The Absolute, Completely, Truly Worst Idea Ever

Throughout history there have been some really terrible ideas. Some have been harmless and silly: our founding fathers making powdered wigs made from horse hair an essential fashion choice for leading a fledgling nation, hot tub buffets, professional bowling, and the invention and brief popularity of the Unimotorcycle come to mind. Many of these really bad ideas of ours were horrendous and evil: tarring and feathering people with a different skin tone than ours or people with whom we disagreed (“You support Russia’s annexation of Crimea? Well, break out the burn juice and the chickens, boys, let’s get to torturin’.”). And some of our other really bad ideas seemed pretty harmless when they happened, but now appear much higher in retrospect on the sadisto-meter to us. Ahh, those were the days, the early days of Dodge Ball when we filled rubber balls with concrete and all eight-year olds smoked two-packs-a-day.

Yes, my fellow humans, we have come up with some truly bad ideas, but, far and away, our worst idea to date is the for-profit prison. Even for a species that routinely burns people in the name of our gods, a species which these days considers cutting off canine genitalia an act of compassion, and one that until recently considered dwarf tossing a routine part of a night on the town, even for us for-profit prisons stand out as our worst idea yet. Yes, I am a patriotic American. I’m proud that we wrote The Bill of Rights and that we hit golf balls on the moon. I’m proud that we regularly send money, food, medicine and clothing to disaster areas across the world. But, damn, can we please stop incarcerating ourselves in the name of fear and greed?

Throughout America’s relatively short history, we’ve had a strange relationship with two concepts which never should have met and fallen in love: punishment and capitalism. We love them both. We’re head-over-heels into both of them. We don’t just like them, we “like them, like them.”

We treat capitalism like our first-born son. We remember his high school football highlights, while conveniently forgetting how many homeless men he’s strangled since the glory days. Capitalism has never been anything close to a free market, but we love it too much to admit this. Delusional love is the purest love. The world is too big, too complicated and too controlled by already-rich people for there to ever be such a thing as a free market. Even the most libertarian-leaning rightie think tanker knows this. You’ve got a better chance at cross-breeding a falcon, an elephant and a standard poodle and flying to work tomorrow on the back of your giant foodle than you do of ever seeing a true free market economy. The idea is noble — allowing people to compete on a theoretically equal playing field and letting consumers pick the best product without interference sounds good. Free market capitalism doesn’t exist in what we like to call “reality,” but neither does Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and that hasn’t stopped me from trying to levitate my cat.

We also love punishment. Half of our TV shows are about punishment. Police dramas have been a staple of American TV for generations. Try finding a Western that doesn’t include some punishment. It’s kind of sad how much we’re in love with punishment. We used to routinely have public hangings where fathers would bring their sons, and, naturally, use the opportunity as a valuable teaching moment. That’s not a whit more “civilized” than Inquisition-era heretic torturing. We don’t do it right out there in the nude open anymore, but we still do it, often. And, honestly, it’s not even really hidden all that well. Everyone knows the condemned guy is going to get shot up with some Death Juice around midnight. Our “civilized” execution is like a game of Hide-and-Go-Seek where the kid hides behind the couch (as if no one’s going to ever think to look behind the couch). We still allow the state to kill people. Those people also go by the name “us.” We allow the government to kill us. Of all people for us to let ourselves kill, why would we choose us? Hell, we even occasionally let ourselves kill us when “we’re” mentally-retarded or thirteen-years-old. And we’re basically OK with that. We don’t want mentally-challenged people or teenagers drinking Coors Light, but it’s okay to strap them onto a gurney and murder them?

We’re just as head-over-heels in love with punishment as we are with capitalism. “Hang ’em high” is a more popular slogan than, “Let’s have a reasonable discussion in the near future about how we, as a nation, might be able to actually stop the cycle of violence, seeing as more violence has never worked, is immoral and we should be concerned with curbing state power because no government should have the power to kill its own citizens,” and not merely because the first one looks much better on a bumper sticker.

senior vigilante

People have come up with so many different ways to maim and hurt each other over the years, often in the self-delusional name of justice, that I simply don’t have the column inches to report them all. The posse is a pretty American idea. Somebody attacks your village, you find some friends, preferably dress up in matching outfits, grab your favorite shotgun, and you go get those bad guys. Makes sense, right? The posse idea, even in the present age where vigilante justice is frowned upon in real life and wildly celebrated in Hollywood, even after we’ve seen the horrific tangents of vigilantism, is still something we like a lot. We haven’t really learned that lesson. Some Western posses had decent motives. Some didn’t. And, honestly, what was the Klu Klux Klan if not possified vigilante hatred? We say we don’t like hate groups in our civilized present, but we do. Vigilantism is better Internet click-bait than even celebrity gossip. We still love John Wayne movies. Nowadays, since we’re a less overtly racist nation (at least until recently), we celebrate the non-white vigilantism of the past, the Nat Turners and the Red Clouds. Maybe we should. Those guys had some long odds. They still murdered people, but since we love punishment and capitalism in all its forms, it would be wrong to not let non-white gangs of rampaging murderers have their day in the sun. They did have a halfway decent reason for their rampaging murders. We love punishment so much that we remade the 80’s cinematic homage to then-Cold War American vigilantism, “Red Dawn,” even though it was very, very bad the first time. There’s very little that we love more than seeing the bad guy get it in the end.

While the marriage of these two beloved ideas, capitalism and punishment, may well have been inevitable, their combination has led us to what is, absolutely, truly, The Worst Idea in Human History, the for-profit jail. I’ll admit that there’s a lot of competition for the worst idea ever. I’ll concede that child trafficking and genocide are obviously in the running for the worst idea ever, but, if you think about those two ideas from a slightly different angle, they’re not really all that different of an idea from for-profit prisons. All three are, at their heart, about capitalism and punishment, about class and money, about schadenfreude and making ourselves feel just a little better about our lot in life in the worst way possible, by comparing ourselves to generally bad people and then thinking that we, no matter what these people may have done, have the right to kill them. The Catholic Church may not be the most adamantly ethical and solidly forthright institution in our planet’s history, but you have to give them credit for having a consistent voice about it being God’s call on deciding who lives and who dies. And when the Catholic Church is making you (us, America) look hypocritical, you know you’re screwed.

Although it doesn’t need spelling out, I’ll do it anyway. We already incarcerate a larger percentage of our own people than Somalia and Turkmenistan (We’re number one!), and that’s sad. We are in the midst of a trend of rapidly privatizing and monetizing areas of our lives that haven’t traditionally been thought of as potentially marketable. Not all these ideas are bad ideas. I’m not saying that the government is the cure for all of our ills, but the corporate structure is no panacea either. The for-profit schools that the ALECs of the country want, since they come from a place of greed and control, are undeniably awful ideas, but then again, our public schools ARE pretty bad. I don’t know much about this, but thinking that adding a profit angle to the mix of an idea that’s already failing miserably is like taking your baby into the hospital because of colic and pediatrician prescribing Hot Dog-flavored baby food. Clearly, that’s not going to help anyone but the hog anus industry. Schools and jails are the last things that need profit motives.

But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve taken oh so many things out of the public realm and made them into “products.” It’s starting to get pretty silly. People owning the rights to future vegetable seeds that don’t yet exist? Bottled water? Are you kidding me? Water has ALWAYS been thought of as something for everybody to share. It’s kind of an important thing if you want to continue to live. Now we’re willing to pay two bucks for sixteen ounces of Atlanta tap water? Yes, the very idea of bottled water is tin-foil-tube-socks, howl-at-the-moon, call-the-IRS-to-ask-for-help-with-your-next-Ponzi-scheme crazy, but even that idea’s not as stupid as our absolute worst, truly most horrible, terrible to the point of pure evil idea ever, for-profit prisons.

prisons for profits

Let’s think. What is it that prisons are going to need in order to be “successful” businesses? Oh yeah, it’s prisoners. What’s the biggest not-completely-tapped-out labor pool of American workers, people to whom corporations are legally allowed to pay wages that would’ve made a Dickensian chimney sweep laugh? Prison laborers. Seriously, ask the next telemarketer who interrupts your dinner where his office is located. It’s either somewhere on the Florida panhandle or behind bars (and those two are essentially the same idea). And what’s going to happen when companies realize that they need more workers at $1.50 a day? Yep, you guessed it. They’re going to find ways to put even more people in jail. Corporate America is a bit more politically connected than the felon lobby. (It’s just the one guy, Fred Littlejohn, and his fund raisers in support of better prison shanks and his personalized license plate political bribes aren’t working as well as he hoped.) The laws will change to accommodate the money men. The owners of the worst idea ever will make sure they change. It’s really that simple.

This is the scariest idea we have around now, and that’s saying something in a world of drone warfare and reality TV. We don’t need our jails to make money. We can still love capitalism AND punishment without letting the two ever meet face-to-face. They can be pen pals. They can be the mismatched Hollywood love interests as long as they get a Shakespearean tragic ending and not a happily-ever-after Hollywood one. If we let this trend continue unchecked, we’d all better brush up on our license plate making and telemarketing skills.