A Ladder to the Stars

Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the latest New Yorker. Like most of what he does, it’s more flash than substance and sacrifices most verifiable/technical details in favor of a good narrative. But, also like most of the stuff he does, the narrative is an interesting one and makes a certain amount of sense. As long as we leave the science to someone else.

The subject is social mobility and organized crime. It’s a review of the new book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” by Alice Goffman. Gladwell uses a 40-year-old non-fiction book “A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime” to provide context and counter-narrative. “A Family Business” is the real-life story of The Godfather, with a different ending. Both chronicle a family of Italian immigrants in New York City and their rise to power. Starting small, they start successful businesses and use their large families to pool their strength. Their empires grow through cleverness, trust, and fear, the latter abetted with crime and intimidation. One is true and the other is not. It is at the end however, that the stories diverge. In The Godfather the characters are never able to cast aside their criminal roots. They are never able to join the ranks of legitimate society. The old guards always hold them at arm’s length and the past can never be put in the past. That is the fiction. The truth, told to us in “A Family Business,” is that, once achieving a certain status, successful mobsters were able to direct their descendants down the legitimate corridors of our republic. Academia, business, politics – all were fair game and all were accessible to them. Many of these descendants make up our current prestigious and high-standing families. The new old money if you will.

In contrast, Goffman’s work tells a similar story, albeit one with different subjects and different outcomes. It is the story of black urbanites. Like the big-city immigrants before them, they to sought the trappings of legitimacy. The typical doors were closed to them so they resolved to create new ones. Also like immigrant families they used crime, in their world it was drugs. But, like the best of the immigrants, crime was not an end, but a means. It was a path to legitimacy (Stringer Bell from The Wire). A crooked ladder to the American dream. They held true an idea best articulated by the Japanese saying (that comes to us now from a scene in Mad Men) “A man is whatever room he is in.” The game was to get into the room. And in a rigged game they had to break the rules. However, in the last third of the 20th century our society declared war on its criminals. Many things that were once viewed with a blind or corrupt eye became targets. The so-called crooked ladder of upward mobility was pulled out from under them.

Fascinating narrative no? It’s one of those that sounds so good it’s hard to believe it’s not true. Of course it happened, but a lot of other things happened too.


Our Prison State, Ctd.

The NYT reports today that approximately 50,000 prisoners serving time for drug violations will be eligible to seek early release next year. This is following the United States Sentencing Commission’s April vote to reduce penalties for drug offenses across the board. It represents continued pressure from both parties to scale back efforts made in the 80s to tackle crime (previously discussed in this space here). Money quote:

The Sentencing Commission said the move would help ease prison overcrowding and reduce prison spending, which makes up about a third of the Justice Department’s budget. The change comes amid a bipartisan effort to roll back the harshest penalties set during the height of the drug war.

Let’s give credit where it’s due and hope there’s more to come.

Our Prison State

Here’s an arresting statistic, courtesy of Vox.com: from 1811 and 1979, state and federal governments built 711 prisons in the U.S. Between 1980 and 2004, they built 936. Granted, the U.S. population grew quite a bit during that time so it’s natural to assume we may have needed to increase the rate of prison construction. Furthermore, increased population density generally correlates with a disproportionate increase in crime rate. But goodness.

The 1980s were a huge turning point in U.S. crime-fighting strategy. We adopted many different “tough-on-crime” policies at the state and federal level in an effort to solve what was a significant public problem. While they were publicly credited with the dramatic decreases in crime we’ve seen since the mid-90s, sociologists disagree on the actual cause(s). Theories range from the Donohue-Levitt abortion hypothesis to Kevin Drum’s report that lead exposure corrupted so many brains. Whatever the causal mechanisms, one of the consequences of many 80s crime laws is a gigantic prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (B.J.S.) in 2011, almost one percent of the nation is behind bars, a total of nearly 2.3 million people. Including those on probation and parole, nearly seven million Americans are caught up in the penal system. This is a massive number that dwarfs those of our international peers. Incarceration has become a one-size-fits-all solution to a very complex problem, despite studies that show it has very little ability to rehabilitate offenders.

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Rethinking Drug Addiction

A new book from Columbia neuroscientist Carl Hart reassesses the company line on drug addictions. It also rightly redirects our attention from viewing drugs as a cause of poverty and personal strife to viewing drugs as a symptom of an unstable environment, certain mental states, and bad luck. The American Conservative magazine reviews it here. Money quotes:

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, drugs were portrayed as the driving force behind high crime rates, lack of educational achievement, and urban decay. Government propaganda during that time period consistently portrayed drug users more or less as zombies held in thrall to an addictive substance, against which they were powerless.


Hart does not peddle any panaceas. His biography and research show drug abuse and the other social problems associated with it to be complex phenomena that will not be remedied or even ameliorated by simplistic solutions. However, Hart has at least demonstrated how we can begin to understand and substantively address those problems, instead of naively scapegoating certain politically convenient chemicals for all of society’s ills.

More nuance is needed on this subject, but after decades of fruitless policies, we’ve come a long way in a short time.