Tuesday, March 8, 2011

US New Industrial Policy

From a Wired magazine article we get a glimpse of the brave new world of US government "industrial" policy:
This spring, the United Arab Emirates is expected to close a deal for $7 billion dollars’ worth of American arms. Nearly half of the cash will be spent on Patriot missiles, which cost as much as $5.9 million apiece.

But what makes those eye-popping sums even more shocking is that some of the workers manufacturing parts for those Patriot missiles are prisoners, earning as little as 23 cents an hour. (Credit Justin Rohrlich with the catch.)

The work is done by Unicor, previously known as Federal Prison Industries. It’s a government-owned corporation, established during the Depression, that employs about 20,000 inmates in 70 prisons to make everything from clothing to office furniture to solar panels to military electronics.
It is funny that the US claims to have no "industrial policy" but with the world's highest incarceration rate, and using those prisoners at a wage that makes China's sweat shops look generous, it sure seems to me that the US has an "industrial policy". It is a policy of squeezing profit out of the underclass through the prison system.


thomas said...


The claim is supposed to be for training for reintegration into society or workforce out side of prison... I question if former prisoners can get this kind of employment if someone without a job can be employed or someone with out a good credit rating. Then how much demand for this skill if prisoners are doing these jobs? Where would these guys be employed? I am getting a little light headed over this one.. But, I read about more states using prison labor because of budget problems. I think we must be swirling real close to the inner part of the bowl at this point.. Just before we go in the drain..

I kind of see the need for these guys to have something to do, but not taking jobs from honest people who are not in prison.. there should not be any of this prison labor until there is an unemployment rate that is very close to zero.

RYviewpoint said...


I have no great insight into this problem. My outrage was simply over the incredibly poor wage these poor people are paid. On the other hand, I guess it beats breaking rocks down to dust in the hot sun for now pay.

What bothered me was the idea that the US might have the highest incarceration rate in the world in order to build a mini-military industrial complex on the back of prison labour. But I realize that is probably me slipping over into hysteria with no relation to reality.

I agree with you that prisoners should be given a chance to do something productive with their lives (and get some kind of financial reward as part of pointing them toward reintegrating with society). But I don't agree that we should look at prison labour as a "competition" for free labour. I tend to look at economic life as win-win, not a zero sum game where if I get something you lose something.

I have no problem with letting prisoners participate in the economic life of a country. I think it is a mistake to see them "in competition" with free labour. But I agree with you that in some sense there is a need to ensure that prison labour doesn't undermine the jobs of the ordinary citizens working outside prison. I have no great insights. I sympathize with your viewpoint but rather than demonize the prisoners, I would rather focus on the insanity of building a military-industrial complex on the back of prison labour. There is something sinister in that.

In short, this is one of those points where I throw up my hands and admit that life is more complex than I can handle. Part of me agrees with you. Part rebels. I don't have any answers. All I know is that this "workforce" dedicated to building Patriot missles stinks to high heaven. There is something fundamentally wrong about a society relegating the building of its defenses to imprisoned labour. This reeks of the old Soviet gulag, especially the Sharashka.

thomas said...


We sound the same on this issue, but you have shown me some more history with those links, so its a good conversation.

I hate to sound like the slippery slope people but this is something that could be abused very easily and you are correct about the real issue being about using prisoners to build weapons not taking jobs. If they are worth feeding then they are worth the effort to keep them occupied and given some small dignity. I don't focus on the pay as much because I don't know what they use money for unless it could help support family and there are some in prison today for not paying child support. But, the up side for them is that they are getting room and board, but the pay should still be higher than it is, if for no other reason than to keep the ones using them honest and for competition reasons.. I think using crime for profit, especially obscene profit, to build weapons being sold to tyrannical governments is just wrong.. I argue with myself and throw my hands up.. like Tevye.

I second your statement; This is complex.

RYviewpoint said...


I see you are a fan of Fiddler on the Roof. (Or the story, but I assume you watched the film and didn't read the original story by Sholem Aleichem). I liked that film on many levels: visually stunning, great human story, interesting perspective into the Jewish shtetls of the Russian Pale, nice historical references to the revolutionary times and the social forces in late 19th century Russia, etc.

On a slightly different topic, I notice that Obama has not only failed to keep his promise and shut down Guantanamo, he has decided to re-start the military trials of detainees despite the abysmal record of the previous "trials". When I compare Guantanamo to the speedy post-WWII trials I'm appalled. It is now 9 years post-Afghanistan invasion where most of these people were picked up. That would be 1954 post-WWII and most trials were done by 1949 and except for the executed, most of the criminals were released by the mid-1950s. But at Guantanamo "justice" goes on forever. Obama promised to end this abomination by closing the facility and getting civilian trials but he hasn't... and won't.

thomas said...


It is even worse if you think about the "criminals" that are being held there and compare them to WW-2 criminals or suspects.

I was trying to figure this situation when I read about this yesterday. I can't figure how Obama made such a miscalculation in making such a promise and repeating it over and over in the campaign. Did he never have any counsel from anyone? How could all of his staff miss on something that could not be done.. Or, did he really flip-flop and therefore lie? If that is the case then he must have thought that the broken promise was worth the let down or betrayal the American people would feel would be worth an election or that most of us would forgive him or forget.. I don't get it.

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: I don't get it either. But...

I suspect that once he got plugged into the "security apparatus", i.e. all the heavy-duty Pentagon, CIA, and think tank heavies, he lost the courage of his convictions. These people can be very persuasive. I'm guessing he forgot that these same "heavies" got a lot of stuff wrong in the past: they totally misjudged the strength of the Soviet Union and its prospects of collapse, they completely misunderstood the "importance" of Vietnam, they convinced Clinton to avoid stopping the massacre in Rwanda and kept him sidelined in Bosnia and in Kossovo until after too much unnecessary killing had been done, these are the same ones who "advised" him to dance around talking about "security and stability" when real democratic uprisings occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, and now Libya.

Obama is not an ideologue. He is conservative by nature and not drive by principles but by pragmatism. So if his underlings tell him that closing Guantanamo or failing to carry out trumped up "military trials" for detainees with somehow "undermine" America, he gets cautious. He shares this trait with Clinton. In some ways it is good because it makes a leader cautious. But at the same time it is infuriating because it means the leader is calculating and not principled. It means he won't act even when the blood on the ground shouts out the infamy of the crime.

I'm on the sidelines so it is easy for me to pull my hair and go crazy about "right & wrong". I have no power. If you do have the power of life & death, it is good that you are cautious, prudent, pragmatic, principled, etc. But from the sidelines, it is enough to drive me crazy.

But nobody ever said life would be simple or straightforward. Nobody says that leaders have to wear a black or white hat. The fact is, the world is ugly with mixed motives and nothing ever is straightforward. Hopefully Obama will stumble forward doing more good than harm (I suspect he will) but I'll be a little dog nipping his heels all the way telling him what he "should" do and "should" have done. It is easy to see black & white when you have no power.

thomas said...


It is a rare person who sees the truth of the different perspectives between watching and doing. I have observed this in a lot of life's levels of activity. There is the foreman being criticized by the crew up to the CEO or owner of the company. It's easy, as you say, to see how things would be done and think that one would do it different or better. My dad and I joke that the world would be better if we were in charge, but there are people who actually believe that they could do it better or on of the other candidates could or will.. Most people can't actually carry out the policies when they face the people it will affect on a one on one level.

I tend to agree that a leader does need some principles or conviction; maybe Obama's only conviction is his belief in pragmatism. I think a leader needs to see all the angles and ideas but then he needs to have the guts to lead in the direction that he chooses or there is no direction or guidance.. I think he should stand before us and sell the direction then lead us down the path.. Like Roosevelt did because we can only travel one path at a time regardless of the color of his hat we will be on that path for two more years.

He is president because he laid out a plan and made some promises, and, like some governors in this country, he has switched things up on us and we aren't doing what we were told we would be. So, at the very least, he's got some explaining to do.

RYviewpoint said...


You have pointed out a very crucial fact:

I think a leader needs to see all the angles and ideas but then he needs to have the guts to lead in the direction that he chooses or there is no direction or guidance.

In the military, it is more important that a leader keep his troops together and moving toward "the objective" than anything else. Troops that are idle and don't know why there are there or what is expected tend to fall apart.

In the fog of war you never can be sure of the "best" objective or the "optimal" strategy. A great leader knows this and will pick a direction as best he can and get the troops moving. It is far easier to get an organized and moving troop to wheel an take on a new objective than to rouse a demoralized and disorganized group. A good leader knows this and therefore moves forward knowing that as things become clearer he can "adjust" on the fly.

To fail to pick a direction exposes the troops to demoralization. You get other voices complaining and creating confusion by calling for different objectives. No leadership leads to too many "leaders" that just confuses everybody.

My key complaint about Obama is that he fails to lead. I could forgive him for mistakes, but indecision and "directionless" leading is worse than useless. He needs to pick a direction and lead.

You then make the second very important observation:

I think he should stand before us and sell the direction then lead us down the path.

Part of leading is to motivate by passing a vision of the objective to the troops. You need to sell the mission. You need to get the troops to buy into the need for shared sacrifice. The goal has to be clear.

Obama said something either on the night of his election win or his inauguration that left me worried. He told people that he expected them to agitate from below and force him to lead. I now realize that he was signaling that he would be a kind of "passive" leader who would wait until people agitated and demonstrated enough to force his hand. But that is a kind of crazy leadership. That is a leader following the mob. At the time I puzzled, but now I understand that this really is his "vision" of leadership. It explains his strange passivity on domestic issues and foreign issues. It is bizarre.

I can understand cautious and pragmatic. But I don't understand being a "leader" who waits for the mob to define the objective. The problem with this approach is obvious in Libya. You can see a mob of people heading east to confront Gaddafi's troops, but this mob is disorganized. They don't have a leader. They have no clear objective. They end up doing stupid things like shooting in the air, wasting ammunition in acts of bravado for the cameras, wild forays needlessly exposing themselves to ambush and attack. But Obama is telling the American people that this is the kind of "leader" he wants to be. Strange.