Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Frances Russell writes about the corrosive effects of inequality. And Robert Reich points out one creative option California is considering to address inequality at the firm level: tying corporate tax levels to wage parity, under the theory that shareholders will then have an incentive to push for a fair distribution of wages.

- Peter Richardson reviews Matt Taibbi's The Divide:
 Taibbi explores why Wall Street bankers are seemingly exempt from criminal prosecution, even as New York City targets petty crime — much of it manufactured by police in minority neighborhoods — more aggressively than ever. He cites statistics to make his argument, but mostly he reports on specific cases. One involves a working-class black man who finally decided to fight a misdemeanor charge for blocking pedestrian traffic — that is, standing on the sidewalk in front of his home. Taibbi also considers the zeal with which government agencies investigate and humiliate welfare recipients and undocumented residents for trying to provide for their families during hard times — times made all the harder because of unprosecuted crimes at the top of the economic food chain.

Everyone knows the rich receive special treatment in this country, especially in court. But Taibbi concludes that the government now offers a sliding scale of civil and criminal protection to U.S. residents. At one end of the spectrum, the very rich are virtually beyond accountability, no matter how massive and destructive their crimes may be. At the other end, the nation’s most vulnerable residents face unremitting investigation and prosecution by bureaucracies determined to find them guilty of something.

Taibbi also surfaces a new set of targets: Justice Department prosecutors who seek settlements for even the most outrageous white-collar scams. Many of them are recruited from law firms whose clients include the largest Wall Street banks. Lanny Breuer, who headed the department’s criminal division when the financial meltdown occurred, is Taibbi’s poster boy for this conflict of interest. Both he and Attorney General Eric Holder were partners at Covington & Burling, which represents JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo. All too often, Taibbi argues, the prosecutors have continued to behave like defense attorneys. When Holder was a Clinton administration official, for example, he wrote a memo arguing that prosecutors should consider “collateral consequences” when determining whether to charge persons or corporations. If a criminal prosecution would unduly harm innocent shareholders and employees, the logic went, it made more sense to settle. But once bankers realized they were beyond criminal prosecution, the incentives to transgress increased dramatically.
“The Divide” marks a shift in Taibbi’s tone. More Lincoln Steffens than Hunter Thompson, Taibbi drops most of the histrionics to reveal the corruption and injustice at hand. He even goes out of his way to be reasonable. He acknowledges that prosecuting financial cases can be expensive and risky, especially when the alleged crimes are complex and the defendants have vast legal resources at their disposal. That fact motivates prosecutors to settle such cases rather than try them in criminal court. He also concedes that many disadvantaged neighborhoods may benefit from tough policing. But he maintains that when combined, the two law-enforcement strategies add up to a glaring injustice. He also notes that it’s far too easy to introduce jurisdictional complications in financial cases that would never be allowed in less consequential cases. To make that point, he recounts a horrific case in which high-profile Wall Street financiers escaped punishment after trying to destroy a company they bet against as well as harassing its executives and their family members. 
- And David Dayen also discusses the consequences of a culture of impunity for the financial sector, with a particular focus on a home-seizure complex which has neither any incentive nor any apparent means to figure out whether a given claim to enforce a mortgage has any basis in fact:
(D)espite the fact that the nation’s courtrooms remain active crime scenes, with backdated, forged and fabricated documents still sloshing around them, state and federal regulators have not filed new charges of misconduct against Bank of New York, Deutsche Bank, U.S. Bank or any other mortgage industry participant, since the round of national settlements over foreclosure fraud effectively closed the issue.

Many focus on how the failure to prosecute financial crimes, by Attorney General Eric Holder and colleagues, create a lack of deterrent for the perpetrators, who will surely sin again. But there’s something else that happens when these crimes go unpunished; the root problem, the legacy of fraud, never gets fixed. In this instance, the underlying ownership on potentially millions of loans has been permanently confused, and the resulting disarray will cause chaos for decades into the future, harming homeowners, investors and the broader economy. Holder’s corrupt bargain, to let Wall Street walk, comes at the cost of permanent damage to the largest market in the world, the U.S. residential housing market.

By now we know the details: During the run-up to the housing bubble, banks bought up millions of mortgages, packaged them into securities and sold them around the world. Amid the frenzy, lenders failed to follow basic property laws, which ensure legitimate transfers of mortgages from one legal owner to another. When mass foreclosures resulted from the bubble’s collapse, banks who could not demonstrate they owned the loans got caught trying to cover up the irregularities with false documents. Federal authorities made the offenders pay fines, much of which banks paid with other people’s money. But the settlements put a Band-Aid over the misconduct. Nobody went in, loan by loan, to try to equitably confirm who owns what.
There was another solution available here, if Holder’s Justice Department didn’t throw up its hands and settle. Judges could have disassembled the broken mortgage system, and appointed a special master to handle all loans in question. It may have taken years, but the preservation of the public property system makes the time and expense worth it. Unless you would rather kneel to the wishes of the financial industry to keep everything rolling, and let the wound fester.

If you or I pick the lock on a house and try to steal everything in it, we’d probably go to jail. But if I were a bank, and I wrote down on a piece of paper that I simply owned that house, I’d get away with it. That’s the sad legacy of trying to cover up massive fraud instead of dealing with it.
- Don Lenihan responds to Lawrence Martin's suggestion that key PMO staffers be elected by Parliament by pointing out that there's more to democratic accountability than intermittent elections.

- And one of the more important factors needed to hold governments to account is accurate information about what they're doing. Which means there's all the more reason for concern about the Cons' pattern of refusing to release public data and covering up their own actions. But on the bright side, the NDP's push to make government information public by default offers a much-needed contrast.

- Finally, Tim Harper suggests that the temporary foreign worker program is beyond fixing. And
the CP discusses the obvious alternative: rather than binding helpless temporary workers to a single employer for the sole purpose of suppressing their wages and working conditions, we should look to fill with immigrants who can hope to make a future in Canada.


  1. The obvious alternative to the temporary foreign worker program is . . . nothing. There is no need for an alternative since the claimed reason to need it (worker/skills shortages) is a blatant lie. Certain people are afraid of the prospect of having to pay decent wages, provide decent working conditions, or stop practices like simply not paying wages they owe (a surprisingly prevalent practice among employers of precarious workers). The broader business community wants to keep unemployment up to "discipline" the rest of the work force.
    So they make up shit like this. The best alternative to doing the crap they are lying about why they want, is just not doing it--not coming up with an "alternative" to soften the blow for the lying greedheads as if they had a genuine problem.

  2. A fair point when it comes to the employer rationale for temporary foreign workers. But it's worth noting that the TFWP is also being used as a substitute for any immigration policy which gives newcomers any hope of staying in Canada without being beholden to a single employer - and I'd think it's worth discussing a more socially-focused model for immigration as we criticize the "labour discipline" model.