The Prison-Industrial Complex

There is growing talk about the need for a jobs program involving significant government spending to hire people to produce the goods and services communities need.  Many who opposed such a program argue against it by claiming that the government doesn’t have the money and more public debt would be harmful.

This raises the question of our current public priorities—in other words, where is our money now going?

To shed some light on this important question I draw on the article “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis,” by Hanna Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster, and R. Jamil Jonna. The charts below come from this article.

The authors argue that corporate interests make it difficult if not impossible for government spending to dramatically grow as a share of GDP, unless that spending is for the military.  In fact, they find that non-defense government spending has generally remained at approximately 14% of GDP for the past forty years.

Chart 1. Non-defense government (federal, state, and local) consumption and gross investment as percentage of GDP, 1929-2008 090601-hmfj-chart-11.jpg

They also argue that an ever larger share of that non-defense spending is going to activities that serve interests very similar to that of the military: “public order and safety” or more specifically, the police, courts, prisons, and jails.

Public order and safety has nearly doubled as a percentage of civilian government spending over the past fifty years and now stands at 15 percent of the latter. “Because total civilian government spending stayed pretty constant as a portion of GDP, this sharp increase in penal state spending has had the effect of crowding out other forms of civilian government spending.”

Chart 2. Public safety as a percentage of civilian government spending090601-hmfj-chart-2.jpg

Oh yes, at the same time as spending on the prison industrial complex has soared, “the crime rate per 100,000 population — calculated in the official series based on property and violent crimes, taken as indices of crime in general — peaked some two decades ago.”

Chart 3.  Crime rate per 100,000 population since 1960

In short, our public spending is increasingly been driven by a military-industrial complex and a prison-industrial complex, with one tending to reinforce the other.  No wonder we have no money for basic and critical social needs.   Other interests are being served.


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