The worst crimes are not always the punishable ones
By Alex Mozell
“The worst crimes are not always the punishable ones.”1
George Orwell was an esteemed writer, political philosopher, socialist, and critic, who braved the Luftwaffe hellfire and joined the armed resistance against Franco’s rise to power. He hated dictatorship in all forms, from dogmatic fascism in the West to the dehumanizing communism of the East. He wrote against totalitarianism, and in his novel, 1984, imagined a world in which thoughts were punishable by death, while “vaporizing” political dissenters was not only legal, but official policy.
Indeed, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And those with power use it to legalize their corruption. Their touch reaches far, scores of people harmed by their maneuvering. Ultimately, corruption is a parasite, stealing much from the masses, and enriching only a few. Of course, there are horrible people everywhere, who roam the streets, stealing, destroying property, or murdering, but they rarely hold political sway, and so their crimes are reviled and punished – and very rightfully so.
Below, I intend to compare these crimes: legal to illegal, those committed by the powerful to those committed by the lowly:
First, consider our economic leaders, particularly bankers, who often employ dubious practices to make a profit. Money laundering, for instance, turns dirty money into clean money, like drug revenues from Mexican cartels, or oil revenues from the Sudanese government during the Darfur Genocide. Money laundering fuels conflicts around the world: murder, rape, destruction, displacement, and the practice of enslaving child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; kidnapping, torturing, and murdering in South American drug producing countries; drug addiction and gang violence in the United States; and aiding and abetting our geopolitical rivals, such as Russia and Iran, when we lay sanctions on them (which should be treason).
According to the Institute for International Economics, the United States launders over a trillion dollars each year, inflation adjusted from their 2001 estimate. Almost all of this flows through US Banks; most goes undetected, and for cases that are identified, fines levied against banks run low, and actual prison time is very rare. Notorious Mexican cartel leaders, who send cocaine across the border, can then stash their drug revenues in Swiss banks and hedge funds. Meanwhile, as estimated by the White House, US illegal drug sales amount to $100 billion a year, or perhaps a tenth of the money laundered by our banks. Those bankers, and the great majority of them get away with it3 and receive huge bonuses, as drug lords, mass murderers, and Russian oligarchs are willing to pay a premium for this service.
Money laundering is of course only one of Wall Street’s crimes, the most recent and the most notable being the financial crisis. One might liken it to a tower of cards tumbling to the ground. In the buildup to the recession, the banks took on risk; the riskier their assets, the more money they made. However, there came a point when the banks saw that the end was near, but they continued to pile on the risk, knowing full well American taxpayers would bail them out, meaning to buy their stock, give them loans, or else just hand them cash – no strings attached. And we did. And the banks were saved. According to Pro-Publica, the banks accepted $618 billion of our money. And according to the New York Times,5 in 2008, bankers used that money to pay themselves $20 billion in bonuses. Yachts on us.
After all was done, the world economy suffered trillions of dollars in damage, truly an unfathomable amount of suffering, with all of the suicides, starvation, and fractured families as a result. Would these banks have gambled so recklessly knowing they would go bankrupt? If banker bonuses would have been capped thereafter? If those accountable would have been fired? If those accountable would have been jailed? We can be sure the answer is no. Compare this sum with property crime in the United States, where a kid spray painting a wall can be slapped with a criminal record, and then rejected from any college they apply to. According to the FBI, property crime in the United States in 2008 cause damages worth $17 billion. That is quite the sum, but it is less than the bonuses that bankers paid themselves that year, after destroying the world economy.
Finally, consider our political leaders, and how they actually get into office: with money. According to the New York Times,6 “Fewer than 100 families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign.” The rich buy candidates for their own purposes: to widen loopholes in laws, drill for oil in protected lands, or tax all income private equity managers receive at the capital gains rate (as we all remember Mitt Romney’s 14% tax rate in 2011). The New York Times estimates $2 billion spent on the 2012 presidential election.7 Additionally, $1.9 billion was spent on congressional races that year,8 about $600 million on Super PACs,9 and a further $3.1 billion on state elections.10 All this comes to $7.6 billion. Some call it “voting with your dollars,” but I call it bribery.
But what if someone were to pay in thousands, rather than millions, for a seat in state bureaucracy, rather than the presidency? Bribery to gain employment in government is punishable by up to 15 years in jail!11 For what cause? To keep unqualified people from getting the jobs? To give everybody a fair shot, irrespective of whether they are rich or poor? To remove subversive interests from decision-making? To ensure government answers to the people? Campaign donations make a mockery of all of that. When half of the contributions come from one hundred families, politicians will regard the rest of us like ants.
Legal crime, through decades, or even centuries of practice, can numb our indignation. Notable abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, speaking to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1852 stated, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few.” He knew that corruption and avarice would be made common, though villains tried in courtrooms are spectacle. We must vote with our votes. If need be, we must vote with our dollars, if only to stem the avalanche of hedge fund contributions with our own. Money launderers must be imprisoned. Those who destroyed the world economy must be tried; and finance must be regulated further. Those who lied to Congress in 2003 are traitors, and must be tried as such. Campaign finance must be reformed. Together we can accomplish these things, but it will take a spirited endeavor; our leaders, one can be sure, like things just the way they are.
1 Benefit of Clergy: Some notes on Salvador Dali
3 Institute for International Economics
4 Iraq Death Toll Reaches 500,000 Since Start of U.S.-Led Invasion, Says New Study
5 Bankers Reaped Lavish Bonuses During Bailouts
6 Small Pool of Rich Donors Dominates Election Giving
11 18 U.S.C. § 201 (b) (1)-(2)