Tuesday, January 6, 2015

All The Small Things

Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi has a new book out called The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.  Despite the heavy-handed title and Taibbi's usual caustic prose, the book itself is steeped with facts and events that tell the story much better than any set of adjectives.  Essentially, Taibbi observes that nuisance crimes, encompassing everything from the war on drugs to loitering, are strictly enforced and heavily penalized while white collar crimes, often much more nasty than we may presume by their lily white description, are often left unprosecuted.  He explains that each system makes sense in a vacuum, but appear horribly unfair when compared against one another.

Here's a quote from an interview Taibbi gave to Democracy Now:

Well, first of all, this idea that some companies are too big to jail, it makes some sense in the abstract. In a vacuum, of course it makes sense. If you have a company, a storied company that may have existed for a hundred, 150 years, that employs tens or maybe even 100,000 people, you may not want to criminally charge that company willy-nilly and wreck the company and cause lots of people to lose their jobs.

But there are two problems with that line of thinking if you use it over and over and over again. One is that there’s no reason you can’t proceed against individuals in those companies. It’s understandable to maybe not charge the company, but in the case of a company like HSBC, which admitted to laundering $850 million for a pair of Central and South American drug cartels, somebody has to go to jail in that case. If you’re going to put people in jail for having a joint in their pocket or for slinging dime bags on the corner in a city street, you cannot let people who laundered $800 million for the worst drug offenders in the world walk.

Presumably, we all agree with this basic argument.  If you launder $800 million (which is on the small scale of financial crimes noted in Taibbi's book), you should probably face penalties on par with those for drug offenses.  But what is most disturbing about the book is just how institutionalized both systems have become.  "Collateral consequences" (i.e., too big to fail) has been written into US DoJ bureacracy since a 1999 memo from none other than former Attorney General (then deputy US Attorney) Eric Holder.  And on the other side of things, the politerati have pumped up their chest about initiatives like "Broken Windows" law enforcement that attempts to decrease crime by warehousing an entire social class of people in jail.

Outside of the simple injustice of it all, we can't ignore the danger it presents.  Uneven application of the law as a means to imprison one class of criminal while forgiving another simply on the basis of wealth and power prompts the question "What are you going to do about it?"  Not "what are you kind compassionate middle class Howard Countians going to do about it?" but "what are you, oppressed community, going to do about it?"

We have too many nuisance crimes.  These crimes build animosity between the police and our most impoverished citizens.  Animosity begets violence.  We know where the story goes from there.  While the question of "what are you going to do about it?" may not be posed to us directly, we can work to peel back crimes aimed at "unfavorable behavior" (i.e., loitering, public intoxication, etc.) and demand full prosecution of offenses that take money out of the retirement accounts of hard working Americans.  It is baffling that this is a state of justice we would otherwise accept.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!