In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic confirmed a cruel form of American exceptionalism—the country’s exceptionally poor performance in handling the virus as measured in deaths and infections. Neither flag waving nor flyovers can mask other American failures, including climate change indifference, tolerance for gun violence, inadequate health care, gross income inequality, systemic racism and other ailments. We’ve got some serious issues to address.
Jennifer Taub points to another elephant in the room: white collar crime. In her new book, Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime (Viking), Taub bluntly proclaims: “[T]he United States has a serious corruption problem, and most of us know it.” The examples she recounts will be familiar to regular news consumers and span most sectors, including the entertainment world, Wall Street, politics and business. “Cheating the public—and getting away with it— is the new normal,” she writes.
No, not all wealthy and powerful people are corrupt. Rather, as Taub, explains:
The extremely wealthy and well connected have incentives and opportunities for crime and corruption.… Extreme wealth is criminogenic and … the upper classes provide one another with a kind of mutually assured immunity … Prosecutors also have insufficient incentives to pursue complex and time-consuming cases against respectable high-status individuals and business entities. And the tools they have to detect and punish offenders have been dulled by the courts … [T]he urgency to prioritize white collar crime is low when it’s hard for the public to see the victims.
Immunity Breed Impunity
The wealthy and powerful rarely go to jail, and, when they do, it’s for relatively brief stays at “Club Fed.” The post-2008 economic crisis’s shoulder-shrug of “too big to fail” subsequently morphed into “too big to jail.” It’s not just that “[c]ivil settlements are easier” to obtain than prison sentences. From resource allocation to recognition for individual federal attorneys, large media-friendly monetary recoveries offer greater return on investment for the Justice Department, even if large corporations and wealthy elites are largely unaffected by the eye-popping sums. (Well Fargo CEO John Stumpf resigned in “shame,” comforted by a $134 million exit payment. The impressive $1.9B sum recovered from London-based HSBC for laundering drug cartel money “was equal to around one month’s profits.”)
More broadly, Taub painstakingly presents data to demonstrate that the self-serving and irresponsible actions of “trusted business and government leaders” inflict far more damage and harm than “street crime” or “property” crimes such as burglary, larceny, and theft. While the financial crisis of 2008 cost millions of Americans their homes and jobs, “behemoth banks received trillions in government bailouts and backstops, and bankers themselves went on to earn billions of dollars in personal bonuses.” The rich and the powerful become richer and more powerful, while the public loses trust in our institutions. The accumulation of wealth and power is divorced from the means and the cost of that wealth generation, such as public ills ranging from degraded air and water quality, food poisoning, inflated consumer prices, reduced pension funds, opioid addition, poverty, social stratification and even suicide.