In recent days, here in Arizona, there’s been dis­cus­sion about pri­va­ti­za­tion of pris­ons — hardly any­thing new — and state parks. The argu­ment seems to be two-​​pronged: Private, for-​​profit indus­tries tend to run effi­ciently; and by pass­ing main­te­nance and facil­ity costs off to com­pa­nies, we’re able to free up funds in the tax bud­get which could be used for other things — or pos­si­bly not. In prin­ci­ple, taxes could sim­ply be reduced instead.

To turn our atten­tion to the lat­ter argu­ment first, Arizona has been cut­ting its state bud­get, steadily, for some time now. It’s cut so com­pletely that recently, AHCCCS ter­mi­nated pay­ing for organ trans­plants and, inci­den­tally, the lives of a few of its own cit­i­zens. (Death panel, indeed.) Large por­tions of state-​​mandated sys­tems, such as the courts, have found them­selves reduced to less than a bare-​​bones bud­get, with only a few offi­cials being forced to han­dle the case­loads of entire counties.

We’ve also done away with rest stops, and for a while the DPS ter­mi­nated its heli­copter ser­vice in the Kingman area, essen­tially leav­ing all of Mohave County with­out any kind of aer­ial search-​​and-​​rescue or law-​​enforcement ability.

However, it’s worth not­ing that cut­ting these ser­vices has not, in fact, led to a reduc­tion in taxes — so where has the money dis­ap­peared to? Is it really pos­si­ble that the state is run­ning at such a deficit that years of sys­tem­atic bud­get and ser­vice cuts have had no effect at all on its oper­a­tion? If so, it might be prac­ti­cal to sug­gest that no amount of bud­get cut­ting will actu­ally do any­thing to keep the state’s bal­ance in the black.

This con­clu­sion seem­ingly leaves us with two choices: Raising taxes, or privatizing.

The prob­lem with rais­ing taxes is obvi­ous, and has noth­ing to do with voter out­cry.1 Arizona cit­i­zens’ median income — par­tic­u­larly out­side of Coconino, Pima, and Maricopa coun­ties — is sur­pris­ingly low.2 Our cit­i­zens are cash-​​strapped, and a gen­eral rise in taxes could effec­tively push many of the full-​​time employed per­ilously close to poverty. It would seem that pri­va­tiz­ing is the only way to keep essen­tial ser­vices in place, while at the same time reliev­ing tax stress — or at least damming the worst of the leaks.

Furthermore, it’s argued, a for-​​profit indus­try will oper­ate more effi­ciently and flu­idly than a government-​​run one can. Efficiency often man­i­fests itself as lower costs for con­sumers. Thus, pri­va­ti­za­tion gives us lower costs.3 While this may or may not actu­ally be the case, it’s easy to argue that pay­ing taxes into sup­port of a ser­vice I’ll never per­son­ally need seems like a waste of my money.4

Hence, we might be able to sig­nif­i­cantly reduce Arizona’s bud­get woes by pri­va­tiz­ing out some things that many of us rarely (if ever) use, charg­ing fees to those who actu­ally do use those ser­vices, instead of hav­ing all of us carry the tax burden.

Perhaps with a rest stop, this makes some sense. I expect that if I had to pay a dol­lar to use a toi­let, I’d be less likely to van­dal­ize that toi­let; why cough up a buck to scrawl a tag on a wall that few are likely to see? The fees col­lected could go to bet­ter main­te­nance and clean­li­ness.5 At the very least, instal­la­tion of vend­ing machines could give trav­el­ers a chance to refresh them­selves, while at the same time pro­vid­ing an extra source of rev­enue for rest-​​stop upkeep.6 Finally, in the era of cel­lu­lar phones, who actu­ally needs a rest-​​stop tele­phone?7 Why ever would we want to offer free road­side con­ve­niences to travelers?

With a state park, though, I’m not sure it’s quite so easy. One of the things we’re proud of in Kingman — at least, I think we are — is the Hualapai Mountain range. Just a twenty-​​minute trip from almost any­where in town brings you to a com­pletely dif­fer­ent land­scape, one filled with fresh, brac­ing air; tall, whis­per­ing trees; and a land­scape that is made of a bal­ance of tum­bling boul­ders, fecund soil, and myr­iad ani­mal life.

Settled in that range is Hualapai Mountain State Park. I hope you’ve been there. If you haven’t, try to go. You can spend a very pleas­ant day hik­ing, pic­nick­ing, bar­be­cu­ing, or just sit­ting and enjoy­ing the atmos­phere. And because it’s a state park, it’s paid for by your tax dol­lars, mine, and every other Arizona resident’s.

Now imag­ine if you had to pay a fee to gain entry. How much would you be will­ing to pony up? Five dol­lars? Ten? A buck? A quar­ter? Would you be will­ing to pay $15 for a six-​​visit pass? How about $30 for an annual pass, with unlim­ited vis­its? That’s just $2.50 per month. Not too shabby.

The prob­lem is that it’s not a bar­gain. When you do the math, you dis­cover that it costs the median Arizona tax­payer a dime per month to main­tain all 27 parks in the entire Arizona state park sys­tem.8 There is no way at all that pri­va­tiz­ing the parks will result in a sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tion in state taxes, nor is it likely to make up for the col­lat­eral rev­enues that our parks bring in as tourist dollars.

These num­bers are not a mys­tery. It only takes an hour or so of research to dis­cover every­thing. Yet the drum­beat for pri­va­ti­za­tion of parks is ris­ing — so who is lead­ing the march? Who stands to gain from privatization?

When we con­sider pri­va­tiz­ing pris­ons, these ques­tions only become more per­ti­nent. Since we’ve already seen that hand­ing parks to for-​​profit con­cerns won’t sig­nif­i­cantly lower taxes, and prob­a­bly won’t increase state rev­enues, we can jus­ti­fi­ably make the infer­ence that the same is so of pris­ons. There is a well-​​known link between our state politi­cians and the cor­po­ra­tions that run pris­ons here; the con­clu­sion is so self-​​evident that it’s baf­fling any­one could believe prison-​​privatization is of ben­e­fit to any­one but a select few.

There’s another, sub­tler dan­ger in run­ning pris­ons for profit: It reduces the desir­abil­ity of reha­bil­i­ta­tion, and increases the desir­abil­ity of impris­on­ing crim­i­nals for rel­a­tively petty acts.

Rehabilitation is osten­si­bly ideal, since it (hope­fully) reduces recidi­vism and allows for­mer con­victs to find pro­duc­tive, non-​​criminal liveli­hood. But if a prison gets money for each pris­oner it keeps, and espe­cially if its phi­los­o­phy is about main­tain­ing the value of the bot­tom line, there’s lit­tle incen­tive to reduce recidi­vism. And since, again, more crim­i­nals equals more rev­enue, it’s plau­si­ble that pres­sure is applied to law­mak­ers to pass more leg­is­la­tion favor­ing jail­able offenses.

Crime actu­ally does pay, if you hap­pen to own a prison.

Most insid­i­ous to my mind, though, is that for-​​profit pris­ons essen­tially earn their money from human suf­fer­ing. In Christianity, this is known as filthy lucre. It should come as no sur­prise that Buddhism has some­thing to say on the sub­ject as well.

Part of Buddhism’s core phi­los­o­phy is the Noble Eightfold Path, a set of pre­cepts to keep in order to be a bet­ter per­son, and to help one­self along on the way to enlight­en­ment. The fifth step on this path is Right (or skill­ful, or appro­pri­ate) Livelihood, and it gov­erns how we make a liv­ing. If we man­u­fac­ture or trade in weapons, or if we trade in killing, we’re not main­tain­ing right liveli­hood. More sub­tly, if we earn our wages by increas­ing or prof­it­ing from suf­fer­ing, we’re also not engaged in right livelihood.

As with most things in Buddhism, these pre­cepts are flex­i­ble. Strictly speak­ing, if you work for Glock, you’re not engaged in right liveli­hood — but on the other hand, if a Glock pis­tol is used to pro­tect a per­son from a crime, that would seem to can­cel out the objec­tion. To under­stand the wider ram­i­fi­ca­tions of our jobs, we have to look at these things and bal­ance what we’re doing against its intent. Glock does not man­u­fac­ture weapons for crim­i­nals to pur­chase and use; that crim­i­nals do so is evi­dence of a larger ill in soci­ety, as is our unfor­tu­nate need to own a pis­tol for protection.

Similarly, Lockheed-​​Martin does not man­u­fac­ture war­birds to kill inno­cents or press unjust war­fare. Certainly their air­craft have been used to do both, but can we really con­demn Lockheed-​​Martin because of the choices we — and our elected offi­cials — make?

My sense is that this also applies to pris­ons being run for profit. While we can­not be per­son­ally respon­si­ble for the actions of a crim­i­nal — the crim­i­nal has made his own choices — we do have the abil­ity to choose how we respond. It seems to me that mak­ing money off of a criminal’s sen­tence isn’t too far removed from actu­ally prof­it­ing from his crime. Furthermore, if we allow our laws to be set up in such a way as to guar­an­tee a higher prison pop­u­la­tion, it can be argued that we are actively seek­ing to increase human suf­fer­ing in pris­ons for the sake of turn­ing a profit.

For a Christian, the tru­ism the love of money is the root of all evil may come to mind here. While it’s unde­ni­able that cap­i­tal­ism is capa­ble of pro­duc­ing aston­ish­ing inno­va­tions in the fields of med­i­cine, tech­nol­ogy, and indus­try, it is equally unde­ni­able that unfet­tered, rapa­cious cap­i­tal­ism con­tributes to mis­ery, both for humans and for the other life we share this planet with. A con­crete exam­ple in BP imme­di­ately springs to mind. The Deepwater Horizon dis­as­ter is just the most recent in a series of deba­cles that have caused unguess­able amounts of envi­ron­men­tal dam­age and cost dozens of human lives.

Nevertheless, there are those who con­tinue to agi­tate for reduced reg­u­la­tion over for-​​profit ven­tures, which seems odd, since most of those who agi­tate for this relax­ation of the laws don’t actu­ally stand to gain any­thing from it. Again, who is beat­ing the drums, and who is lead­ing the march?

So what do we do? Regulate cor­po­ra­tions to death, social­ize every­thing, and boost taxes to 50% or more for every­one? Or do we dereg­u­late all busi­ness, pri­va­tize all gov­ern­men­tal insti­tu­tions, and reduce taxes to zero?

I don’t think there are any easy answers. Anyone who sug­gests oth­er­wise is either omni­scient, duped, or oper­at­ing with an agenda. As with most things, the great­est merit is likely to be found some­where in the mid­dle. It’s up to each of us to con­sider what we believe, what our motives are, and what the motives might be in oth­ers — par­tic­u­larly those who seem to want us to think they have the answers, or are in some way telling us what to do.9

Personal respon­si­bil­ity, taken seri­ously, can quickly become improved social respon­si­bil­ity, with­out a sin­gle law hav­ing to be passed. However, it is my belief that per­sonal respon­si­bil­ity means not only choos­ing our actions based on what we believe is the wis­est course for our­selves, but what is the course least likely to harm others.

It is my wish that we may all become more per­son­ally respon­si­ble, one day at a time. Perhaps we can start by ana­lyz­ing our sources of livelihood.


1. All right, the other prob­lem with rais­ing taxes. ^

2. The median income in 2009 was $43,300 for a sin­gle wage-​​earner house­hold. In 2000, Arizona ranked 29th in the US for median income at $47,750. This means that in the last nine years, income in Arizona dropped by $4,450 — a ten-​​percent reduc­tion in actual wages. In that same time, the infla­tion rate has weak­ened the value of the US dol­lar by about 20%, mean­ing that the effec­tive income of a wage-​​earner is now reduced to some­thing in the neigh­bor­hood of $35,000. In one decade, median income has effec­tively dropped by approx­i­mately $14,000. See the Inflation Calculator for more infor­ma­tion. ^

3. There are some who sug­gest this is so of the US Postal Service. To them I say: Have you com­pared the cost of send­ing a let­ter via the Post Office against the same ser­vice from Federal Express? ^

4. That’s why insur­ance is such a silly waste of … oh, wait. ^

5. Ignore for the moment that pee­ing on the side of the road has always been free, and is tremen­dously classy. ^

6. Ignore, again, the fact that trav­el­ers can pack their own snacks. ^

7. Please ignore the cov­er­age maps avail­able at cel­lu­lar ser­vice providers’ web­sites, par­tic­u­larly regard­ing the large, blank areas over the long high­ways of Arizona. ^

8. According to the Arizona State Parks Foundation, the entire state park oper­a­tion uses $8.2mln per year. The median Arizona tax rate in 2008 was 8.5%. Taking from our income sta­tis­tics in foot­note 2, that means about $3700 in taxes per per­son per year go to the state. In 2009, the state pop­u­la­tion was about 6.6 mil­lion. That’s about $24.2bln in tax rev­enues. From this we see that about .033% ($1.25) of the median tax goes into state parks. ^

9. I’m not sug­gest­ing we should be mis­trust­ful of every­one; how­ever, I think it’s valid for us to require that our trust be earned, espe­cially by those who are some­how in author­ity, or who appar­ently wish to be. Contrarily, I believe that those who auto­mat­i­cally reject all author­ity are dupes, every bit as much as those who blindly accept all author­ity. ^

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