THE HILL 12/21/11
By Michael Shank and US Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA)

In light of Congress’s failure to wrestle up short-term cost-cutting measures for our country, we must not lose sight of longer-term concerns about the sustainability of our deficits, debts and, ultimately, our budgets.  While we tempt deadlines now, trimming where feasible, we will land in this position on multiple occasions in the future unless we reform radically or restructure the way in which America does its business.

We are not, however, suggesting radical reforms in ways that Washington has already witnessed.  We are recommending a rethink in how we deal with a range of realities prevalent in all 50 states, not just Washington.  It may seem self-evident but the high rates of violent crime, homicides, incarceration, policing and the availability of small arms, are costing this country hundreds of billions of dollars, and millions of jobs, per year.

Illustrating how much money America is mismanaging, the first-ever U.S. Peace Index, launched this year by the Institute for Economics and Peace, cites conservative estimates of the economic effect if the U.S. were on par with Canadian policy on all five aforementioned fronts: $361 billion per year and a stimulatory effect of 2.7 million jobs.  Given America’s high debt and high unemployment, it could benefit from both of these boosts.

If the U.S. is interested in realizing these savings and seizing these jobs, the answer lies in the U.S. Peace Index. The top five most peaceful U.S. states on the index — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota and North Dakota — landed there because of their low levels of violent crime and homicide, low rates of incarceration and small arms availability, and reduced policing.  Since there are substantial minority population percentages in both the Index’s top 10 “most peaceful” and bottom 10 “least peaceful” states, the answer lies in a state’s social and economic policies.

The Index’s top five most peaceful states have some of the highest population percentages with health insurance, the lowest percentages of teenage pregnancy, the highest high school graduation rates, the greatest educational opportunity, the least inequality among all household incomes, the best perceived access to basic services (e.g., clean water, medicine, etc.), the least amount of poverty and the lowest rates of infant mortality. Given published findings by credible economists regarding correlations between inequality, poverty and violence, none of these rankings is terribly surprising.

Graduate your students, insure your residents, provide basic services, prevent teenage pregnancy and infant mortality, and lower poverty and inequality rates, and the less prevalent and pervasive violent crime, homicide, incarceration, policing and small arms trafficking will be.  A state’s ability to provide for its population in these areas dramatically increases its capacity to lower its levels of violence.

Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, then, whose budget cuts this year have eaten away at education, health care, basic services or economic opportunity, would do well to reconsider.  For Wisconsin, a mere 25 percent reduction in violence would save the state almost $1.7 billion annually. For Ohio, the same 25 percent reduction would save it more than $3.6 billion annually. For Florida, the savings would surpass $9.3 billion — just for reducing its violence by 25 percent.

Halve the violence in all three states and you’d save almost $30 billion, but these are conservative cost calculations. On homicide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate that for each life cut short by homicide, the economy loses $1.65 million (medical costs, loss of lifelong employment, economic productivity costs).

On incarceration, this country spends $80 billion annually on its correctional system, at about $35,000 per inmate. Total costs of this lost productivity: $97.7 billion. On violent crime, the total cost to this country in 2009 was $94 billion (medical costs, lost productivity), more than half, or $58 billion, of which was associated with assault, $11 billion with rape and half a billion with robbery.

America’s tendency is to pursue policies that react primarily to violence, not aim to prevent it. As a result, not only is America less economically prosperous, it is less peaceful. The way forward, then, is to learn from what the index is telling us. A peace dividend is possible, but primarily through policies that prioritize equal opportunity, health, education and poverty alleviation. By doing so, America saves lives and saves money, a proposition that should appeal to the pragmatist in all of us.

Shank is the U.S. Vice President at the Institute for Economics and Peace. Honda represents Silicon Valley and serves on the House Budget and Appropriations Committees.