As with Adolf Hitler’s “big lie,” a fabrication so enormous that most people cannot believe that anyone would have the nerve to tell it, “big crime” is behavior that contravenes law and decency with such sweeping disregard for the consequences that it often elicits sputtering incredulity rather than full-throated condemnation. When the Attorney General of the United States acknowledges that these financial institutions are too big to fail, as Eric Holder has done, the rest of us should understand that to mean that the banks, insurance companies, and hedge funds, are OUT OF CONTROL. Corporations are going to continue to dodge regulations and taxes, and play high-risk games which reap obscene profits, and trash communities, leaving us, the American taxpayers, holding the bag for the inevitable losses. For the financial manipulators, it’s a heads-we-win, tails-you-lose proposition.The question is: What can we do about this intolerable state of affairs? To the extent we are able, we should support the important work being done to tighten financial regulations, strengthen labor, and protect the social safety net (among other worthy causes), but there is something we can all do right away: stop reflexively treating the ruling class (which is what the 1% is) with respect simply because they are rich and powerful. The fact of the matter is that, with very few exceptions, the oligarchs have amassed their wealth at the expense of the rest of society. They are robbing us blind, and they should be treated with the scorn and disdain that one would afford to any common thief.
There’s a blueprint for this type of public shaming. Two decades before the Great Depression, a Sociology professor by the name of Edward A. Ross wrote a book called Sin and Society in which he described the “criminaloid” type – the “franchise grabber, the fiduciary thief, and the frenzied financier“…the “prosperous evil-doers.” He viewed the deeds of these people not as the result of evil or even pure greed, but as one of moral insensibility. Because they wear what Ross called a “breastplate of respectability,” they not only evade responsibility for their dastardly deeds, but act as if the plundering of the economy was, in the words of Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, “God’s work.” Clearly, it falls to us, the 99%, to make sure that their misdeeds are recognized and that they suffer ignominy as a result.
As we consider the criminaloids (I nominate JPMorgan Chase honcho Jamie Dimon as the poster child), let us not forget that the effects of the 2008 economic meltdown are still being felt. As unemployment continues at unconscionable levels and average American worker actually takes home LESS money today than he/she did before the recession, the rich are raking it in. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2009 and 2011 the wealth of the richest 8 million families in the U.S. went up an astonishing $5.6 trillion while the rest of us (93% of the population) lost $669 billion. Poof!
Mitt Romney called the oligarchs “makers,” ostensibly because they “make” wealth, but it is more accurate for the rich to be described as “takers,” while those who the rich consider “takers” deserve to be considered “makers,” both because, to the extent we make anything anymore, it’s the working man/woman that makes it, and because only labor creates sustainable wealth. The 1% are geniuses at “taking” (exploiting) the fruits of the labor of the 99%.We are in a bad way. In Edward Ross’s day, the Industrial Age was the driving force of social change. While this process remains problematic – automation goes hand-in-hand with globalization and weak labor laws to kill middle class jobs – the Information Age has brought a new sense of ideological isolation and alienation that leads to a feeling of hopelessness. The 1% really do seem to be above the law. The top cops and regulators may not have the gumption or the political will to bring us the accountability that we need and deserve, but we are not totally without a voice.
What is needed is a fundamental paradigm shift in the way the average American understands and regards wealth. When we read of a person who made a fortune, instead of thinking “achiever,” we should think “criminaloid slimeball.” The assumption should be that they took advantage of people every step of the way up the ladder of financial success. They lied and cheated, relying on a battery of lawyers and accountants to keep them beyond the arms of the taxman and the lawman. Our default attitude, until such time as they demonstrate that they did no harm in amassing their fortunes, that they are repugnant, a scourge on society.It should no longer be sufficient for a rich person to say, “I played by the rules.” Aside from the fact that the rules are too lax (the historical data shows that more regulation leads not only to a more equitable society, but to greater long-term economic growth), to remain within the confines of the law is the LEAST we should expect; we need to hold people to higher ethical standard. And the main tool available to us to is to confer shame upon those who put profit above people and the planet.
I have no illusion that this sort of shunning will significantly alter the behavior of corporations or banksters like Blankfein and Dimon, at least not in the short run. But properly placed social blame has two things to recommend it. First, it has the salutary effect of removing these predators from their superior perch, restoring middle-class and lower-class wage-earners to their rightful place at the center of American life. Second, there’s nothing like expressing justified self-righteous anger to help us regain the country’s moral equilibrium.