Prisons Bring the Green, In More Ways Than One

Once upon a time, I believed that using inmates from Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility to build an ice palace for the town of Saranac Lake, NY, represented the most egregious example of the modern carceral state carrying on the work of American slavery.

After reading a letter I recently found at The CCA 360, the propaganda blog of the Corrections Corporation of America, I have to say I was wrong.

Here’s the back story: A few years ago, CNBC ran a critique of America’s prison industry, which paid special attention to for-profit companies like CCA. In response, Mayor Pro Tem Bill Smith and City Manager Tom Weil, of California City, CA, sent a letter to CNBC defending the city’s contract with CCA to operate its hometown prison, which specializes in illegal immigrants. The letter presented the “positive benefits” that the city has received. (Are there such things as “negative benefits”?) The usual economic benefits are touted, but there are others that disclose why our current prison system–especially when conducted for profit–is pretty much a slaver’s game.

For example, according to the letter, when CCA first won the contract to run the prison in 1999, one benefit was that it “limited several social issues from occurring with California City. Families of the prisoners did not move close to those incarcerated due to their illegal community status.”

The destruction of families is one of the more insidious effects of incarceration, an issue which I’ve seen first hand, and one explored by, among others, Professor Teresa A. Miller, of the University of Buffalo. (See her remarkable Vimeo video, “Gant Family Visit Scene.” Unfortunately, the couple profiled in this video has since divorced.) And The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about slavery’s destruction of the family in his March 26 article, “The Meaning of ‘Totalitarian’.”

But let it not be said that the officials of California City are unsympathetic to family integrity. Later in the letter, Smith and Weil write that, when the initial contract with CCA ended, and the prisoners were dispersed to other facilities,

CCA families were now being torn apart due to reassignments and the home market demise.

In another example from the letter that will ring a bell with anyone familiar with the history of Emancipation:

Finally, our citizenry knew when the prisoners completed their sentence that there was no fear of them released within the community. Instead, their status assured them a bus trip out of the country.

When the masters can no longer benefit from your servitude, it’s time to go! Liberia was the preferred location in the 19th Century, although Lincoln was also open to recolonizing freed slaves in Central and South America, which at least is close enough to Mexico for our current crop of undesirables to feel at home.

Here are the final two reasons that, according to the letter, the end of the CCA contract threatened disaster to California City, and called for immediate action. First:

The City searching for relief from this downward spiral elected to partner with CCA in order to save a once vibrant prison from becoming a vacant shell.

Think about that phrase for a second: “a once vibrant prison.” The Free Dictionary defines “vibrant” as “Pulsing or throbbing with energy or activity…Vigorous, lively and vital.” For anyone who has actually seen the inside of one of these places, a more ignorant and perverted collection of words is almost impossible to imagine.

But here’s where Bill Smith and Tom Weil truly entered new territory, and made me rethink my former opinion on the connection between incarceration and slavery. According to their letter, CCA had to be invited to stay because:

Effluent from the prison that once provided recycled water for the City’s golf course was starting to dry up.

“Effluent” can be read as “sewage.”

If the mayor and the city manager of California City are championing the use of inmates’ bodies so that they–and the employees of CCA–can increase their leisure time, they’re a lot closer to slave owners than I originally thought.

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Zoinks!

Andrew Brenner, of the Ohio House of Representatives, and vice-chair of the Ohio House Education Committee, has had an epiphany of sorts. It appears that he was digging around in Wikipedia and found out that American public education is, well, public.

For most people, that would probably not come as much of a surprise. But Rep. Brenner’s response is:

Before you even get to the text of his post, which is titled, “Public education in America is socialism, what is the solution?,” you have to scroll by an ominous jpeg of the Hammer & Sickle that’s so large it takes up around 25% of the screen real estate. Actually, he could have started off with this image, instead…

Betsy Ross Flag, in use 1777-1795

…since it was in 1789 that conservative favorite Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to his legal mentor, George Whyte:

Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

Jefferson left a class of people out, but Brenner has it covered:

So how do we improve our education system so students learn the basics, and learn how to think? The only long-run solution is to move to a more privatized system.

Just kidding. Saw that one coming a mile away.

We must move to a system…where the parents and students have the ultimate say, not state and federal legislators, not unions, not government bureaucrats. In a free market system parents and students are free to go where the product and results are better.

Until all the private schools take up residence in the affluent suburbs, that is, since that’s where they will go when they realize that poor, inner city kids are bringing their scores down and hurting business. And, presumably, since parents and students are free to choose schools, the schools will also be free to say “no.”

The free-market system works for cars, furniture, housing, restaurants, and to a lesser degree higher education, so why can’t it work for our primary education system?

Sort of like this?:

Brenner ends his post with:

Privatize everything and the results will speak for themselves.

If American history is any guide, they certainly will.

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Posted in For Profit Schools, History, Opinion, Politics | 7 Comments

Majestic Equality

“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” -Anatole France

President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative has drawn the usual cries of “tyranny” from the “hands off” faction, e.g., Jennifer Rubin and Roger Klegg. Rubin worries about all the excluded White kids, while Klegg argues that there is “no ‘compelling’ interest” for the program to exist. (Although there is evidence that suggests otherwise.)

All other things being equal, the argument for racial blindness by the government is hard to condemn. But where was this argument three centuries ago, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were encoding slavery into the Constitution? Or during the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law? Or Dred Scott? Or Presidential Reconstruction? Or redlining?

Or, for that matter, Plessy v. Ferguson, when Judge Henry Billings Brown wrote, in the Decision that entrenched “separate but equal,”

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

We’ve had three centuries of Federal involvement in racial matters. Most of it went to create and reinforce the status quo. The rest is currently under attack, from the Voting Rights Act, to Civil Rights legislation. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 13th Amendment appearing in the cross hairs next.

Roger Klegg and Jennifer Rubin are clearly enjoying their role as barn-door closers. Meanwhile, they and their peers are firmly astride the escaped horse.

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Andrew Cuomo is Right about College in Prison

Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

Finally.

According to CBS, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants New York to start providing college classes to inmates in 10 state prisons. All issues of civility and compassion aside, the evidence in favor of such a move is overwhelming. Here is a fragment of a paper I’ve been working on which presents evidence in support of Cuomo’s proposal. (It’s in MLA format, so there are no hyperlinks. Sorry!)

“Community College Classes for New York Prison Inmates: Why They Make Sense for Everyone”

First of all, offering classes to eligible inmates makes good financial sense. A three credit class at my community college costs $420 for New York residents, and the total yearly cost is estimated to be $8,750, a price which includes such variables as “Personal,” “Board,” and “Transportation” (“College Costs”). Meanwhile, according to a 2009 article in The New York Times, “The annual cost to keep someone in prison varies by state, and the type of institution, but the typical cost cited by states is about $35,000, said Peggy Burke of the Center for Effective Public Policy, a nonprofit group that works with local governments on criminal justice matters” (Steinhauer 1). Also, the 2007-2008 Base Level State Tax Request for all SUNY community colleges was just over $425 million (“Budget Request” 53), whereas the Executive Budget for criminal justice and related programs for that same time period was nearly $4 billion (“Keeping New York Safe”).

The Attica program is fully in line with the state’s effort to save money in this area. As stated on New York’s Division of the Budget web site,

New York’s prison population is falling and recidivism rates have improved. The key challenge for our State is to preserve these trends, and to do so in a fiscally responsible manner. We must look carefully at our current use of resources, and whether we can invest them in a more efficient and targeted manner to improve on these results. (“Keeping New York Safe”)

According to the same site, over 28,000 inmates were scheduled to be released back into the general population during the following year. If the goal is to keep these people out of prison, and help them become contributing members of society, then the Attica program is exactly the efficient and targeted use of resources that the state is looking for. The cost benefit to all New Yorkers seems clear.

But does prison education really affect recidivism? The available research shows that it does. An article by James S. Vacca in The Journal of Correctional Education, titled “Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison,” provides numerous examples of the success of prisoner education. A study done in Oklahoma, for example, showed that “25% of the inmates who received vocational training in prison returned to prison following their release. This was compared to a 77% recidivism rate for the general population.” In Ohio, the rate was 18% for those who were in college programs, compared with 40% for those who were not. And in Canada, “inmates who completed at least two college courses had 50 percent lower recidivism rate than the norm.”

Another article, by Dr. John Garmon, president of Vista Community College in Berkeley, CA, reports on a study by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which found that “inmates who take college classes while in prison are four times more likely to stay out of trouble when they are released,” and that “7.7 percent of those who took college courses returned to prison, compared to 29.9 percent of those who did not.”

While it’s no surprise that people with a degree are better able to find work, and thus have a better chance of staying out of prison, the low recidivism rates might also reflect a high level of motivation among inmates who seek out education. A New York Department of Correctional Services report, entitled “Follow-Up Study of Offenders Who Earned High School Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs) While Incarcerated in DOCS,” shows some interesting statistics in this regard. Of those who entered and left incarceration with no high school degree, 38% returned within three years; of those who already had such a degree when they were incarcerated, 36.5% returned;  and among those who earned a GED while incarcerated, the rate falls to 31.2% (Kim 3). The conclusion of the report states:

The finding of this study is consistent with previous research on correctional education. Among inmates first released from NYS DOCS in 2005 due to parole releases, conditional releases, or maximum expirations of sentence, those who earned a GED while incarcerated returned to custody at a significantly lower rate than offenders who did not earn a GED or those who earned a degree before admission. This finding was consistent across gender and age. (Kim 2)

Another study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and reported in the Journal of Correctional Education, found that “prisoners with a GED scored higher in reading skills than persons in the general population with the equivalent education” (Harlow 1). According to the article, when asked to explain the findings,

78% of faculty responses related to student motivation and commitment…The student responses closely tracked those from the faculty survey with 53% of students reporting. They indicated that differences in performance were due to high levels of motivation and commitment and fewer distractions (33%)… Finally, when asked why they enrolled in college courses, inmates noted career goals (92%), self satisfaction (84%), intellectual stimulation (74%), and post release employment (65%) as the top four reasons for participation, reasons which suggest that the prison students were highly motivated. (Harlow 3)

While teachers are always on the lookout for evidence of motivation among students, and thus may be more likely to fondly remember those who show interest, the inmate responses prove that, in this case, the teachers’ optimism is justified.

These studies also suggest something else. Far from merely offering a diversion from everyday prison life, college courses help correct a glaring deficit in the lives of many of the inmates, a deficit that has led directly to their incarceration—namely, a failed education. A 2010 DOCS study found that 95.7% of inmates aged 16-18 years needed educational programs. Of these, 68.5% were Black, and 77.2% were Hispanic (Kellam 5). Among women of this age group, the number rose to 100% (Kellam 10).

Works Cited

“Budget Request 2007-2008.” The State University of New York, 2007. PDF file. 29 Nov. 2010.

“College Costs.” Genesee Community College. Genesee Community College, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Garmon, John. “Higher education for prisoners will lower rates for taxpayers.” BNET. CBS Interactive, 17 Jan. 2002. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Harlow, Caroline Wolf, et al. “GED holders in prison read better than those in the household population: Why?” BNET. CBS Interactive, March 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2010.

“Keeping New York Safe.” Division of the Budget. New York State, 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Kellam, Leslie. “Targeted Programs: An Analysis of the Impact of Prison Program Participation on Community Success.” State of New York Department of Correctional Services, Sept. 2007. PDF file. 29 Nov. 2010.

Kim, Ryang Hui. “Follow-Up Study of Offenders who Earned High School Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs) While Incarcerated in DOCS.” State of New York Department of Correctional Services, Sept. 2010. PDF file. 29 Nov. 2010.

Steinhauer, Jennifer. “To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies.” The New York Times. 24 March 2009. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

Vacca, James S. “Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison.” BNET. CBS Interactive, Dec. 2004. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.

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S.E. Cupp receives a “B,” but let’s not forget the curve

A number of people are criticizing S.E. Cupp’s Daily News article, “Pot could put progressives in a tough spot”. And, indeed, it’s pretty bad.

Here’s my attempt at subjecting parts of the article to the kind of criticism I give to student papers:

The same argument used against guns is used for pot: that legalizing pot and making it more available will reduce crime (Source?) No good liberal would say the same of guns, though there is substantial evidence to prove more guns equal less crime. (Such as?)

We’re told (Indefinite pronoun. Define “we.” And “told” by whom?) pot users will “responsibly” use marijuana in the privacy of their own homes. (This appears to be a direct quote. What’s your source?) But what barometer are they (Indefinite pronoun. Antecedent has not been identified.) using to determine that persistent recreational drug users, who have presumably broken the law before by possessing marijuana, are responsible people? (Non sequitur.) And why aren’t lawful gun owners afforded the same level of trust?

If progressives want to keep gun control “gun use” in the crosshairs – and many have said they do (Such as?) – they’ll have to reconcile this intellectual incongruity. (False equivalence.)

—snip—

A successfully-delivered state-run program would send a clear signal that government functions (“can function”) more effectively at the smaller, local level and that federal bureaucracy, whether in drug enforcement or, say, health care, can only (“sometimes”) muck things up. (Logical fallacy. See #1 below…)

*****

1. A single case proves little or nothing, as explained by this example found at the web page, Some Definitions of Science, posted by Dr. Bruce Railsback, from the University of Georgia:

A carpenter, a school teacher, and scientist were traveling by train through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train.

“Aha,” said the carpenter with a smile, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.”

“Hmm,” said the school teacher, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.”

“No,” said the scientist glumly, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black.”

All we know is that there is at least one instance in the U.S. where state drug law has gone against the Federal government. Extrapolating this to all State vs. Federal government issues can lead to controversy. C.f. the history of the Thirteenth Amendment for more information.

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Posted in Criticism, History, Politics, Rhetoric | 18 Comments

Georgia Tech Figures Out This MOOC Thing

One of the arguments made in favor of MOOCs and other forms of online education is that they will “democratize” higher education, offering knowledge to the poor, benighted denizens of the antipodes. (Of course, “knowledge” is to be translated as “America,” but that’s a different story.)

Udacity’s Sebastian Thrum, for example, has said, “So many people can be helped right now. I see this as a mission.” And University of the People calls itself the “world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, degree-granting online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally for all qualified individuals, despite financial, geographic or societal constraints.”

That’s a lot of adjectives. The implication, of course, is that digital ed. will save higher education from becoming a two-tier system: one level, featuring live instructors and brick-and-mortar institutions for the privileged few, and MOOCs, for the rest of the mooks.

I always knew this was backwards, that MOOCs would only appeal to–and work for–the upper echelon of students, high performers with access to the technology and the experience needed to succeed in that environment. In fact, that’s pretty much what the recent Udacity kerfuffle at San Jose State University suggested.

And now, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education shows the next logical step. Georgia Tech, which offers an online master’s program through Udacity, has figured out a way to avoid San Jose State’s fate:

Georgia Tech’s cautious approach starts with enrolling students who are likely to succeed. One of the variables that sank San Jose State’s initial experiment with Udacity last spring was including at-risk students in the experimental trials. Courses offered to a broader mix of students during the summer, however, had better outcomes—possibly because more than half of them already held college degrees.

Georgia Tech’s experiment plays it relatively safe. Because it involves a master’s program, the students will have already earned undergraduate degrees, and many of them already have jobs in the industry. And the students who were admitted have an average undergraduate GPA of 3.58.

It’s not surprising to see the “democratization” mask fall off completely. But here’s a new wrinkle I hadn’t thought of:

The inaugural class is also neither massive nor open. The program has admitted 401 students—360 men, 41 women—out of 2,300 candidates.

The two-tier system is proceeding apace, but now it’s the happy few who will benefit from the well-funded MOOC tsunami, while everyone else—even women, apparently—will have to scramble for seats and pay the costs of traditional institutions.

This must be what they mean by “the flipped classroom.”

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Posted in Digital Learning, Opinion | Tagged | 19 Comments

Another Analogy Fail

Wikipedia

Analogies might well be the worst form of persuasive discourse. Just a tiny bit of stretching will cause them to break.

The latest example comes from Matt Patterson, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in a gloriously anachronistic response to the UAW’s attempts to unionize a VW factory in Chatanooga.

According to The Nation‘s Lee Fang,

Though much of Patterson’s tactics have been concealed until now, he did author an op-ed in May that called on Southerners to regard the union-drive as a chance to reenact the “bloodiest days of the entire Civil War.” Patterson wrote:

One hundred and fifty years ago an invading Union army was halted at Chattanooga by the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg. The Battle of Chickamauga was one of the bloodiest days of the entire Civil War, and a resounding defeat for the Northern forces. Today Southeastern Tennessee faces invasion from another union— an actual labor union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW has its heart set on organizing Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant, which employs several thousand and supports thousands more throughout the Southeast. […]

No wonder Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd warns that unionization “will be like a cancer on [Chattanooga’s] economic growth.” Indeed it would be, though perhaps an infection is a more apt metaphor, an infection borne by an invading union force from the North. One hundred and fifty years ago, the people of Tennessee routed such a force in the Battle of Chickamauga.

Let their descendants go now and do likewise.

The battle Patterson romanticizes in his column resulted in over 34,000 casualties. One of the leading officers in the battle, Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest—a wealthy slave-trader—went on after the war to found the Ku Klux Klan, a group that helped powerful elites suppress black-white labor unity through a campaign of terrorism and murder.

But that’s only part of the history. The web site, Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail, calls Bragg one of the worst generals of the Civil War. And Debra Lynn Walker, from the Cape Fear Civil War Round Table, writes that Bragg’s mother, Margaret Crosland Bragg, was “arrested for murdering a free Negro that had been disrespectful.”

Finally, even though the Union army was, indeed, routed at Chickamauga, the Army of the Cumberland, under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, handily kicked Bragg’s ass back to Georgia a couple of months later. In the words of the Civil War Trust,

Union possession of Chattanooga opened up the Deep South for a Union invasion. The stage was set for Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign the following spring.

So, if the descendants of the original Confederate soldiers want to “go now and do likewise,” they are welcome to go for it. And if this is Matt Patterson’s best analogy for the battle taking place in the VW plant, it doesn’t look so good for the outcome–or the morality–of his cause.

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Posted in History, Opinion, Politics | 103 Comments

White Is the New Black

Everyone seems to be mad at Julianne Hough for donning blackface while sporting a bogus prison uniform. Big deal. That’s exactly what Orange Is the New Black has been doing for months.

According to The Sentencing Project,

More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day.

And 12 out of the 15 students in my Attica class are urban minorities. In fact, if I were ever to see someone who looks like Taylor Schilling anywhere near the place, it would mean she works there.

This is not the real face of prison in America...
...but is this the real face of "Orange Is the New Black"?
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The Gov. William J. LePetomane Thruway

In a new issue of Time, Tyler Cowen has an article entitled, “Why Texas Is Our Future.”

“So,” Cowen asks, “why are more Americans moving to Texas than to any other state?” Here’s his answer:

As an economist and a libertarian, I have become convinced that whether they know it or not, these migrants are being pushed (and pulled) by the major economic forces that are reshaping the American economy as a whole: the hollowing out of the middle class, the increased costs of living in the U.S.’s established population centers and the resulting search by many Americans for a radically cheaper way to live and do business.

And, in a rather self-congratulatory article about the article, Ryan Sager of Time has another article called, “Tyler Cowen’s 10 Reasons Texas Is Our Future.” Here’s reason #5:

Cheap land, cheap houses

So where can people go when their incomes aren’t keeping pace with the rising cost of living? We know they’re headed to Texas. And they’re headed there because land is cheap, and thus housing is cheap.

A typical home in Brooklyn costs more than half a million dollars (and rising rapidly), and 85% of these dwellings are apartments and condos rather than stand-alone homes. They don’t usually have impressive sinks and seamlessly operating air-conditioning fixtures. In Houston, the typical home costs $130,100 — and it is likely a stand-alone and newer than the structure in Brooklyn.

Housing is bigger—and cheaper—in Texas.

The unquestioned premise of Cowen’s article, and of Sager’s adoration, is that Americans have the freedom to move about, to advance toward, and retreat from, undesirable economic conditions. Undoubtedly, some do.

But most do not, because they can not. When their incomes aren’t “keeping pace with the rising cost of living,” they’re stuck, especially when they’re living in “established population centers” like Brooklyn.

Here’s a more appropriate title for Cowen’s article:

Why Texas is the Future for Middle Class White Families who are Escaping Northeastern Ghettos to Avoid Taxes.

Somebody’s gotta go back to the city and get a shitload of dimes.

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Candy-Ass Analogies

Since it’s October, it must be time for one of the libertarians’ favorite analogies: Halloween and paying taxes.

I first heard it from an economics professor, during an educational design seminar. The analogy goes something like this:

A brother and sister go trick-or-treating, each accumulating the same amount of candy. Then, they go home, sit down in the middle of the living room floor, and commence peaceful commerce. If the brother doesn’t want his Kit Kat, and the sister doesn’t want her Twix, they trade. If the brother decides to hold out for two Twix, and the sister agrees, it’s ok: no harm, no foul. Suddenly, though, a scary man bursts in and holds a gun to both their heads, forcing them to trade the way he wants them to, or to give all their Butterfingers to the lazy children next door.

So far, so good. But let’s dig into the scenario a bit further…

  • The brother and sister both started out with the same number of candy bars: zero.
  • They didn’t invent Halloween.
  • They didn’t buy their own costumes and plastic jack-o’-lanterns.
  • They didn’t make the candy. It was manufactured elsewhere and given to them by generous neighbors.
  • The room in which they are trading their candy was built by other people, and mortgaged by their parents.
  • When they showed up at a stranger’s house, that person did not lock the door or shoot at them just because they looked scary.
  • They most likely went trick-or-treating in a safe neighborhood, with sidewalks and streetlights, watched over by the local police department.
  • One of the siblings–perhaps the brother–will eventually begin to stack the game in his favor, by using physical intimidation over his smaller sister, or by manipulation and lying, or outright theft.
  • Finally, half a mile up the street live children who, through no fault of their own, are only able to score about one or two Twizzlers. The most candy-laden sibling then sets up a profitable business, using the other children’s lack of candy to benefit his own pile.
  • He will then justify this by accusing the other children of being lazy assholes.

After all, if you’re going to use an analogy, at least have the guts to go the whole way.

And, for further analogy goodness, Dr. Ben Carson was recently quoted as saying, “You know Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” This may sound a bit hysterical, but, other than the fact that American slavery was a profit-driven free market enterprise, pursued by proto-Randian states rights zealots, and that it was the POTUS who finally got rid of it, it makes perfect sense.

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