drug use in America. The War took the form of harsher penalties, tougher enforcement, and military aid and intervention in drug-trafficking countries. But after more than 40 years and over $1 trillion spent on this war according to the film, drugs are now less expensive, more pure, and more available than ever. The House I Live In interviews people on all sides of this war—inmates, their families, prison guards, activists, politicians—to argue that the War on Drugs has been not only a practical failure, but a moral and economic one as well.

I won’t rehash the film’s arguments here; it’s available online and certainly worth your time. Instead, I want to consider a single idea from the film: the question of why, if the War on Drugs has been such a catastrophe over so many years, have we continued to wage it? One answer, with far-reaching implications, comes from Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician and addiction expert:

The thing with the war on drugs is—the question we have to ask is: not why is it a failure, but why, given that it seems to be a failure, why is it persisting? And I’m beginning to think maybe it’s a success. What if it’s a success by keeping police forces busy? What if it’s a success by keeping private jails thriving? What if it’s a success keeping a legal establishment justified in its self-generated activity? Maybe it’s a success on different terms than the publicly stated ones.

A success on different terms than the publicly stated ones. This one twist immediately brings to mind all the times I’ve been baffled by big public failures like the TSA’s recent billion-dollar behavior-detection program that was barely more accurate than a coin flip. In such cases, it’s easy to lament how our representatives in government can be so stupid. But most of them have law degrees and all have the canniness it must take to get elected, so might we be naive to think them fools? Perhaps they’re solving problems that it’s not politically convenient to admit are problems, or solving problems in ways they couldn’t justify to the public, or doing so at a cost they could never get approved. Perhaps they’re doing all of the above?

With this in mind and prompted by Dr. Maté, I began to wonder, if the War on Drugs isn’t getting drugs off the streets, what could it be doing? What follows is my own speculation backed up by research, but not not necessarily tied to any arguments made by the film.

For one thing, it’s reducing unemployment in ways both real and make-believe. The most dramatic effect of the War on Drugs, a result of strict mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders, is the 700% increase in the number of people behind bars since the War was declared in the ’70s.1 Since the incarcerated aren’t counted in the labor market, the average unemployment rate seems 2% lower than it would be if those in prison were counted. Furthermore, the system provides jobs to the 800,000 people who work in the corrections industry. Essentially, the War on Drugs hides the scope of the country’s unemployment problem by paying a bunch of otherwise unemployed people to lock up a bunch of otherwise unemployed people.

It’s also hiding the scope of the country’s mental health problem. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a startling 3.9% of adults suffer from serious mental illness. But the National Association for Mental Illness reports that states, on average, serve only 27.9% of such people. Many of the remaining 72% unfortunately find their way into the prison system, disproportionately for drug offenses as they try to self-medicate, where they’re punished as criminals instead of treated as sick people.

And of course, the War on Drugs generates enormous amounts of money2 for for the for-profit prison industry, for the politicians who receive their lobbying dollars, and for state and local governments who depend on ostensibly drug-related asset forfeiture to meet their budgets. What politician would risk appearing “soft on crime” and shutting off this firehose of cash, all for the sake of a segment of the population that isn’t even allowed to vote?

Moreover, but somewhat more abstractly, the War on Drugs contributes to political stability. Drug use is, after all, an index of human misery. Where hope is lacking, drugs are abundant, but so, historically, is the will to fight back against the causes of that despair. Thus, by imprisoning many of those most victimized by our social and economic systems—young black men in cities but increasingly the rural white poor—the War on Drugs suppresses their ability to channel that misery into social or political action.

No one, I hope, would seriously defend the War on Drugs for any of these reasons, which are as shortsighted as they are inhumane. But no one has to. Failure in government is such a cliche that few will question it, especially when doing so might mean questioning the much deeper issues it’s conveniently masking.

This idea certainly has currency in fiction. I’m reminded of the Wool series by Hugh Howey, in which unbelievably over-budget emergency lodgings for some nuclear waste storage workers in Georgia turn out to be humanity’s last refuge after a government-engineered apocalypse (who cares about budgets when you’re designing the end of the world?) The closest I’ve seen fiction come to Dr. Maté’s idea is Max Barry’s Lexicon, a recent novel about times remarkably similar to our own:

In my city we spent $1.6 billion on a new ticketing system for the trains. We replaced paper tickets with smartcards and now they can tell where people get on and off. So, question: how is that worth $1.6 billion? People say it’s the government being incompetent, and ok. But this is happening all over. All the transit networks are getting smartcards, the grocery stores are taking your name, the airports are getting face recognition cameras. Those cameras, they don’t work when people try to avoid them. Like, they can be fooled by glasses. We KNOW they’re ineffective as anti-terrorism devices, but we still keep installing them. All of this stuff—the smartcards, the ID systems, the “anti-congestion” car-tracking tech—all of it is terrible at what it’s officially supposed to do. It’s only good for tracking the rest of us, the 99.9% who just use the smartcard or whatever and let ourselves be tracked because it’s easier. I’m not a privacy nut, and I don’t care that much if these organizations want to know where I go and what I buy. But what bothers me is how HARD they’re all working for that data…

While Lexicon is indeed about a massive global conspiracy, our War on Drugs and things like it unfortunately require nothing so scheming. All they require is for our representatives in government to make the most politically convenient choice no matter the cost, and for us not to demand any better.

  1. According to the government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 out of every 108 American adults was incarcerated last year, a shocking statistic that makes the United States the world’s #1 jailer not just per capita but in absolute terms. By the same report, 1 in 35 American adults is in prison, paroled, or probation

  2. $74 billion, as reported by CNBC