A couple of months ago, something rather good happened. A group of top-level executives of the huge international bank HSBC were caught red or rather scarlett-handed laundering vast amounts of money for some of the worlds largest international drug cartels.
It was every drug-enforcer’s wettest dream, a multi-billion dollar bust with conclusive evidence, exposing the very top players and hitting the cartels where it hurts. As I read about the details I couldn’t help but picture U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, wringing his hands in a near-uncontrollable glee. Finally, after dedicating years and at a cost of millions of dollars and perhaps even lives, here’s the payoff: the pleasure of picking up the cartel’s top level bankers and money launderers, dragging them into court for the case of the century and then locking them up and throwing away the key.
Except, that’s not what happened. If you or I were caught with even a trace of weed in our pockets, we risk getting locked up for years. But these top-level bankers, these enablers for some of the world’s most violent drug cartels, who laundered billions of dollars, enriching themselves in the process, were not even prosecuted. The case was settled when they agreed to give up a part of their bonus for a couple of years…
…Yes, I know: “And? What else?” Well, nothing else. That’s it. That’s the extent of their punishment: giving up a portion of their excessive bonuses for a few years. The USAAG decided to settle because he felt that arresting, convicting and locking up these men could jeopardize the stability of ‘system-bank’ HSBC and with that the stability of the global financial system. Banks like HSBC are apparently not only too big to fail but also too big to jail – That’s not mine by the way.
Now, imagine polling this decision. Imagine asking Nielsen to call a representative sample of registered voters and getting their opinions on the decision not to jail these bankers because… well, because obviously they are simply too important to jail. Unless a few of the bankers themselves happened to be included in the poll, I’m betting you’d get a solid 100% are-you-fucking-crazy-rate and more than a few WTF’s scribbled in rather large red letters at the bottom of each questionnaire, penned there by the incredulous Nielsen pollsters after the reality of the research-question had dawned on them. The USAAG’s decision not to persecute these men is more than just ridiculous and dangerous and defies more than just morality. It defies the heartfelt desire of voters desperate for some piece of evidence that the law still applies to everyone. It is not only wrong, it is undemocratic.
So what the f*ck is going on? Why would the Assistant Attorney General make a decision that is so clearly immoral, undemocratic and unwise? Is he on the take or something? Should we imagine him late at night at an abandoned parking garage, palms sweaty on wheel of a non-distinct beige rental, waiting for the drop? Should we picture him just moments after a visit by those bankers and their lawyers, all alone in his office, left speechless by an offer he knows he will not be able to resist? “Take it easy kid. Make the right moves, we promise, you’ll be set for life.”
As cynical as I may be, I don’t think so. I don’t believe the USAAG is on the take. But here’s a question: does it even matter? If he’s going to let criminals like these get away scott free, does it even matter whether he is on the take or not? Clearly, it doesn’t. What matters is the outcome. And this particular outcome is every bit as damaging to society as anything any oldskool brown paper bag corruption could produce.
I wish I could say that the HSBC-banker incident is unique. Unfortunately we all know it isn’t. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of examples of public officials, representatives and politicians making decisions that defy not just logic and morality but also democratic pressure, producing results every bit as damaging to society as anything real corruption could. Theoretically, the system of representative democracy should protect us against officials behaving this way because the voters see to it that these officials don’t stay officials for very long. But apparently, that system isn’t doing the job it’s supposed to.
Let’s take a look at another example and see if we can find a reason why. In the early nineties, the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, an independent government research agency, had the bright idea of conducting a series of studies into the effectiveness of gun legislation. The results were fairly inconclusive but nevertheless, the very idea that someone had had the nerve to conduct research was enough to send the NRA into violent spams of outrage. Hell-bent on revenge, the NRA contacted Rep. Jay Dickey. Dickey, an Arkansas Republican, subsequently pushed an custom-made amendment which stripped 2.6 million dollars from the center’s budget: the precise amount the center had spent on their wretched studies. And as if that message weren’t clear enough, our friend Dickey also made sure any future research got outlawed by including a provision making it impossible for the Center to create, publish or even quote research concerning guns.
Look, I’m not making this up. This happened. A US congressman helped the gun industry outlaw objective research concerning the effects of guns in society. We’re not just talking about obscuring unfavorable research results here. We’re talking about banning research all together. This is another one of those examples where if the official was not on the take, he might as well be. The outcome is exactly the same.
A popular explanation for this type of sh*t points to campaign funding. Good Ole Dickey needs re-election every two years and with the average cost of a re-election campaign now nearing about 1.5 million dollars, those NRA-contributions and fundraisers sure do come in handy. And I’m sure there’s some truth to this explanation. I agree that what used to be an illegal, cash-filled brown paper bag is now a perfectly legal, tax deductible campaign contribution. However, this explanation would imply that Dickey needed some sort of coercion before deciding to help the NRA. That he needed paying off. But let’s consider what kind of guy Jay Dickey is. A Republican from Arkansas , are you kidding me? That f*cker must’ve been born with a gun in his hand. Probably learnt to shoot before he could spell. Dickey and the NRA? They’re natural allies. Dickey wouldn’t need an NRA bribe to go after the Center. He’d do it for the cause.
It turns out we’ve got the logic backward. We assume that organizations like the NRA need Congressmen and Senators. We assume that they
bribe them fund their campaigns exercise their right to free speech in order to change the reps’ minds on a particular topic. But congressmen and Senators need organizations like the NRA and other lobby groups even more. Political campaigning has gotten so expensive that they simply can’t run for office without their lobby money. This has a sinister consequence. It means that the lobby groups ultimately decide who our political candidates will be. And they will be Jay Dickey. They will be Sarah Palin and Louie Gohmert and Todd Akin. Ever wondered how such obvious idiots made it to positions of prominence? The more extreme and uncompromising a candidate is on, say, the issues of gun control, taxation, universal healthcare, abortion, or intellectual property reform, the more the associated lobby groups will like him (or her). Lobby groups love extremists; that’s who they’ll endorse.
In statistics there’s a thing called ‘selection bias’. The associated Wiki explains it as a “systematic error due to a non-random sample of a population, causing some members of the population to be less likely included than others, resulting in a biased sample.” Whutwhut? Let me clarify. A selection bias is what happens when you try to work out the average obesity-rate by weighing the customers of twenty Waffle Houses and one International House of Pancakes for control. Your results will be wrong because your sample group is biased. The pressure of campaign cost creates something quite similar. It creates an election bias. Some members of the population are much more likely to get funding for their political ambitions than others, resulting in a biased sample of the population being available for election. The bias favors individuals who happen to agree fiercely with well-funded lobby groups. Since there are fewer other candidates available, some of these people inevitably get elected, take up their positions and start doing things none of their voters ever asked for. The system of representative democracy was set up to prevent exactly this sort of abuse of power. But money found a way.
So let’s return to our US assistant Attorney-General. Lanny Breuer is certainly no idiot and to compare him to Sarah Palin would be a ridiculous insult. Breuer has made a career out bringing prosecutions to corrupt corporations. He’s exposed many incidents of fraud and corruption, racked in billions of dollars in penalties and secured numerous convictions of individuals. He’s also far less sensitive to the pressure of campaign expense, because he’s an appointed official, not an elected representative. But when it comes to big banks gone bad Breuer clearly prefers the settlement, not just in the HSBC case but in all his LIBOR cases as well. It makes me think Breuer really believes his own crooked argument about protecting the system. I think he really believes that the system intrinsically good and that it’s ultimately his job to protect it. Even if that means letting criminals go free.
I’m betting there’s more than a few bankers out there thinking he’d make a perfect Senator someday.
*the total expense of the 2012 Presidential and Congressional races