Letters — From the February 2015 issue

Letters

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Discipline and Publish

Kenneth E. Hartman’s memoir about serving life without the possibility of parole [“Christmas in Pris­on,” December] is the most cogent and accurate depiction of life in the American gulag that we have read in our forty-plus years of continuous confinement. Kudos to Harper’s Magazine for having the courage and integrity to present the truth about the idiotic, wasteful, and, above all, wholly un­necessary infliction of cruelties that almost universally defines American prisons today.

Robert Gerson and Fred Krug 
East Jersey State Prison
Rahway, N.J.

Hartman’s memoir is beautifully writ­ten and insightful. It also highlights a crucial problem in the United States: We incar­cerate a higher percentage of our own citizens than any other country. As Hartman points out, there is nothing en­lightened about the practice. It is clear that he did his time and is a changed person. 

That the man who wrote this essay will spend the entirety of his adulthood in prison powerfully brings home the tragedy of life without the possibility of parole.

Enrique Bava 
Portland, Ore.

I expected Hartman to describe a criminal-justice system beyond re­pair. What I found instead was much-needed hope — not for changes in the cruel and unusual system of pun­ishment he so eloquently describes, but for him. Hartman reminded me that there are good people doing good things in spite of crushing forc­es. He hasn’t succumbed under the worst circumstances, and his story left me with renewed hope for the rest of us.

Barbara Clarke
Bainbridge Island, Wash.

More Economists Smoke Camels

I was thoroughly enjoying Robert Kuttner’s takedown of Cass Sunstein [“Obama’s Obama,” Review, December] — until the very end of the article. “The pleasure of knowing that you are likely to live longer if you quit smoking was not included in the calculus,” Kuttner notes. But what about the pleasure of smoking? This thin gruel was apparently written by someone who has never enjoyed a good cigar.

Eric Saund
San Carlos, Calif.

Kuttner goes astray in his treatment of the litera­ture underlying Sunstein’s regulatory efforts. Kuttner claims that I view the death of smokers as an economic “benefit.” In fact, the reverse is true: the adverse health effects of smoking are an economic cost. However, to assess the net finan­cial burden of smoking on soci­ety, one should indeed calculate the in­creased costs that smoking generates, such as greater medical expenses, and subtract the value of the decreased costs, such as reduced social-­security expenditures.

Kuttner’s dismissal of the value of statistical life-span estimates in draft­ing government regulations — he calls it “unscientific” — is also mis­guided. Federal agencies have been using these values, which are based on well-established lit­erature, for several decades. Sun­stein’s reliance on such methodology makes him not a Hayekian or a fringe thinker but rather a member of the main­stream.

W. Kip Viscusi
University Distinguished Professor, Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tenn.

Robert Kuttner replies:
Professor Viscusi’s letter impeaches his own work and the value of cost-benefit analysis far better than I could. The fact that these pseudoscientific calculations are well established in the literature speaks volumes about the mischief done by the economics mainstream when it comes to attacking regulations made necessary by systemic market failures.

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