Bullish on prisons

February 02, 1994|By Russell Baker

GET into plastics, the dreary old grown-up advised Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate," and young men everywhere laughed. I wasn't quite young enough to get the joke.

The dreary old fellow was simply tipping Dustin on a good capitalistic enterprise, wasn't he?

This was surely sounder advice than Horace Greeley's "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country," which people have listened to without laughter since Greeley issued it in 1850.

Unlike getting into plastics, going west plunged American youth into the degrading world of federal dependency, for Greeley's west was the ultimate handout state.

The U.S. Army disposed of inconvenient Indians for Westerners. The government gave them land incredibly cheap, when not free. Western cattle, agricultural, mining and timber industrialists still enjoy big-hearted federal subsidies in the form of cheap rents for cutting, digging and using public lands.

By contrast, a young man getting into plastics was the very model of the entrepreneurial spirit so highly cherished today. I urged my own children to do it.

I pointed out that with millions of young Americans laughing along with Dustin at the idea of getting into plastics, plastics were going to be hard pressed to find bright young workers. This meant plastics would probably pay top dollar for entry-level jobs in a field where fortunes were sure to be made.

My children laughed. Why should they face the rigors of capitalistic competition, they asked, when they could go west, get into California's defense-industry colossus and live off the federal dole handed out by the Pentagon?

And look what happened to them:

After working their way to the top of multibillion-dollar defense industries, they used to enjoy coming East to taunt their father about his taxes being used to buy their Lamborghinis, Chateau Latour and South American ranches.

Now the joke's on them, because they are as bankrupt as the rest of California. This means they have to live on their vast Florida estates, where they invested their fortunes and cellared their wine as soon as they learned that Florida law shelters the bankrupt from importunate bill collectors.

I telephone them now and then. "If you hadn't chosen to live on federal handouts," I remind them, "you could now be living in Passaic instead of those big dull Florida estates."

It was 1967 when Dustin was advised to get into plastics, and the business picture has changed a lot since then. Nowadays if I wanted to point him to a sure-fire growth industry, I'd say, "Dustin, get into prisons."

The intense political pressure to lock up bad characters forever is going to create business opportunities that most people, including the politicians, have not yet foreseen. Here's how:

The idea of locking them up forever is so exhilarating to the voters right now that they are forgetting that forever, as the old song says, is a long, long time.

The average bad character who goes over for good this year at age 21 will probably still be in the joint 50 or 60, and in some cases 70 years from now. This means that by the year 2050 prisons are going to be swarming with geriatric cases.

The average prison will then confront all the nightmarish problems now dumped onto retirement and nursing homes, plus a few more: prisoners who are incontinent, all memory gone, unable to walk or sit up unaided or feed or bathe themselves.

This isn't exactly what politicians and public now have in mind when cheering for prison eternal, but they are soon going to be stuck with it, and a young go-getter can make a fortune by getting in on the ground floor of businesses that will eventually be needed to cope with it.

Needs will include: vast quantities of privately supplied in-prison geriatric nursing and medical counseling; sound amplifiers for cells of Alzheimer's patients so that constantly repeated recordings can remind them where they are and why they are being punished.

Later, when the public rebels against the expense of keeping decrepit crocks in prisons, there will be pressure to house them in low-cost halfway nursing homes until Congress decides what to do next.

Get into prisons, young man, and make your fortune in old cons.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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