On a flight back from Moscow in 1992, following meetings with parliament members and the late Mr. Yegor Gaidar, then finance minister, I wrote up the tongue-in-cheek conversation I had with them at the time, when they all complained about Russia having only its natural resources to sell. Please bear with me how this episode is linked to Australian highest court recent decision to export “asylum seekers” to detention centers in Nauru, a minuscule, isolated island with few thousand inhabitants in the midst of the Pacific. Nauru became rich when it sold its pure phosphates (formed from birds’ droppings over millennia), but then spent the easy-come money on “national airline” (?) and British musicals. Easy-come, easy-go.
Though some economists managed to convince Mr. Gaidar at the time to pursue macro-strology-based “shock therapy” that I thought was foolish (see details in my 1994 Labyrinths of prosperity), I suggested instead bottom up changes: democratizing capital, by distributing land and apartments, so that people would have collateral and be able to start financing entrepreneurial ventures, be it a grocery store, a hairdresser salon etc. The government would have had to do its share of establishing honest courts and police to enforce these “collaterals.” None of this was done: Macro-strology was then and still is what the 1953 Nobel Prize in chemistry, Irving Langmuir, properly called “pathological science,” meaning fields of study in which scientists apparently follow the scientific method of falsification, but stray into wishful thinking.
Now back to 1992. When the participants at that Moscow roundtable continued to complain about the miserable state at the time (the shelves in stores were indeed empty, and the building in utter disrepair), and not having anything to sell to the West, wanting to lighten up the mood a bit at the dinner, I said they actually do, one minor, one major – both needing honest courts and enforcement. The first was trivial: Women in the US were paying at the time thousands of dollars for staying a week or two on “fat farms,” that is, isolated places where they wanted to lose weight, paying not to be fed, and also made to run and work out. With nice landscapes, no food, plenty of unemployed soldiers easily trained to be aerobics trainers – Russia could export such service in no time, and make airlines happy too.
The second suggestion was more serious, but would have been without precedent: To export Siberian gulags, and get few hundred thousand US jailbirds to fill the updated places. Upon my return, The Wall Street Journal considered the idea far too radical, but – to my surprise — Le Figaro in Paris did not, and published it on May 13, 1994. When in April 1997, Terry L. Stewart, State Corrections Director said in an interview that the idea “is so simple and common-sensical that I do not know why anyone hasn’t thought of this before,” Forbes reprinted the 1994 article under “A modest proposal,” title (making it sound a satire, the title reminding readers of Swift (of Gulliver fame) piece about babies). When David Asman, now at Fox, then at WSJ, asked me to debate with a judge on TV, I did, and the judge confessed during the ad-breaks that he found the idea making sense, but cannot say it on the air. I’ll get below to his main reservation.
So what’s the idea?
The Russians had many emptied prisons at the time, unemployed guards and soldiers, and the US had millions in prison. The rent in Russia was low, as were the salaries. In the US prisons and guards are expensive, keeping one prisoner in jail per year amounting now to about $40-$50K (back then to $25K). The trade would bring far more than monetary benefits. Since, I did not expect the expansion of businesses to happen as quickly as believers in “shock therapy” did, the opportunities for a large number of specialized, unemployed military and prison guards appeared slim. Preventing the temptation of supporting adventurous politicians promising policies which would have once again favor their employment seemed a clear and present danger: I had historical events to back me then up on this. Unfortunately events since 1992 added to the historical observations: the let-to-be unemployed Iraq army and pro-forma Baath bureaucracy (whose members were as much Baathists as the Russian bureaucracy was “communist,” meaning no believers, really), being one. A second is Mexico, where victims’ accounts indicate a majority in its army of criminals are either present or former police officers, as the country is unable to put its house in order.
Let us look more closely at numbers and then at possible objections against such trade in prisons, detention centers, prisoners and potential asylum seekers.
In November 1993, voters in the state of Washington gave 76% support to an initiative called “three strikes and you’re in.” When executed, this rule implied that after the third major felony, the criminal goes to prison forever. The initiative struck a chord and the President at the time put it into the federal anti-crime bill. Many US citizens opposed the idea not because they thought it had no merit, but because it would have been expensive. Since young criminals were affected, the rule implied that people would stay in prison for 50 years (before the typical violent offender in state prison serves only 40 percent of his sentence, say 20 years). Since in 1993 it cost $25 K a year to imprison (now it is roughly double), some made a calculation that 30 years (the increase in the number of years served) times $25K times the number of criminals affected, would be too expensive a proposition.
Assume first that this calculation is in the ballpark and that the prospect of completing one’s punishment in prison does not deter crime. If money is the main issue, why not consider the far cheaper alternative of sending those committing violent crimes (rape, armed robbery, aggravated assaults, murder) to — Siberia?
A good salary in the major Russian cities was then $100 a month (it is hovering around $1,400 now, much lower outside major cities). The upgrade of Siberian prisons to fit US standards, would come to, say, a $4,000 investment per prisoner. Renting the place in Siberia is cheap – as is in Nauru. (After wasting their phosphate money, they tried becoming a Cayman island, then attract casinos – all failed). Add the cost of two flights per prisoner, at $1,000 each, and, with zero interest rates, forget discounting the second flight which would take place in 10 to 50 years, and one comes up with about $5,000 investment per prisoner. Add medical supplies, payments for nurses and an occasional visit by American physicians (or paying the Red Cross), and one is still far below one third of the US costs. A similar calculation holds for Nauru detention centers.
Why would Russians or the inhabitants of Nauru object? The trade allows sustaining distant locations which have lost their sources of revenue. The chances of criminals escaping from either Siberia or Nauru – are nil. The presence of prisons cannot harm Siberia’s – or Russia’s – reputation. The place has been known for its prisons anyway. And Nauru does not have much reputation to sustain either.
In fact, Siberia’s and Nauru’s reputation may be enhanced: US citizens would be grateful to know there is a place where those threatening their daily lives are kept at safe distance. And Australians would be grateful that the selection between genuine asylum seekers and fakes (as Europe is finally waking up to the distinction), would be made in foreign territory. Imagine Russia and the once sinister guards of gulag transformed into the saviors of American cities, and Nauruans help properly screen refugees.
The judge in the aforementioned debate had two objections. One was visitation rights. I am not quite sure how serious an objection that is. The prisoners can be visited. It may have been more expensive, though I am not sure. If the criminal’s family lives in L.A. and the criminal is in prison in New Jersey, it may not be more expensive to fly to Siberia than to travel to New Jersey. And once there will be many American criminals there, there would be direct, competing charters. But the judge’s main objection was that American prisoners had to be subject to treatment according to the US laws.
That, I responded, can be easily taken care of by exporting US lawyers to Siberia. Of course, not by force — though I was not sure that many Americans would have objected getting rid of some of some 400,000 lawyers then (by now 1,2 million) — by proper monetary compensation. Australians can also send lawyers and bureaucrats to Nauru’s detention centers.
Perhaps some lawyers would evoke “justice” to object to such arrangements with law-obedient, non-corrupt countries. But since a government’s fundamental responsibility to its citizens is to provide for their security, once government fails to do that, how is it “just” toward its law-respecting citizens to let criminals roam the land and potential terrorists get in the country under false claims?
This brings us back to the Australian Supreme Court decision. It may not be surprising that Australia of all places made such decision first, since Australia itself was created by England exporting its own criminals there at the time. Since, as noted, Europe has been gradually waking up that not all asylum seekers fear for their lives, but some are eager to bring their ideological predispositions and terror to new lands, having detentions exported to foreign territory to make selections, makes sense.
Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. His last books were World of Chance and Force of Finance.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.