Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap
Investigative journalist Matt Taibbi begins this book with one simple question: who goes to jail in contemporary America, and for what? But he uncovers a complex moral framework which completely upends traditional conceptions of justice. How does it make sense, Taibbi asks, that Food Stamp applicants can face jail time for misappropriating $350 a month, but bank executives can literally abscond with billions of dollars and get Eric Holder’s handshake?
Taibbi’s investigation follows two tracks. In odd-numbered chapters, he demonstrates methods by which private interests and government lawyers collude to provide nigh-limitless protection for money. Even-numbered chapters provide ways America’s poor encounter the justice system, ways that include urban street-sweeping operations and Palestine-style checkpoints. It’s almost impossible to synopsize this book’s stories without sounding like I’m exaggerating or outright lying; but Taibbi documents everything in horrific detail.
In cities today, it’s appallingly easy for poor citizens to get arrested. Laws exist, which well-heeled residents need never know about, allowing police to jail persons for penny-ante crimes like idling, driving excessively nice cars, and Constitutionally protected protests. Taibbi describes one African-American Brooklynite, who was arrested, held for four hours, and forced to defend himself in court, for “blocking” an unoccupied sidewalk in front of his own house.
While this taxpaying black citizen lost several days’ wages for frankly Orwellian crimes, the Lehman Brothers bank collapse generated scandals you probably never saw on network news. CEO Dick Fuld concealed his bank’s woes with shameful aplomb, so individual investors, charities, and municipalities sunk money into Lehman until the last possible moment. Then, when Barclay’s bought Lehman’s shambling undead corpse, executives chiseled themselves bonuses totalling north of $10 billion. Seriously.
Taibbi’s method ping-pongs with blood-chilling regularity. Poor Americans get arrested for violating laws middle-class voters don’t even know exist. Obscure stipulations of immigration law deputize every traffic cop in America as ICE enforcers, meaning Hispanics get deported for being crime victims. Meanwhile, hedge fund owners place risky bets against old-fashioned neighborhood corporations, and commence lengthy gaslighting campaigns to submarine disfavored businesses, and judges systematically refuse to do anything.
Patterns emerge quickly, and Taibbi hammers them home. Government treats every welfare applicant as fraud in process, justifying bottomless investigation budgets. But when Wall Street megabanks sell fictional default judgments to unsuspecting enforcers, the very category for which legislators first wrote fraud laws, courts do nothing. There’s no reason to believe courts even realize, amid floods of robo-signed paperwork, that legitimate fraud has even happened.
Certain Wall Street stars have grown so vast that, like literal stars, their very presence distorts spacetime, market forces, and blind justice. Anyone bringing suit against them faces armies of lawyers, underfunded courts, and a Justice Department terrified of losing. Eric Holder won’t bring suits unless victories are guaranteed. But poor people get stampeded because they’re essentially helpless. Taibbi and others call this naked cash-and-carry malpractice “justice by attrition.”
The effects aren’t insignificant. The IMF estimates the 2008 financial implosion took $4 trillion from the world economy, a figure Taibbi calls “very conservative.” We’re all poorer today, so how we spend money reflects our values even more precisely. When we make Food Stamp applicants pee in cups to receive measly grocery assistance, but distribute subsidies so corrupt banks can purchase even more corrupt banks, that says something about us.
Having just reread Homer, I recognize this moral framework. America has adopted Bronze-Age social standards, in which victory, or anyway wealth, is its own justification. Poverty is literally worse than death, and poor people don’t deserve opportunities to redeem themselves. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus declares: “Justice is the advantage of the stronger over the weaker.” Plato means us to reject this claim, but Taibbi shows, that’s exactly American justice today.
Despite brief discursions, Taibbi mostly doesn’t burden himself with explanations. He aims to spur outrage by demonstrating how injustice exists. He focuses on narrative over policy wonkery. However, as an amateur reviewer, I recognize Taibbi’s narrative as consistent with other current books. Readers curious about how these outrages became permissible should consider Göran Therborn and Ian Haney López, for starters. This outrage didn’t just happen; it was built.
Conservative theoreticians claim “rule of law” makes all people equal, and should be upheld. But Taibbi demonstrates that essentially anarchic economic forces have subverted rule of law, making injustice downright commonplace. The very principles upon which America was founded now struggle against wealth so vast, it buys its own justice. We deserve to feel outraged. And feeling that, as Americans, we deserve to act.