Defund the Police? Balancing ‘Social Control’ & ‘Social Investment’ (video)

Robert Reich

What does “defund the police” mean to you?

Following the tragic and unnecessary deaths of George Floyd, Dion Johnson, Rayshard Brooks, Carlos Ingram Lopez and others at the hands of law enforcement officers, there have been calls to “defund the police.”

Often the same people who say “defund the police” also add “that doesn’t mean take away all of the funding.” When I ask what it does mean, the explanations often get mushy. Recently, I read “What Defund Police Really Means: Replacing Social Control with Investment” by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

In this Guardian article, Reich talks about increased spending in social investment beginning in the mid 1960s through President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Beginning in 1964, the War on Poverty efforts rolled out Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Food Stamps, cash assistance to the poor, equal opportunity programs, the voting rights act and more. By the early 1970s, these programs were working to reduce poverty, particularly among African Americans.

In 1971, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote the now infamous “Powell Memo,” which author and historian Bill Moyers labels a “Call to Arms for Corporations, “ excerpted …

“American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

Not long after the Powell Memo, the American Legislative Exchange Council was created in 1973. Moyers details how corporations massively increased their Congressional lobbying efforts in the 1970s. ALEC has spent decades promoting voter suppression, right to work, and stand your ground laws and attacking public education, limitations on videotaping by people, environmental regulations, sick leave and other worker rights. ALEC prefers deregulation and “small government” — except when it comes to corporate control, tax giveaways, or more social control of the population). (If you sometimes wonder where Arizona Republicans get their bad ideas, check the ALEC playbook.)

In Reich’s article, he outlines how spending on “social control” (police, prisons, and military) has increased dramatically since the 1970s, as spending on “social investment” (anti-poverty programs, education, housing) has steadily decreased. Reich writes …

Social-control societies put substantial resources into police, prisons, surveillance, immigration enforcement and the military. Their purpose is to utilize fear, punishment and violence, to maintain what they consider order.

Social-investment societies put more resources into healthcare, education, affordable housing, jobless benefits and children. Their purpose is to free people from the risks and anxieties of daily life and give everyone a fair shot at making it.

Donald Trump epitomizes the former. He calls himself the “law and order” president. He even wants to sic the military on Americans protesting against police brutality.

Trump is really the culmination of 40 years of increasing social control in the US and decreasing social investment.

Reich cites several shocking statistical comparisons to make his case that there has been an inverse relationship between law enforcement spending and social safety net spending since the 1970s. He shows how Nixon’s War on Drugs has fueled mass incarceration, particularly of black and brown men, and uncomfortably reminds us, “The United States began as a control society. Slavery — America’s original sin — depended on the harshest conceivable controls. Jim Crow wasn’t much better.”

On housing, he writes, “This year American taxpayers will spend $107 billion more on police than on public housing.”

We know that housing the homeless is cheaper (and more humane) than letting them live on the street and suffer the physical and emotional consequences, not the least of which are negative encounters with law enforcement. Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, homelessness in Arizona had been increasing steadily. One contributing factor is that Legislative Republicans cut the Housing Trust Fund from $40 million per year to nothing a few years, and most recently woefully underfunded it at $2 million per year. The Housing Trust Fund is currently at $10-15 million, thanks to many hard-fought debates in 2019-2020. Fully funding the Housing Trust fund and other programs to keep people in their homes and elimination of anti-tenant laws would be good social investments which would pay off in reduced law enforcement costs. If no one is sleeping in the park, you don’t need someone to wake them up and arrest them (OR the stupid signs that say the park is closed 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. , the nicest time of day to be outside in the summer). Why don’t we put more money into housing and less money into policing, processing, and jailing the homeless?

Here are two perfect examples of from Arizona. In the late 1970s, 80-90% of Arizonans who were eligible for TANF (cash assistance to the poor) got it. Today, only 6% of Arizonans who qualify for TANF get it. Not even all of the poorest Arizonans get TANF. In the 1980s, Arizona schools were ranked in the middle, around #25. Now we’re #1 in prisons and #50 in schools.

When we talk about defunding the police and increasing social services, we should look at the programs of Great Society and what has transpired since. This history can inform us going forward.

Related Links

The Great Society

What Defund the Police really means: replacing social control with investment

The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations

What happened to the War on Poverty? Is the US marching backward? (January 2011 from my Tucson Progressive blog)

ALEC’s Legacy of Destruction: PDA Members Join Anti-ALEC Protesters in Chicago (video)  (another oldie from August 2013 from my Tucson Progressive blog)

Tobin & Other AZ Republicans: 82 ALEC-Funded Trips Since 2011 (April 2014 from my Tucson Progressive blog)




One thought on “Defund the Police? Balancing ‘Social Control’ & ‘Social Investment’ (video)

  1. This program makes perfect sense. But it is far from the meaning of the slogan “Defund the police.” And, yes, there are people who say that the slogan means exactly what it says.

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