Opinion

Reihan Salam

Reality check: Death penalty is too expensive to make sense

Reihan Salam
Jun 20, 2014 20:47 UTC

Handout of revamped lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison

Last week saw the first executions in the United States since the botched lethal injection of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett, which drew renewed attention to the death penalty. Despite a sharp decrease in support for the death penalty — from 78 percent as recently as 1996, to 55 percent in a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center — the practice remains on the books in 32 states. This reflects the fact that support for the death penalty is uneven, with conservatives and Republicans far more likely to support it than liberals and Democrats.

The result of this disparity is that even as liberal states like Maryland and New York do away with the practice, conservative states like Texas and Utah are likely to stick with it. The fundamental reason conservatives tend to support the death penalty is that, as University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephanos Bibas recently told the Boston Globe, it reflects their belief in the importance of individual responsibility. For conservatives troubled by the rights revolution that transformed the U.S. criminal justice system in the 1960s and 1970s, “the death penalty became a symbol: Are we willing to hold people accountable for their actions?”

Perhaps in recognition of this widespread belief in the death penalty as a symbol of individual responsibility, at least some death penalty critics are choosing to emphasize its physical cruelty. For example, the political theorist Austin Sarat of Amherst College, author of Gruesome Spectacles, a history of botched executions, argues that the death penalty is inseparable from physical cruelty, as evidenced by the long history of mishaps and malfunctions that have turned seemingly humane methods of execution into hellish torments.

My own belief is that while virtually all methods of execution, including the most ingenious ones, will at some point fail to deliver a painless death, this isn’t in itself an argument against the death penalty. All human institutions suffer from limitations, and it’s hard to deny that contemporary executions are in important respects less cruel than those used in past eras.

A man and his son hold candles outside the prison before the execution of John Allen Muhammad at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, VirginiaMoreover, there is no reason to believe that progress has ceased. If you embrace the basic premise that the death penalty has important symbolic value, as a sign that some crimes are so heinous as to merit death, you’re not going to be convinced that botched executions are reason enough to abandon it.

What Eric Cantor’s loss — and a quirky economist’s win — means for Republicans

Reihan Salam
Jun 12, 2014 13:16 UTC

U.S. House Majority Leader Cantor discusses primary election defeat during news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington

On Tuesday Republican primary voters asserted themselves in spectacular fashion by wresting the GOP nomination from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and giving it to quirky economist Dave Brat, who now looks very likely to win the seat in the fall. This is much more than a run-of-the-mill primary upset. Because Cantor was second in command to Speaker John Boehner among Republicans in the House, his defeat has set off a scramble for power, the outcome of which has yet to be determined.

Cantor’s defeat has led to searching questions about what exactly Brat’s victory means? Let’s run through a few different interpretations.

Immigration. One widely-held view is that Cantor’s defeat means that immigration reform is dead. There is one problem with this line of thinking: comprehensive immigration reform, as endorsed by the Obama White House and a bipartisan group of senators that includes Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ), among others, was already dead. The fundamental bone of contention is whether or not unauthorized immigrants should be granted a path to citizenship, provided they jump through various hoops, like paying back taxes and demonstrating English language proficiency, most of which would be impossible to implement.

Technology, not regulation, is the best way to tackle climate change

Reihan Salam
Jun 6, 2014 15:48 UTC

 warming111

By all accounts, President Obama is deeply interested in his legacy. And though relatively few American voters see dealing with climate change as a top priority for the federal government, the president famously sees it as the most important issue he can address in his second term. Having failed to shepherd climate change legislation through Congress in 2009, when Democrats had large majorities in the Senate and the House, the Obama administration has shifted to using new regulations to achieve its environmental policy goals. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency introduced its Clean Power Plant Proposed Rule, a sweeping initiative that aims to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The heart of the 2009 legislation — the Waxman-Markey bill — was a new cap-and-trade system, which would allow businesses to trade the right to emit a certain level of carbon. The new EPA regulations are actually much less flexible than the cap-and-trade system envisioned in Waxman-Markey, and they will reduce carbon emissions at a much higher cost to the economy.

So you might be tempted to think that we ought to embrace cap-and-trade. Conservatives often get lectured for failing to embrace cap-and-trade or stringent carbon regulation. Ezra Klein, writing for the liberal news site Vox, observes that Arizona Sen. John McCain favored a cap-and-trade system during his 2008 presidential campaign, and he takes today’s GOP to task for being less enlightened.

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