Roberta Brown-Jones, Nederland. Feeling that I needed something to help me understand the current state we are in as a country, I picked up Matt Taibbi’s 2014 book The DIVIDE: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Taibbi was compelled to try to find answers to the question of how and why justice is administered so unequally in the United States.
In his book, Taibbi takes on issues of corporate greed and the seeming immunity from law enforcement that corporations enjoy. He then contrasts the “white-collar” crimes with those of people at the other end of the spectrum in terms of wealth. Through multiple, in-depth accounts of big corporations and their practices as well as the accounts of ordinary people, Taibbi demonstrates how poor people receive much harsher penalties for even minor offenses.
Taibbi is successful in making the reader feel the pain of being poor and delegitimized by a society that, for the most part, shuns the unsuccessful and worships those lucky enough to have amassed great wealth.
He also shows how our justice system is set up to enforce this dichotomy by putting the poorest in jail while letting those who can hire the best lawyers rarely see the inside of a jail cell. This “dystopian sorting process” effectively divides society into the “hyperacquisitive untouchables” and the “vast ghetto of expendables.”
The Divide outlines how deregulation that started in the late 1990’s led to what we have today—ever-larger corporations that are “too big to fail.” Prosecutors started to take into consideration the “collateral consequences” of overly harsh sentences. If full prosecutions would lead to collapses of companies and the destabilization of economies, prosecutors believed that the “innocents” working in these places needed to be protected. Large monetary fines became the norm for corporate crimes instead of actually putting upper management in jail. This became the operating procedure for government prosecutors and created a systemic tendency for corporations to use their employees as “human shields.”
Taibbi highlights the irony of placing former Wall Street players in governmental positions in charge of watching over Wall Street. He does not let any administration off the hook, liberal or conservative. The high-level corporate crimes he analyzes have happened across multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic alike.
Contrasting petty crimes with the devastation caused by the financial-services industries’ behind-the-scenes corruption and manipulations of markets is another way that Taibbi underscores the unfairness of our justice system. Lehman Brothers, one of his examples, had to file for bankruptcy in the midst of the sub-prime mortgage crisis but nonetheless paid its higher ups multi-million dollar bonuses while pension-fund recipients felt the damage.
As further examples of contrast to the uber-wealthy class of people, Taibbi lays out stories of undocumented workers, welfare recipients, and residents of poor neighborhoods, all who feel the full force of the law. Stop-and-frisk and “broken window” policing is often used to reduce crime, but Taibbi illustrates how these practices also pick up many innocent victims. Black people are disproportionately picked up wrongfully and must prove their innocence through costly court appearances for crimes they didn’t commit.
After reading Taibbi’s book, even if you don’t find yourself in sympathy with undocumented immigrants’ plights, petty criminals, or poor people, it is hard not to get angry at the unbelievable disparities in punishment that occur in our “so-called” justice system. It is a wake-up call for all of us to pay more attention to government policies that allow high-level fraud to go unpunished. In addition, we should be wary of the cycles of de-regulatory zeal when politicians try to make sure that companies’ profits aren’t hindered by too much regulation. If anything, we should be advocating for much harsher enforcement of the law for corporate crimes in order to make our justice system tip in the direction of fairness.
Roberta Brown-Jones is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.