Those That Leave Arizona

“Arizona Department of Corrections Director David Shinn said Arizona communities would “collapse” without cheap prison labor, during testimony before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee Thursday.”

-Jimmy Jenkins, “Arizona communities would ‘collapse’ without cheap prison labor, Corrections director says.” azcentral.com. July 14, 2022

Reminds me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Let’s assume that what David Shinn is saying is true, and not saying it for some other reason, say, to keep his Department’s funding at a certain level.

What is the moral responsibility of people living in Arizona communities that rely on prison labor? How does this responsibility intersect with other societal problems, such as racism? How does this feed into other problems? For example the existence of unsustainable communities might act as a further draw on other limited resources, such as water, that make other communities unsustainable in a vicious cycle.

How is this different from slave labor? How is it different from other exploitive labor, whether that is rice imported from Indian farmers exploiting village, cotton farmed in concentration camps in China, electronic devices that can only be economically produced using similar systems of exploitation?

Let’s assume you feel the need to do something about these problems. Is it enough to be an incrementalist, to be slightly less exploitative than you were yesterday? Or, is there some kind of deontological threshold of purity, where – given the environment – lives based on a lower level of exploitation is enough?

The correct answer is probably that we need to radically we think our lives and adopt a much lower standard of living that eliminates this kind of exploitation. Easy to say, but it is both difficult to know how to do that and probably even more difficult to want to do it.

Policy of Poverty

“The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it. Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages. On the right, the barest glimmer of worker power is treated as a policy emergency, and the whip of poverty, not the lure of higher wages, is the appropriate response…

…I suspect the real political problem for a guaranteed income isn’t the costs, but the benefits. A policy like this would give workers the power to make real choices. They could say no to a job they didn’t want, or quit one that exploited them. They could, and would, demand better wages, or take time off to attend school or simply to rest…But those in the economy with the power to do the dictating profit from the desperation of low-wage workers. One man’s misery is another man’s quick and affordable at-home lunch delivery.” 

-Ezra Klein, “What the Rich Don’t Want to Admit About the Poor.” The New York Times. June 13, 2021.