Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Divide by Matt Taibbi - Book Review

Matt Taibbi's new book The Divide:American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (Random House; Spiegal & Grau, 2014, 448 pages, $27.00) is certain to make you angry, whatever side of the political spectrum you inhabit. The simple thesis of the book is that America's justice system is deeply divided along lines of race, culture, class, and (most of all) wealth into two distinct groups receiving distinctly different treatment at the hands of the police, the courts, and the political system. The genius of the book is how Taibbi hammers home his evidence to build an overwhelming indictment of not only injustice the system, but how much it costs all of us in lost opportunity and wealth. Taibbi builds his case by being a terrific story teller. He takes the reader into the homes, the offices, and courts with riveting interviews and loads of solidly compiled evidence to evoke, at first, some disbelief, but ultimately a deep conviction that something is wrong here, and we need to become outraged enough to do something about it. The reader is left, like Howard Beale in the Paddy Cheyevsky/Sidmey Lumet Film Network, leaning out the window screaming, “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take any more!”

Taibbi develops his premise by telling, in alternating chapters, stories about the poor, mostly black and Hispanic people, who are systematically treated with disrespect and humiliating injustice by the police, the courts, and the government with examples from the world of banking and high finance in which the institutions are deemed “too big to fail” and neither institutions nor individuals are seriously punished for their frauds (for crimes of fraud they certainly are) because of a doctrine of possible “collateral damage” to the innocent developed by Eric Holder when he served in the Attorney General's office under President Bill Clinton. Don't let Eric Holder's name set your heart a-pounding, though, as both Democrats and Republicans, including each of our last three Presidents, come in for their well-deserved share of the blame for the current shameful situation.

Taibbi asks the reader to consider the question of why some criminals go free while others committing “the same crime suffer the full weight of the states' power?” He argues that through the 1980's and 1990's the Justice Department had brought criminal charges against Boesky, Milkken, Keating and others as well as bank fraud cases against Drexel Burnham Lambert, Suisse Bank, and Bankers' Trust. More than 800 people were sent to jail as a result of the savings and loan crisis. Eric Holder's, at the time little noticed, 1999 memo urges prosecutors to consider the “collateral consequences” (that is the possible damage to innocent employees and stock holders caught up in the crimes of corporations and individuals within the corporations) might have. Combined with globalization and the “too big to fail” doctrine, this memo made attaining more convictions increasingly difficult. In the Obama administration, this difficulty combined with a deep concern about bringing cases that would be difficult and time consuming to win in which the weak became the object of prosecution leading to jail time, while the powerful either paid fines or were left alone. In stunning detail, Taibbi tells the story of the massive fraud perpetrated against the public by the sale of Lehman Brothers to Barclay Bank, in which hundreds of billions of dollars where lost while individual bankers were richly rewarded without risk. Meanwhile, the prosecutors preen at jailing Bernie Madoff while the banks who cooperated in his fraud go scot free.

The other side of the equation is represented by a number of individuals who become victims of either the mindless or vicious application of the criminal and civil justice system to the poor and powerless. We see the effect of New York City's stop and frisk law on the poor and the black. People merely minding their own business talking to friends on the street encounter teams of police who jam them against walls and, if they find no incriminating evidence, manufacture it to obtain an arrest and fill out their citation books' quotas. Once in “the system,” they are subjected to the mindless indignities of lazy, tired judges and overworked, cynical public defenders. The system works to keep people, even those with jobs and homes, from meeting their responsibilities, leading to their being fired and even more unable to pay too large fines for being, perhaps, in the wrong place at the wrong time. While “collateral consequences” were being recognized for massive corporate misdeeds, the consequences of wholesale arrests on the families and lives of poor people were never considered in a country with over 2,000,000 people in jail, many in profit-making private prisons whose congressional lobby is one of the most powerful in Washington, D.C. Placing the two systems of “Justice” side-by-side points to an inequity in society which always benefits the white and the wealthy. The reader must sit by in disgust at the waste and inefficiency of the systematic flaws, while lives with some hope in them are ruined for behavior that would be overlooked if the perpetrator were white or lived in the suburbs.

The only way to understand the chaos of the courts and police system or the failure to achieve justice in the world of banking and finance is through an anecdotal approach, which Taibbi has mastered. His accounts of the plight of undocumented workers and even a corporate whistle blower whose life is nearly destroyed by pointing out Chase bank's fraud in mortgage foreclosures fills the reader with a realization of the hopelessness, weariness, boredom, and desperation of the residents, police, lawyers, and judges caught in a system relying on phony data. Meanwhile, the defendants in the Gen Re and AIG cases go umpunished because of mercy pleas to a credulous judge. Taibbi, because of his skill as a story teller, puts a human face on the undocumented immigrants seeking only to find work and their American born children who become “collateral damage.” Taibbi says, the “nasty anti-social behavior of Wall Street crooks went almost completely unpunished: the system failed due to a combination of corruption, regulatory capture, pusillanimity of government officials, structural biases in the civil courts, and other causes.” Taibbi argues that the only way to fully understand the differences in the way fraud is treated across the divide is to see the way different people across the social scale are treated. He presents so many well-documented and researched examples that they become overwhelming.

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is an American author and journalist writing on politics, the media, finance, and sports for Rolling Stone and Men's Journal. We grew up in Boston and was educated at Concord Academy and Bard College. His writings have been seen as somewhat controversial. He lives in New Jersey.

With the publication of The Divide: American Justice in the Ageof the Wealth Gap (Random House; Spiegal & Grau, 2014, 448 pages, $27.00) Matt Taibbi seems to have developed an increased maturity in his analysis and presentation. While his writing may be seen by some as sometimes overheated hyperbole, for the most part his outrage is controlled, his reasoning well-supported, and the case he develops deeply convincing. His argument that there is a deep divide between rich and poor, black and white in the American systems of criminal and civil justice seems incontrovertible. The Divide was provided to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read in on my Kindle.