The word investment came up for me twice this last week, once in reference to Pre-K education in the State of the Union Speech and then again in a paper regarding decarceration from an “investment” point of view. Probably the most common definition of “investment” would be what came up first in my dictionary:
The investing of money or capital in order to gain profitable returns, as interest, income, or appreciation in value.
While people frequently use the term in investment for non-monetary things, just as people refer to “human capital” it always carries a connotation of earning money. As Matt Yglesias suggested on twitter referring to Pre-K education as an “investment” can give the implication that it should not be publically funded. Sara Mead points out, the numbers that advocates put out can be problematic, and some of the real savings come much farther down the road, 10-20 years later and are diffuse in nature, making them difficult to appreciate.
In the “Investment Talk: Comments on the Use of the Language of Investment in Prison Reform Advocacy” Christopher Berk comments on the latest twist on prison reform “ . . . cost-reducing, return-producing, ‘reinvestment’ strategies.” Essentially a lot of people have woken up to the idea that the billions of dollars spent in the country is neither making us safer nor helping anybody at all. Berk describes some of the policies that have emerged from this rhetorical shift, some are good, but he suggests utilizing this narrative is problematic. Specifically he highlights two issues, “ (1) the treatment of justice as a distributive good and (2) the assumption that investment talk implies, as some have suggested, limited punishment.”
As Berk explains if mass incarceration is a distributive problem it suggests it is a thing to be divided and divvied out accordingly, and fails to consider the many social, culture, issues involved and processes driving it. It also assumes who is in charge of this process—the people who have been in charge of it all along. This would be the government and approved associates, not the communities concerned. The implication that punishment will be limited in this narrative is questionable too, as Berk points out just because people are not in prison does not been they are not punished. As he points out “. . . punishment does not need walls and cages to function”. He cites Marie Gottschlak who points out that decarceration on a significant scale will require more not less money, to provide real support and transition services.
Although completely different topics I think the there is a theme here, twhen one is discussing policies that are about people, especially some of the most vulnerable, we need to be careful. If we want to live in a society that truly values people over profits we need to walk that walk all the time. We cannot and should not be pulled into the question is it a “deal”. This is not to say cost is no object, just that it should not be the primary, driving one. If providing opportunities for young children is seen as strictly about numbers then we may find there is no money for these services if the “numbers” are not there. Likewise if we want to truly improve the lives of people in the criminal justice system we not allow the debate to be taken over by a vision that sees the system strictly in terms of courts and jails and bodies here and there. We need to push for transformative justice that can help the people in the system and the communities that are affected by the aftermath. If we value all people and want to put them on the past possible path that we can, yes, we will “save money” but it really isn’t about the money. It is about our humanity.