a dispatch from the academic abyss

I can’t be the only academic who has found themselves unmoored since 2020 (feels weird to even call myself an academic, but I digress and here I am). I shifted timelines that year, landing my current academic job (which I’m grateful for), completing my dissertation, and beginning a career in the midst of the pandemic. But that experience of remote teaching, virtual conferences, social isolation,and then later leaving my support networks to live by myself in a tiny upstate liberal arts college town, took a massive toll on my sense of self, my research, and my feelings of connectedness to the world. I’ve yet to find my footing again. I’m in search of my flock.

So I’m back here to try to document what I’m doing, or trying to do, as a way to help me feel more tethered, and to track my brain on its way to healing from this grief and to finding some stable ground. More importantly, engaging in a regular writing process, with the terrifying pressure of making it semi-public facing. I’ve always struggled with keeping up with my work- deadlines, protocols, thoroughness, and completing things-  and with imposter syndrome and feeling inadequate in academic spaces-  especially as someone who came into academia from the other side of the “tofu curtain” without much resources (I’m referring to a set of spatial inequalities only those familiar with Western Massachusetts might understand). I’m always playing catch up. But, I’m here now, and the one thing I do feel confident in are the very earnest questions that I have about the world. The questions, not my ability to find the answers, but here I’ll start to try. 

So what am I doing, and what are those questions? 

After the 2008 crisis, I found myself entering graduate school to study radical economics almost as a fluke. I had failed out and gotten in too much trouble the first time around at college, and was worried about my brain rotting, so I found myself in continuing education classes that year, starting with an introductory economics course and later somehow convincing some professors to allow me to register for their University (not continuing ed) courses on Marx. It was happenstance that I happened to sign up for those classes at a heterodox economics department, or that they were even offered to begin with. At that point  I did not understand academia whatsoever, but I did know that the ideas and the professors I was being introduced to helped explain to me the suffering, struggles, and stresses that overwhelmed the world I grew up in. So I clawed my way through classes, somehow finagled them to count as an undergraduate degree, and by some other stroke of random luck, ended up in the PhD program of that same institution. Anyway, long story short, my entry point to this thing was Marx, and now I feel a certain way about getting to teach my first Marxist Political Economy course this semester. I had students begin with Part 8, and then go back with Part 1 onward. I’m sharing with them notes from both Cleaver and Heinrich so that we can compare those readings with other approaches, and so that I can confront this reading again. Due to burnout, I’m not employing my most energetic or participatory teaching methods, but I am enjoying a seminar format for discussing these ideas with students (especially those who might not otherwise get exposure). 

I spent an amount of my time in graduate school  focusing on learning empirical methods, especially econometrics. A  number of things motivated this: it’s easier in some ways to write this sort of research paper,  data are widely accessible, and it’s certainly one of the more popular research methods in the field. Reliance on econometric testing and “evidence-based” this and that also is a political minefield, used against those marginalized in society. I wanted to try to understand it, and to do my own work. For a while I even wondered if clever econometrics could help sway some arguments towards liberation. I don’t think regressions will free us, but I do think that it helped me to more critically evaluate economics and even heterodox approaches. I think other heterodox economists do a better job at clever econometrics that I ever can. That said, I’ve shifted. I’m working on exploring, while I have the resources to do so, qualitative methods, specifically using structured or semi-structured interviews to answer research questions that I just don’t think can be quantified. How else can I actually learn about the reproduction of capitalist social relations? 

Currently, I’m thinking critically about two terms that the pandemic has made us throw around a lot: “care work” and “social reproduction”. My dissertation, which was mostly some applied econometrics and a tiny dip into theory around understanding the “school-to-prison pipeline”, gave me a glimmer of the issues with these terms, and the overlap that exists between the so-called “care economy” and carceral spaces (schools, hospitals, prisons, and so on). Some of this was shared earlier this year at the URPE @ ASSA 2023 Session on Critical Perspectives on Care Work and Carceral Systems, which included Hannah Archambault (Cal State Fresno), Samantha Sterba (Univ of Redlands), Geert Dhondt (John Jay College) and Eric Seligman (John Jay College), and then again on a panel organized by Sarah Small (Univ of Utah) on Care Work at the Eastern Economics Association 2023 meeting (Hannah, Samantha and I are all working on adjacent and overlapping projects in this arena). I’m trying to understand how this term “care work” came into favor, noting the shift from domestic labor, to women’s work, to household labor, and now caring labor, and how it is at times evoked almost as a panacea. Seems like we may be haunted by the ghosts of the domestic labor debate, and those ghosts might be servants to capital. 

 I’m not sure that we can “care” our way out of capitalism, as the process of this involves its own relations of domination and, I’d argue (maybe, if I can figure out how), produces and reproduces our subjectivities. Care work is still work, and that’s the problem. Similarly the term “social reproduction” appears co-opted (almost) into the mainstream, with limited critical perspectives on what is actually being reproduced (capital and capitalist society, see Munro’s helpful 2019 article on this in Science & Society). I think we should interrogate the labor processes of care work and social reproduction, to understand how these put workers in the contradictory position of either consuming or providing “services we need, in social relations we don’t.”  (In and Against the State). 

Last note, I shared some of the news from Atalnta with my students, not long after watching a documentary on Line 3, finish Part 8 of Capital, reading an excerpt from Carceral Capitalism, and David Gordon’s article on the class aspects of so-called “crime”. Anyway https://stopreevesyoung.com https://stopcop.city https://atlsolidarity.org 

Economics is a Trap: Some Thoughts on the “Economics” of Abolition

A few months ago I was invited to a panel on discussing the prospects of “Abolitionist Economics: Moving Beyond Carceral Capitalism” at the New School for Social Research with Jackie Wang (NSSR), Alyx Goodwin (ACRE), and Jasson Perez (ACRE). I’m always chewing over my thoughts, thinking and then rethinking, but I’ve finally gotten around to posting what I said back in March. It may or may not make sense, I’ll probably keep rethinking all of it, and once my brain works again I’ll post an annotated version with some references and citations. I keep growing saltier and more critical, so I’m sure I’ll critique myself in due time.

Watch the panel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4dpvLHyMg4

“Economics is a Trap: Economics of Abolition in a Carceral Capitalist Society”

A thought that runs through my head when I think about the notion of abolitionist economics is: “Economics is a Trap”. A famous economist once said something about how the purpose of studying economics is to avoid being deceived by economists. As a discipline (keyword discipline), the primary function of economics is the bourgeois science of managing capitalism. But the tools used to do so, especially when demystified from their oppressive function, still may offer important insights into mapping the terrain for the struggle for the abolition of policing, prisons, and (state sanctioned and punitive) violence- the abolition of carceral capitalism. But I say economics is a trap, because different frameworks within economics and political economy (as well as its critique) have varying degrees of compatibility with upholding and legitimizing, or potentially rupturing the logics of carceral, racial capitalism. To sub some words from Mariame Kaba, “try everything” and “experiment”. And here we will try and experiment to start building an abolitionist political economy, and as we walk and question, and talk together to avoid those potential traps. 

I have many critiques of the mainstream economics of ‘crime’. From ethical issues of data collection, its role in surveillance, and to the technocratic economism that drives much of the research. While some of these analyses move away from moralizing ideas of criminality, the economics of crime does little to interrogate why criminality is constructed in the first place. There’s limited discussion of criminalization and its relationship to capitalism, work and expropriation, anti-Blackness, patriarchy, settler-colonialism and imperialism. There also limited analysis of the other actors in the economic model of crime: the construct of criminality is not just about the so-called criminal, it is also those who do the policing, those who choose and benefit from the policies and priorities of the carceral apparatus, and who participates in and benefits from its enactment. 

But what if abolition is a lens we can view the economy through, rather than just through functions like growth, incentives, costs, and benefits? I propose that we use abolition as a lens for building a political economy (and its critique) that centers how to actually work towards making these carceral institutions economically obsolete (to borrow words from Angela Davis). This talk of course is at an institution that shares my own approach to economics, which is heterodox political economy, where we can see through the rhetoric and demystify the mainstream, while building a political economy that recognizes carceral systems as a central feature of capitalism, rather than as part of some separate sphere of social issues. So, if we look further into broader approaches to the issue-like those found in Post Keynesian economics, Marxist and post Marxist approaches, and other alternative schools of thought, we can start to map the terrain of an “economics of abolition”, or work to center abolition as a framework (and perhaps this isn’t actually possible within the confines of “economics” or even “political economy”). 

Post Keynesian approaches help us to interrogate the disciplining role of public spending and budgets, and the “surplus population” management approach to understanding incarceration and its relationship to employment. These insights also argue that we both may begin disrupting carceral logics by boldly investing in communities, instead of in policing and prisons, as well how to see connections between sectors like finance and real estate and the carceral apparatus, through gentrification, financialized public finance, fines and fees farming, and debt. These approaches often propose specific potentially disruptive policies: reparations, housing guarantees, debt forgiveness, investment in health and care, public banking, and many others, along with participatory processes. 

But this brings up questions of the state and capitalism. And as we go in developing this abolitionist lens for understanding the economy, Marxist, post Marxist, and other approaches help us to understand how capitalism is always innately carceral by its logic, and that criminality, like our subjectivities of race, gender, class, and other axes, is produced and socially reproduced through this capitalistic organization of society and work. This includes the imposition of work, and the organization of our social relations vis-a-vis capital.  Capitalism compels work, and therefore value, by relying on coercion and domination under threat of violence, especially that which is state sanctioned. From this perspective, it turns out the invisible hand is more like a velvet gloved, iron fist.

These approaches from heterodox political economy (and its critique) can offer us analysis, strategies, ideas and salve for thinking through this project of abolitionist “economics” together, interrogating the role of the state, and for finding potential points of rupture. This can hopefully lead us towards liberation, repair (or at least regeneration), and an economy and society based on meeting people’s needs rather than imposing work, and fostering autonomy and addressing conflict, rather than coercion through punishment and exclusion. There may be some policies to advocate for in the meantime, like expanding “public” goods and services. Or perhaps strategies involving solidarity economy, mutual aid, refusal and other ways that can shine light towards that path to abolition. But as we walk and question our way forward, it won’t be the words or theories of economists that are the condition of possibility, but our collective participation in struggle and mapping of the terrain towards autonomy and liberation as we make our break from carceral racial capitalism, globally. So out of care I emphasize to be mindful of the traps set by economics, but I am hopeful for struggling while we walk and question towards that path to abolition. 

Dissertation Introduction: What Care Homes, Prisons, and Slaughterhouses Have to do with Schools

Sneak peak- here is the introduction to my dissertation: 

This dissertation was completed at an inflection point. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijiah McClain, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and too many others sparked protests, and uprisings against police brutality and state violence in the United States and around the globe, asserting: Black Lives Matter. The global coronavirus pandemic and its rising death toll brought the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression, resulting in unprecedented levels of unemployment and economic distress with the most profound effects on Black communities, as well as other communities of color. The pandemic held hostage millions of workers, especially essential workers, in a capitalist system asserting profit rates and the stock market take primacy over human lives. The virus, though indiscriminating in its nature, navigated the built economic landscape to target those made most marginalized and vulnerable by racial capitalism.In its most succinct form, this pandemic became a story about care homes, slaughterhouses, and prisons. The three hotspots for infection and COVID deaths happen to also be three illustrative spaces of a neoliberal form of racial capitalism and settler colonialism built on patriarchy. The country with the highest prison population in the world, highest incarceration rate, and most bloated policing budgets of OECD countries turned even more repressive during the pandemic, subjecting thousands of prisoners to exposure to the deadly virus and enforcing illegal solitary confinement, while those outside the prison walls remained subject to ongoing aggressive and brutal policing. Care homes for the elderly, disabled, and veterans too became spaces of confinement and deadly exposure, with workers in these facilities often devalued and underpaid for the work of care. Slaughterhouses, a vignette of an extractive and environmentally destructive capitalist enterprises already with dangerous working conditions, became petri dishes for the coronavirus, risking their precarious work- forces to life-threatening infection. With school canceled, at least the education system, already under the pressures on ongoing austerity, was spared as viral loci. But the switch to online learning and work left households facing a difficult balance of caregiving, teaching, and left many without adequate resources.

By the close of May 2020, school was either held remotely online or already out for the summer, and the uprisings against police brutality- found in nearly every city and even small towns across the country, and often organized by Black youth especially young Black women- amplified the voices of young students leading marches and organizing their communities. These students are asserting that their schools- already more focused on policing, security equipment, and getting kids in trouble than learning – were not safe for them to begin with even before the pandemic.
A young student from Commerce High School in Springfield Massachusetts asked in reference to a recent case of police brutality in Springfield Public Schools in which a school resource officer assaulted a student in response to swearing: “Why is it that a student copying a paper faces more consequences than an adult pushing a middle schooler to the ground?”
Springfield Protest 3
The answer to her question resembles too why coronavirus outbreaks so acutely struck care homes, slaughterhouses, and prisons: our lives are embedded an economic system of heteropatriarchal racial capitalism, based on exploitation, dispossession, and extraction, often by brute force. With the economy lacking any semblance of a welfare state, undervaluing caring labor and often neglecting care altogether in the form of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls organized abandonment, and overinvested in punishment through the carceral state, these systems work to uphold and justify the deep hierarchies of race, gender, class, citizenship, and other axes of oppression (Gilmore 2011). But, even though this deeply unequal and often violent economic system persists, it does face the constraints of solidarity and action among those its exploits and abandons.At a June 2020 protest in Northampton, Massachusetts a young girl spoke in reference to the Civil Rights Movement: “My grandmother was in these protests when she was 15 years old. When I’m her age, I don’t want to be protesting anymore.” I share her desire to see radical change.
The complex history of racial capitalism woven into the fabric of the U.S. leaves
is it that a student, who may assume school as the path towards uphold mobility and rewards for merit, faces more punishment for plagiarizing an assignment than an adult man employed by the state does for assaulting a child in a place of learn- ing? What does it mean that this public school in a deeply segregated city with one of the highest incarceration rates in the state serves predominately Black and Latinx students, was formerly under desegregation orders, and is now policed by a department routinely accused of brutality? What does it mean that this same school district, on the northeastern most edge of the Rust Belt, has been subject to state school takeovers removing the community’s autonomy and control over many of its schools and replacing democratic control with an private executive management organization? What does it mean that this city- Springfield Massachusetts- was a key site of abolitionist community, hosting the likes of Sojourner Truth and John Brown, as well as being home to the early northern movements for universal education?
This dissertation will only begin to answer the student’s question and the subsequent questions outlined, but will describe a theory of racial capitalism, the carceral state, and education that can help us to begin understanding and arriving at an answer. Further, I will examine some the ways in which the nexus of schools and the carceral state encloses to borrow the term from Woods et al. (2017) and Sojoyner (2013, 2016), or limits access to, education from students using both the tools of applied econometrics, alongside interdisciplinary frameworks.
The following outlines my endeavor. First, I outline new political economy ap- proach to understanding the role of education in racial capitalism and the carceral state. I survey contending approaches to understanding education, from neoclassical economics, feminist economics, and orthodox Marxism and describe their limits in understanding the role of the carceral state in schools. Next, I present an interdisciplinary (or to borrow the term from Meiners (2007) antidisciplinary) framework from scholars across diverse fields to show that, beyond just a so-called school-to- prison pipeline, the carceral state in schools works to create educational enclosures perpetuate capitalist exploitation and expropriation, and uphold and even legitimize racial, class and gender hierarchies. This framework works to show that limited educational opportunities are not the result of “poor choice” under a rational model actor assumption, but instead are structurally embedded in a public school system historically designed to uphold a racial capitalist order.
The additional essays will address how this nexus of schooling and the carceral state, through policing, security, and discipline in schools, works to perpetuate and uphold such inequalities in access to education, especially higher education. The second explores how school discipline may “mark” students creating barriers to the process of college applications and admissions. The third essay examines the role of the school environment, including policing, metal detectors, and other security equipment, in shaping student’s expectations of educational attainment. I do not posit that higher education is always the desired outcome or that going to college ameliorates the issues of the carceral state and unequal schooling. In a practical sense, despite rising costs and mounting debt burdens that call into question the economic mobility associated with college-going, a college credential remains an important buffer in today’s labor market and economy. That considered, both of my empirical results are framed as educational and therefore economic enclosures that helps us understand the ways in which inequality under racial capitalism is maintained and manifests, and points towards potential solutions for a more equal and liberatory path for education and the economy.

Recent writings: jumping into the RCT debate, and on reopening schools

Abolition will not be randomized co-written with Casey Buchholz, over on the Developing Economics blog, where we dig into why certain empirical approaches miss the point when it comes to changing the ideology, social relations, and power structures of racial capitalism. “Thus, empirical methods and data collection can be powerful tools for guiding democratic, transformative, and liberationist struggles so long as they do the work of undermining the forms of organized power and authority the movement is interested in dismantling.”

Reopening and rethinking schools: care vs the carceral continuum on the Solidarity US webzine, discussing and interrogating what a “safe” reopening even means when schools are disproportionately staffed with police instead of nurses, counselors, and teachers (written before the protests). Here I give a shoutout to the Chicago Teachers Union for their demands about nurses in every school and to make a point about working conditions for reopening, but one thing I wish I had included is that the movement for police-free schools, restorative and transformative justice practices, and more care instead of cops has truly been led by students and student organizations across the country for many, many years. The VOYCE Project, Philly Student Union, Alliance for Educational Justice, and so many more across cities and districts have been leading the way. I’m mentioning this because there’s some evidence that this point is getting lost as the #PoliceFreeSchools movement is gaining support, which erases the work of Black students and students of color who have been on the ground organizing. I’d love to see a world where students, as well as workers, have a real say in their schools, their learning experience, and so on, and there’s also a lot reckoning to do with the fact that teachers and staff are also responsible for “bias” that ultimately hurts students- an abolitionist approach to rethinking schools (and organizing for police free schools) necessarily has to grapple with this reality.

Beyond the Pipeline: Abolitionist Readings on Schooling in the Carceral State

As the movement on the ground gains momentum and many cities and districts demand #PoliceFreeSchools, I’m seeing a lot interest in trying to understanding the so-called School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP)- the mainstream term for how schools through the use of discipline, policing, and security practices “pushout” students towards incarceration.

STPP is a concise term for capturing this sort of dynamic, but precisely because it is so concise, it is also too narrow and fails to capture the scope and context of the issue. A better conception is to consider schools as an integral part of the broader carceral state. 

Here’s a list of readings by scholars who helped to show me this:


Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice by Carla Shedd

Additional Work by Carla Shedd:

Countering the Carceral Continuum: The Legal of Mass Incarceration


First Strike: Educational Enclosures in Black Los Angeles by Damien M. Sojoyner (currently available online through August!)

Additional work by Damien M. Sojoyner:

Black Radicals Make for Bad Citizens: Undoing the Myth of the School to Prison Pipeline

CHAPTER THREE: Changing the Lens: Moving Away from the School to Prison Pipeline


Transformative Justice Journal has published essays about schooling through an abolitionist lens

Restorative Justice as a Doubled-Edged Sword: Conflating Restoration of Black Youth with Transformation of Schools by Arash Daneshzadeh and George Sirrakos


For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State by Erica R. Meiners

Review of Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies by Erica R. Meiners


The Economics of Abolition

Read below a very incomplete and half-baked case for building an economics of abolition, or abolitionist economics. This will be a work in progress, and I hope other radical economists are interested in building this research agenda and approach, especially those working on stratification economics, feminist economics, institutionalist approaches, post-Keynesian economics, Marxian economics, and economic alternatives to capitalism.

As uprisings across the United States against racism, police brutality, and the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, calls for defunding, dismantling, and abolishing the police, as well as dismantling prisons and other forms of incarceration in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, have all gained interest- in short, the people have spoken in support of abolition. For economists, this begs the questions: why should economists care about abolition and what would an economics of abolition entail? Police violence and mass incarceration are in fact economic issues, and the principles of abolition should inform economic analysis and policy. Abolition intersects with many ongoing discussions in economics including the care economy, racial justice, reparations, access to housing, environmental justice, schooling, and so on. Further, the abolition of police and prisons seeks to ultimately remove the state’s capacities for upholding the racial order, upholding gendered and patriarchal relationships, upholding and protecting private property, and upholding global imperialism- all of which have profound implications for our economic systems.

Abolition, like any transition such as one to a sustainable green economy, is a long-term process of transition and transformation. So I’m asking- how can economics as a discipline begin to work towards abolition?

Why Economists Should Care About Abolition: Racial Capitalism and the Carceral Economy

Policing, prisons, and other related topics are widely discussed across disciplines, yet minimally discussed within the field of economics and even political economy, though subsets of scholars are exceptions. While a mainstream economics of crime subfield exists the primary focus of this field is an evaluation policies and laws and their impacts on outcomes, rather than examining the scope of the carceral state as an economic institution in and of itself. Further, much of the economics of crime in embedded in the rationality model of Gary Becker which supposes punishment as a Pareto efficient way of dealing with crime (presumably deterring), without consideration for the social construction of crime itself and its roots in anti-Black racism.

Within fields that do explicitly engage in understanding the role that police, prisons, and criminality play in society- such as critical criminology, sociology, geography, anthropology, and so on- there are varying, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, ideas about conceptualizing these institutions, their origins, and relationship to capitalism. The work of Dylan Rodriguez conceptualizes the centrality of a prison regime of bodily immobilization, while others center the prison-industrial complex, or center policing in their analyses. But, for succinctness, I will refrain from summarizing these debates, and instead identify the carceral state as the totality of state apparatuses including, police, prisons, jails, and surveillance that incapacitate individuals and result in premature civic and biological death. In other words, the institutions that embody (state) violence. Many view this carceral state as a domestic extension of military Keynesian- in this case carceral Keynesianism as it was dubbed by Mike Davis- that is an economic strategy of state led investment in the state’s capacities for violence. The economics of abolition seeks to dismantle and abolish  capacities for violence by dismantling apparatuses of policing and imprisonment, and investing in practical alternatives, especially care. 

Racial Capitalism/Carceral Capitalism 

In Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang synthesizes some of the competing approaches to understanding policing and mass incarceration, as well as surveillance, by drawing both on Cedric Robinson’s notion of racial capitalism (described here by Robin D.G. Kelley) and Afropessimism’s focus on the role of gratuitous violence. In this synthesis, racial capitalism describes as economic system rooted in the racial order of white supremacy and organized by two logics: the logic of capital accumulation to maintain capitalist’s exploitation of labor for surplus, and the logic of gratuitous violence to maintain the racial order. In describing economies of predatory inclusion and exclusion, Wang notes that “While the first three categories (of financialization, automation, and looting) represent exclusionary processes that proceed by way of inclusion (subjectivication as citizen debtors, incorporation through the extension of credit), confinement and gratuitous violence are examples of exclusionary processes that result in civic and actual death. In other words, in the first three instances the parasitic state and predatory credit system must keep people alive in order to extract from them; in the latter two instances it must confine and kill to maintain the racial order.” (Wang 80)

Why is it important to understand the dual logics of capital accumulation and gratuitous violence and premature death when analyzing the carceral state? Competing ideas about the carceral state debate whether or not mass incarceration is consistent with being driven by a purely profit motive, either to warehouse surplus labor and manage the reserve army of unemployed or the direct profit motive of prisons that engage exploiting prison labor. But, as Wang explains, mass incarceration is more nuanced than a singular guiding profit motive and the lens of racial capitalism provides a more accurate generalization:

“Yet to reduce mass incarceration to the profit motivate would be misleading, considering that most inmates are held in publicly operated state and federal facilities as well as public local jails. Though as many as seven hundred thousand prisoners are employed in a variety of jobs (ranging from facility maintenance to manufacturing jobs in industries such as furniture production), the majority of those in prisons and jails don’t work. A question that a purely economistic view fails to address is why, when the welfare state was being dismantled, and there was an ideological pivot away from “big government”, was the public induced to believe that a prison binge was legitimate while spending ons social services, education, and job creation was not?” (82)

The rollback of the welfare state is an important factor in analyzing the rise of the carceral economy, particularly one that shifted away from the War on Poverty and towards increased policing and imprisonment, as Elizabeth Hinton writes in From the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs.  Wang writes that, “This evolution in the social function of the state from provider of social services to provider of security also represented an evolution in how racialized populations in the United States would be managed.” (83) At the same time, backlash to the Civil Rights movement- especially he more radical aspects- was stymied through the use of criminalization. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, ““The more militant anti capitalism and international solidarity became everyday features of  U.S. antiracist activism, the more vehemently the state responded by, as Allen Feldman (1991) puts it, “individualizing disorder” into singular instances of criminality.” ( Wilson Gilmore 25) 

The two logics of capital accumulation and gratuitous anti-Black violence coalesce into the carceral state, where the vested interests of the prison-industrial complex, the white backlash against Civil Rights, the reconfiguration of antiBlackness through colorblind laissez-fair racism especially via criminality, a growing so-called surplus population due to deindustrialization and stagnation, the political interests of prison development,  and the growing power of policing combine ideologically and economically to transform the welfare state into the carceral state (Footnote: one might also add military surplus to this mix).  Wang concludes, “All of this is to say that antiBlack racism is at the core of mass incarceration and the transformation of the welfare state not only into the (neoliberal) debt state, but into the penal state as well. At the dawn of the carceral era, the United States chose the path of disinvestment the United States chose divestment in social entitlements and investment in prisons and police.”

While some may consider the carceral state to be outside the field of economics, it is in fact an economic institution governing access to economic life and profoundly intersecting with race, gender, class, and ability- and to emphasize again, as Wang notes, it is rooted in anti-Blackness. How does the carceral state govern economic activity and outcomes?

Criminal records limit labor market prospects, exclude individuals from labor markets, as well as access to voting and Federal financial aid. Increasingly the use of parole and e-carceration works as ‘parolefare’ crowding individuals into low wage work. Policing and the threat of incarceration can be viewed as a form of labor discipline. Incarceration leads to great family food insecurity. Fines and fees associated with arrest and incarceration pose exorbitant penalties, often garnished from the wages of those who do work but often contributing to prolonged incarceration. Mass incarceration absorbs the surplus reserve army of unemployed. Mass incarceration worsens the impact of recessions especially for Black households. Certain economic activities such as sex work and informal drug trade are deemed illegal, and disability, queerness, being gender non-conforming, and being unhoused are often criminalized. Citizenship status for those without documentation is too criminalized, and subject to ICE detainment and deportation. Policing, when it is subbed for care or social work such as in the case of wellness checks, can be deadly especially for Black and brown folks. The prison system routinely exploits prison labor for reproducing living conditions within the prison, public works projects, and for for-profit industries. For-profit prisons themselves reap profits directly from local, state, and Federal finance, as do underwriters of state and municipal bonds, construction corporations, and land developers. Service providers to prisons- such as food services, medical providers, telephone and video conferencing providers- many now owned by private equity firms-, also benefit financially. Police often lack any true community accountability, and race and geography in part determine this. Military surpluses often find their way to prisons, police departments, and even schools through the 1033 program, where the carceral state absorbs the excesses of global imperialism and segregatated areas procure more military vehicles and SWAT tactics.

While the carceral economy may not strictly be shaped by the profit-motive and logic of capital accumulation, coupled with the logic of gratuitous state violence that has driven its expansion and the opportunism of capital, the state has created an entire sector of the economy- the carceral economy.

What does the carceral economy uphold? The carceral state and economy work to uphold key features of racial capitalism:

1.) the racial order of white supremacy (read: whiteness)

2.) private property necessary for exploitation (Footnote: property crimes as a category is worthy of its own examination) and the coercion of labor through violence and incapacitation

3.) (hetero)patriarchal relations through disproportionately burdening women- especially Black women- and disrupting families, criminalizing sex work, gender non-conformity, and queerness. Further women’s imprisonment, its origins, and its impacts should not be overlooked, and Angela Davis writes further of the gendered structure of the prison system.

4.) normalizing violence and reliance on the carceral state to deal with violence (read: carceral feminism) despite that many reports show police having high rates of being domestic abusers.

Measuring the Carceral Economy

A challenge and research agenda is to measure the existing carceral economy- the totality of spending and economic activity dedicated to maintaining these systems of state violence. What do we know about the scope of the carceral economy,  in terms of macroeconomics, applied microeconomics, as well as public finance? The following sections briefly discuss an outline of describing the carceral economy, however I should not that conceptualizing this will be a discussion and debate in and of itself. These are just some broad notes on the scope of the existing economic activities associated with policing and prisons.

Guard Labor 

Arjuan Jayadev and Samuel Bowles (2004) estimate the extent of guard labor in the U.S. economy. In their definition, protective guard labor refers to  “supervisory labor, private guards, police, judicial and prison employees, military and civilian employees of the department of defense (and those producing military equipment), the unemployed, and prisoners” (10).  Supervisory labor refers to bosses whose main role in workplaces is to discipline against shirking and guard against property theft. In general, the term guard labor seeks to identify occupations associated with the enforcement of property rights, with an analysis of economic power stemming from property rights central to their analysis. From 1890 to 2002, guard labor in their definition increases substantially as a share of total employment in the U.S. economy, from 6% to 1980, 6.9% in 1929, 18.9% in 1948, 20.9% in 1966, 23.4% in 1979, 24.9% in 1989 and 26.1% in 2002. Their work estimates that guard labor as of 2002 is composed of 15.7% supervisors, 2.2% guards, 1.8% military, 4.8% unemployed, and 1.5% prisoners- the highest percentage of prisoners of any advanced economy in their analysis and a sharp increase from 1989 which included 0.5% prisoners. They note that while the military fraction declined after 1966, the fraction of prisoners and guards (police, correlations officials, and private security personnel) increased rapidly thereafter. Their data does not include related civilian employees of the military. The authors also note that “Ideally we would also include those producing guns for private use, locks, security systems and the like, but we are not able to do so because of the lack of data.” Jayadev and Bowles. The growth in guard labor, especially that labor directly associated with the carceral state of police and prisons, is striking and the paper finds notable association between measures of guard labor and income inequality.

Policing Budgets

In the U.S., law enforcement is primarily funded through individual municipalities as well as through states in the case of state police. According to the Urban Institute’s analysis, in 2017 $115 billion was spent on policing, but with wide geographic variation in spending. For example, for 2020-21 the Los Angeles city budget proposed $3.14 billion to the LAPD out of a total budget of $10.5 billion- which is a substantial proportion of spending. To contrast, the L.A. city budget for housing and community investment, including affordable housing and rent stabilization was less than 1% of the total budget in 2016-17 and the budget for other general city purposes like youth homelessness and substance abuse was less than 2%. The Center for Popular Democracy reported in a survey of city budgets that the highest percentage of general fund expenditures for police was Oakland, California at 41.2 percent,  and that amongst the cities profiled police spending ranged from $381 per capita to $772 per capita. Policing budgets, particularly in cities, appear to crowd out expenditures on critical care and housing programs. Additional studies examine the relationship between local politics and spending on police, including how ethnic fragmentation shapes policing spending, the potential spillover effects of this relationship,

Prisons and Courts 

The Urban Institute in 2017 estimated $79 billion on corrections. Other estimates show larger costs when accounting for not just corrections, but the costs of the court system and other aspects of the prison system, with the Prison Policy Initiative estimating a cost of $182 billion in 2017. They also estimate the totality of costs for prisons, courts, policing, and so on to be roughly $265 billion. In terms of the growth of spending on prisons, state and local spending on corrections has quadrupled since 1980, starkly outpacing the growth in spending on P-12 education according to the Department of Education.

Schools, Services, and other spaces of the Carceral Apparatus 

As I argue in my dissertation, schools are a site of the carceral state, with portions of school budgets dedicated to policing, security guards, and metal detectors and other physical security measures which act as an enclosure to economic opportunity. Schools too have been recipients of 1033 program military surplus, including grenade launchers. These costs of creating carceral school environments are difficult to quantify, but compose a  growing segment of the carceral economy particularly as concerns about school violence ramp up the fortification of schools, largely at the expense of Black and brown students. Angela Davis observes this contradiction of schools oriented towards the carceral state: “Schools can therefore be seen as the most powerful alternative to jails and prisons. Unless the current structures of violence are eliminated from schools in impoverished communities of color- including the presence of armed security guards and police- and unless schools become places that encourage the joy of learning, these schools will remain major conduits to prisons. The alternative would be to transform schools into vehicles for decarceration.” (108)

In relation to the PIC, juvenile justice facilities and alternative schools are often operated by independent for-profit corporations under contract with state governments, such as Community Education Partners and have business relationships with corporations within the prison-industrial complex such as CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America). A further research question that I have is to understand how alternative schools have proliferated due to concerns about metrics on disciplinary disparities for schools, and how this has contributed to tracking. Another question, related to the PIC, is to understand the connections many alternative schools have to the PIC and how these independently operated and contracted schools relate to the charter school movement, which employs a similar model.

The Prison-Industrial Complex

The prison-industrial complex (PIC) is often described as centering the profit-motive as the central logic of mass incarceration. However, in synthesis with the dual logics of racial capitalism, the prison-industrial complex represents a coalescence of private business and political interests benefiting from investment in state-sanctioned violence., rather than a central logic or driver of expansion. However, further mapping of these economic interests is important, regardless of whether we believe these interests are the central driver of the carceral state. Read further on the prison-industrial complex and its ties to the military-industrial complex in New York’s prison boom. Further, we also know that central to the PIC has been the role of state, municipal, and private finance including private equity firms, which have been nimble opportunists in skimming profits from the state’s investment in policing and prisons. Other interests include the corporations servicing prisons, corporations providing equipment to policing and prisons, contractors constructing facilities, and land developers benefiting from the geographic placement of prisons.

Military Keynesian and Global Imperialism

An innate connection between the military and the carceral economy exists. Gilmore discusses the rise of post-war military Keynesianism and its moprhing to carceral Keynesian- both representing state investment in state-sanctioned premature death. For those that theorize the U.S. as having internal colonies, this analysis of the military and imperialism’s connection to the carceral state is clear. In discussing the relationship between the military and prisons, Davis writes “What may be even more important to our discussion is the extent to which both share important structure features. Both systems generate huge profits from processes of social destruction. Precisely that which is advantageous to those corporations, elected officials, and government agents who have obvious stakes in the expansion of these systems begets grief and devastation for poor and racially dominated communities in the United States and throughout the world. The transformation of imprisoned bodies- and they are in their majority bodies of color- into sources of profit who consume and also often produce all kinds of commodities, devours public funds, which might otherwise be available for social programs such as education, housing, childcare, recreation, and drug programs.” (88) Including the military budget to estimate of the carceral economy adds nearly an additional $1 trillion of public spending. It also intersects the analysis of the carceral economy with that of global imperialism.

Costs of the Carceral Economy 

An alternative examination of the carceral economy would be to examine its costs. Costs to be calculated could be in forgone economic output due to investment in the carceral state, forgone earnings of those with criminal records, and forgone multiplier effects due to investments in prisons and policing instead of education, social services, and other public services. The true costs of incarceration in terms of employment, health, and other outcomes, we know are disproportionately burden on African American women. Could we also examine the costs of aggressive policing and incarceration in how these activities of the state impact neighborhood housing values, therefore deplete wealth, especially for Black communities and communities of color? How do we measure and conceptualize these costs of the carceral state?

An Abolitionist Approach to Economics

Given the potential scope of the existing carceral economy, abolition proposes the need for an economic transition away from the carceral state in a similar way to which many environmental economists call for a green transition away from resource extraction and towards the principle of sustainability. Abolition entails the transition of the economy away from one based on the use and proliferation of state-sanctioned violence and towards care, consent, accountability, democratic participation, cooperation, and solidarity.

Abolition also entails, ultimately:

  • the abolition of anti-Blackness (read: whiteness) and racial hierarchy, with practical steps including reparations to descendants of American slavery, defunding of police, decarceration of prisons, coupled with first and foremost reparations, social reinvestment in health, social, community, and educational services, and so on
  • the abolition of hierarchies of gender, sexuality, and so on based on patriarchal relations, and investment in care work that is not undervalued in society
  • and the abolition of private property therefore class exploitation (footnote: this could be restated as the abolition of the coerced capitalist fundamental class process of exploitation)
  • What else?

Further, Ruth Gilmore Wilson discusses the connection between prisons and economic and environmental justice: “Racism is the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. Prison expansion is a new iteration of this theme. Prisons and other locally unwanted land uses accelerate the mortality of modestly educated working people of all kinds in urban and rural settings and show how economic and environmental justice are central to antiracism.” (Golden Gulag 247) An abolitionist economics is also an economics that calls for environmental and economic justice.

Abolitionist Principles for Economic Institutions: Planned Obsoletion of Policing and Incarceration

In Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Y. Davis describes plainly a central principle of abolition: to build a society in which the need for prisons, policing, and other forms of violence are rendered obsolete.

Davis writes, “An abolitionist approach that seeks to answer questions such as these would require us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society. In other words, we would not be looking for prisonlike substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment- demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” (107)

This principle of obsoletion should be a key guiding notion for creating abolitionist economic policy. For example, a reinvestment in the care sector of the economy and housing- healthcare, mental health resources, social work, community organizations, housing- would work to eliminate the need to policing and prisons altogether. Additional conceptualizing of these practical alternatives is discussed in Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing. Angela Davis writes, “The alternatives toward which I have gestured thus far- and this is only a small selection of examples, which can also include job and living wage programs, alternatives to the disestablished welfare program, community-based recreation, and many more- are associated both directly and indirectly with the existing system of criminal justice…As they contest racism and other networks of social domination, their implementation will certainly advance the abolitionist agenda.” A reinvestment in the care economy intersects with many analyses from feminist economics, that seek to understand and remedy the devaluation of care work (but again, a debate exists here that can too be informed by an abolitionist lens).

Second, investment in social services around conflict mediation and resolution, reconciliation, and other trauma-informed practices would make obsolete some of the central concerns many have about a world without policing and prisons, mainly those of how to handle domestic violence. The ultimate goal however of abolitionist policies will be the eliminate of gender-based violence altogether. Further, many of these practices can be informed through a decolonial lens, for example, some restorative and transformative justice programs in schools are informed by Indigenous practices of conflict and grief circles. This is an important approach in part due to the disproportionate impact the carceral state has on Native and Indigenous peoples. The relationship between the carceral economy/state and imperialism implies that abolitionist economics intersect with decolonial and post-colonial approaches.

Third, but maybe perhaps first, abolitionist economics must bring those from the so-called margins to the center, as bell hooks described. That means centering the needs, voices, and communities of those most marginalized by the system being dismantled- Black women and communities, Indigenous and Native women and communities, trans and gender non-conforming, and so on. Similarly, Davis writes:”To reiterate, rather than try to imagine one single alternative to the existing system of incarceration, we might envision an array of alternatives that will require radical transformations of many aspects of our society. Alternatives that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of domination will not, in the financial analysis, lead to decarceration and will not advance the goal of abolition.” (Davis 108)

What else would an economics of abolition intersect with?

From Abolition to Care and Cooperation ?

An economic transition to abolition would similarly facilitate other transitions in the economy. For example, abolitionist practices would work to build economic relationship based on consent and accountability rather than coercion and violence. Abolitionist community alternatives also work to foster community solidarity, accountability, cooperation and democratic processes which would further facilitate new economic alternatives based on cooperation and other post-capitalist approaches. Many of these principles mirror the principles of cooperation and the solidarity economy such as voluntary membership, mutual cooperation, community solidarity, and democratic control.

“When the capacities resulting from purposeful action are combined towards ends greater than mission statements or other provisional limits, powerful alignments begin to shake the ground. In other words, movement happens.” (Wilson Gilmore 248)

But many questions- economic questions- about this transition remain. For example, is a transition away from the carceral economy and towards care state-led or community-led and what are the implications for both? How does such a transition work to economically foster global solidarity without the use of state sanctioned violence? How do we discuss the debates about conceptualizing the carceral state, police state, prison-industrial complex and other approaches into our economics of abolition?

What economic policies, alternatives, and ideas should we re-evaluation through an abolitionist lens such that they do not perpetuate policing, prisons, and violence and instead work to render them obsolete?

These half-baked thoughts map out the very beginnings of thinking how to integrate abolitionist thought and principles into our approaches and analysis in economics, particularly heterodox economics, but to the broader fields of economics and public policy in general. There are many other resources I failed to mention here and I am interested in finding and learning about if other economists have explicitly discussed integrating an abolitionist perspective into our work. I suspect much of the work we already do can be considered abolitionist, however for radical economists, I am asking that we consider how to center abolition as a goal in our economics. Further, we also carefully discuss the meaning of abolition itself and explicitly center the the goal of eliminating the racial hierarchy and premature death of racialized peoples.


#CancelStudentDebt for relief and recovery

I updated a 2015 report that I wrote on student debt in Massachusetts for the current context of the pandemic, arguing that now more than ever we need to #CancelStudentDebt.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association along with the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, Zero Debt Massachusetts, Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, and friends had a Facebook Live event where we chatted about why student debt cancellation is critical. 

Then, I quickly gave my two sense about it on the local radio on the Bill Newman Show along with MTA Vice President Max Page.

Remote Learning: Some thoughts

After a lot of confusion, UMass Amherst switched to online remote learning for the remainder of the semester following Spring Break this week.

First and foremost, I am holding a lot of emotional space for my students. The last time I saw them, they were quite scared, anxious, uncertain, angry, and most of all, sad. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, and it’s important to really allow ourselves to understand that emotionally. My students’ lives were upheavaled in just a few days, with many unsure of where they are returning back to, some expressing concern about home life and safety. The last time we met, we discussed both our acute concerns about the University, logistics, and where everyone will go, as well as our macro concerns about our communities, the future, politics, the economy, and the world as a whole. That is a lot to carry. So I will accommodate the heavy burden we are all carrying with flexibility, while also still providing the materials and structure, as many students may appreciate some structure during this time.

Screen Shot 2020-03-16 at 8.54.59 AMThat said, I felt the pedagogically appropriate thing to do in this situation was to first send them a survey about the transition to remote learning. I sent my students a Google Form in an email where I explained that I wanted to see where they are at right now, and that the survey was not required and they only had to answer questions if they wanted to (all of them were optional). Each question also had an open ended response option. They can share nothing or as little as they would like, or share detailed thoughts.

My remote learning survey consists of two parts:

1.) Well-being and Internet Accessibility Check-in

  • How are you doing?
  • Do you have your travel plans set and a safe place to stay? Yes, maybe, still figuring it out, no, or open ended response.
  • Do you think in your expected or current situation you will have at least an hour to a few hours each week to spend on classwork? Yes, no, maybe, not sure yet, or open ended response.
  • Do you have stable internet access? Or do you have to make special arrangements? Yes, maybe, open ended response (or no response).

2.) Remote learning preferences, expectations, and suggestions

  • I had students rank their preferences about: discussion forums, live video lectures, recorded video lectures, recorded audio lectures, live Q&A video chats/office hours, live Q&A text chat/office hours, free videos/film content, news-based readings and discussion, peer review assignments, short writing assignments, and other suggestions they may have
  • I also had students rank preferences about topics for our course (on debt): 2008 Financial Crisis, government debt and deficits, corporate debt, or other suggested topics
  • I asked them for suggestions for videos/films and other content we can draw on

As for the grades issue, I told everyone not to worry about grades (I say that anyway). But, really, we’re beyond grades now. If you want feedback and structure, I’m happy to do my best to provide that. If you have other priorities, so be it.

I also liked the guidance of this post “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online“. I agree with most of it, especially asynchronous work and the points on accessibility. I think as we go forward we all will be uniquely balancing per each classroom being flexible given the scale of the current situation and still providing space, structure, routine, and “normalcy” for our students who need it. How about that for highlighting the care function of professing?

I try to maintain a very participatory and democratic classroom, always reminding my students that this is THEIR course. I think they appreciate that and so far have expressed concerns about their anxiety levels as well as their living situations, but also a desire to continue learning and to use our remote learning course as a space to discuss and analyze current events. I feel for them, but I think something unique may bloom in this weird situation. 🌹

Reflections on teaching about student debt…

This semester, I have a unique opportunity to teach my own course on Student Loans, Other Debt, and the U.S. Economy. As a 100-level course, there are no pre-requisites, and as a special topics course, it is not a pre-requisite for any other course. Instead, it is a course open to all majors and levels, that weaves a thread about debt to understand different aspects of the economy, especially inequality and instability. We do so through four units: student debt, mortgage debt and the 2008 crisis, corporate debt, and government debt, with student debt being the largest unit.In Class Causes of Student Debt

In teaching on student debt so far, I have made some surprising observations about where students are at in terms of understanding the development of student debt, its impacts, and what can be done about it.

  • in the first weeks of course, many shared personal concerns about debt, especially those that either have debt or have had friends/family take on student debt
  • a general sense of fear and anxiety associated with student debt
  • naïvité in understanding student indebtedness as a very *new* norm in American society
  • a tendency to view debt as playing a role in getting a “return on investment” in education
  • some express doubt about education or a degree actually being meaningful in the economy
  • viewing debt as a matter of “responsibility” and desiring “financial literacy”, a tendency to internalize student debt as a matter of “poor decision making”
  • they want to learn how to be “smart” with their money
  • some think colleges are profiting off of debt
  • most chose UMass in part due to concerns about debt
  • some international students express confusion about the American system of higher education financing

What I find most interesting is how deeply the rhetoric of personal finance in ingrained in many students- even those who lived through the 2008 crisis.