Ask Iris: Why aren’t the bankers in jail?

A longtime reader emailed me about an online petition she signed, run by the folks at Rebuild the Dream:

Now that the Department of Justice has prosecuted John Edwards, it’s time to move on to Wall Street already.
Breaking the law is breaking the law. So why have no charges been filed against the top executives of the financial institutions whose fraud nearly crashed the global financial system, drove our economy into a ditch, resulted in billions in taxpayer bailouts, and left millions of Americans searching for jobs and one in three homeowners owing more than their homes are worth?
If Rebuild the Dream can get 50,000 signatures on this petition, they’ll publish it in a DC publication for DOJ folks to see.
I just signed — click here to join me:

I signed the petition—even though it does not envision nearly enough vivid descriptions of banker’s heads on pikes for my personal taste.  But the email does pose an apparently non-rhetorical question:

“So why have no charges been filed against the top executives of the financial institutions whose fraud nearly crashed the global financial system, drove our economy into a ditch, resulted in billions in taxpayer bailouts, and left millions of Americans searching for jobs and one in three homeowners owing more than their homes are worth?”

Why?  This* is why:

Our financial industry has grown so large and rich it has corrupted our real institutions through political donations. As Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, bluntly said in a 2009 radio interview, despite having caused this crisis, these same financial firms “are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they, frankly, own the place.
Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery. One consumer group using information from calculates that the financial services industry, including real estate, spent $2.3 billion on federal campaign contributions from 1990 to 2010, which was more than the health care, energy, defense, agriculture and transportation industries combined. Why are there 61 members on the House Committee on Financial Services? So many congressmen want to be in a position to sell votes to Wall Street.

Hey, I know!  Any of you guys have $2.3 billion?  I’m sure if we all chip in, we could buy back Congress.  Maybe even the presidency!

Who’s with me…?


These Masters of the Universe who own our Congress are, of course, conservatives, with the whole panoply of pathologies that implies.  They’re the type to march around whining that they never got any help from the government—while waving around their obscene bonus checks courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer funded bailout.  In short: they are delusional, entitled, grandiose and highly narcissistic, if not outright sociopathic.  Once you understand that the U.S. government acts primarily at their behest, a lot of seemingly incomprehensible government policies make perfect sense. Like the fact that the Justice Department is never, ever going to prosecute any of them.

You see, the statement in the Rebuild the Dream email “Breaking the law is breaking the law” is patently, obviously, provably false.  In the United States, breaking the law is not necessarily the same thing as breaking the law: it depends entirely on who commits a criminal act.  If you or I were to knowingly defraud people in order to enrich ourselves as these bankers did, and then got caught when the whole Ponzi scheme blew up spectacularly, we would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  We would certainly not call up our loyal servants in Congress and the White House and have them quickly make us perfectly whole again, while leaving our countless devastated victims to fend for themselves.  Likewise, if I were to implement a torture regime in my apartment building in order to coerce my neighbors into doing and saying what I want them to (and I have certainly indulged in such flights of fancy** from time to time), I would be, and should be, locked up for life.  Dick Cheney, on the other hand, gets feted on a book tour.  Our laws simply do not apply to the rich and powerful.

At the same time, the U.S. houses more prisoners than any country in the world.  With only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners.  This sad state of affairs is the predictable result of the incomprehensibly stupid “War on Drugs,” coupled with faux-macho “tough on crime” measures advocated by conservatives.  One in a hundred U.S. adults is behind bars, and more than half are low-level drug offenders. In fact, the urgent need for prison and sentencing reform is so blindingly obvious that even the worst whack-a-loon conservatives are urging it:  Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist have joined with the NAACP to call for substantial reformsNewt Gingrich.  And Grover Norquist.  Are aligned with the NAACP in calling for prison and sentencing reform.

Just let that sink in for a minute.

Now it’s a good bet that Newtie and Grovie are not in the least bit concerned with the humanitarian aspects of our nation’s incarceration obsession, or even the crime reduction that results from a smarter and more humane approach to sentencing, such as drug treatment and prisoner re-entry programs.  No, they’re interested in this issue because of the cost.  It’s hard to argue that “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub” when your policies result in exploding prison populations—not that conservatives don’t regularly argue completely contradictory nonsense.  But according to a 2011 NAACP report, “spending by states on prisons has increased at a rate six times higher than that of spending on higher education.”  That shows some seriously messed up priorities, right there.

Well, I have a few prison reform ideas, guaranteed to save boatloads of cash and restore countless destroyed lives.

  • Legalize pot.  Tax it.
  • Implement drug courts, science-based drug treatment programs, and re-entry programs.
  • Release all low-level, non-violent drug offenders immediately.
  • Lock up the law-breaking bankers and war criminals in their stead.  There are relatively few of them, but obviously the damage they can cause is tremendous.


* I am not in the habit of citing to Tom (“Suck-On-This”) Friedman.  I was looking for a cite to Durban’s unusually candid quote about the bankers owning our (their?) government, and Friedman’s column came up in the first page of search results.  I guess it’s fair to say that my notoriously bad Google-fu, compounded by my imperial impatience and chronic laziness, led me to link to an otherwise unacceptable jackass as the source.  In this instance, it served our purposes well enough. But make no mistake: I am with this d00d, and especially with this d00d, on the subject of Mr. Friedman.

**My fantasy torture regime would aim to enforce the following:

  • When removing your laundry from a washer in the communal laundry room, also remove the used sanitary napkin you inexplicably washed with your clothes.
  • We’re all for (enthusiastically consenting) kink, but we don’t need to listen to it on your preferred schedule.  There are dungeons for that sort of thing.  Patronize them.
  • Do not let your dog pee or shit in a common area and just leave it there for someone else to clean up.  Or to step in.
  • No one wants to steal your crappy car.  Disconnect your goddamn car alarm if you’re going to park in front of my building.
  • Do not let your one year old twin boys scream and run around outside the Palace door as if the hallway is merely an extension of your own apartment.  New Yorkers lavishly fund beautiful public parks and community playgrounds: use them.
  • 3:35 a.m. is not an appropriate time to rearrange one’s furniture.  Or practice bowling. Or whatever the hell it is you’re doing up there making incomprehensibly loud thuds in the middle of the night.  Stop it.

One thought on “Ask Iris: Why aren’t the bankers in jail?

  1. There’s hope. Watch for charges against Ken Lewis, former BoA CEO. Seems he lied to shareholders about the possible looses of Merril Lynch when getting them to approve the merger. This came to light recently as a result of a shareholder suit, which now the DoJ is looking into.

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