Book Review: The Divide—American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (2014)
by Alan F. Zundel
Justice may be blind, but it sure can smell money. Matt Taibbi’s “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” makes this dismayingly clear.
Of course, money has always bought better lawyers for affluent people, but these days things go way beyond that. There are two separate justice systems—neither of which has much to do with justice—depending on whether you are rich or poor.
And not necessarily even poor, as just not being rich makes you a potential victim of this Frankenstein’s monster of a legal system.
Own a credit card?
Suppose the bank that issued the card makes a mistake and thinks you missed a couple payments. The bank sends you a notice of their intent to take action to any address on file, even if it is a decade old. Or (depending on the laws of your state) they have a law firm hire a process server to notify you. Except the server throws the notice away and simply signs an affidavit saying you were served. Your signature is no longer required.
The bank’s litigation department then has a “robo-signer”—a low-level employee signing thousands of documents a day—sign an affidavit attesting to the “facts” of their case against you without bothering to review the facts or check on them. If you don’t show up in court (and in two-thirds of the cases the defendant doesn’t), the court automatically makes a judgment against you.
The bank packages your “debt” along with thousands of others and sells them to a debt-broker. In fact, you may not even have a court judgment against you and your case could end up in the package; the broker doesn’t have time to check them all. The broker sells them to a debt-collector, who notifies your local courthouse of their intent to collect. Local courts process these routinely.
Now the debt-collector can harass you for payment, and can slap a lien on your home, seize your car or other property, or attach your paycheck to get it. If you can afford a lawyer and have evidence that there’s been a mistake, you could fight it—but you might lose the case and owe your lawyer on top of it. Depending on how much is at stake, many will pay the “debt” rather than fighting it.
If you do fight it and have a chance of winning, they will drop their claim. The bank, the broker, and the debt-collector still make money from all the cases that don’t fight. It’s a numbers game. They have nothing to lose, having lobbied for laws that stream-lined this whole process to make their own carelessness an easy profit center.
It is even worse if you really are poor, or live in a poor neighborhood. In many cities unmarked police vans roam these neighborhoods grabbing people and throwing them in for a ride to the jailhouse on grounds such as loitering, drinking from an open container, obstructing pedestrian traffic (even at one a.m. in front of your apartment building with no one else on the sidewalk)—or for reasons that are entirely made up.
You face a long time waiting in jail for a trial if you can’t make bail, so most people take a plea bargain and accept a fine. If you want a trial the state has a multitude of ways to delay trial from one date to another while you either wait in jail or keep coming in only to wait all day and find out your trial has been postponed again. Another reason to settle and accept a fine. If you last through all this and get a trial, the state can simply drop the case.
Again, it’s a numbers game. The police show a high arrest rate, the prosecutors show a lot of convictions (all those plea bargains), and the courts make money on the fines. Meanwhile poor people walk around constantly looking over their shoulders and waiting for the police to grab them to make their arrest quotas. And paying through the nose whenever they get caught in this net.
The law is pretty hard and becoming harder on these people—the poor, people on welfare, undocumented immigrants. There are government budgets to be justified, money to be made by private prison contractors, and votes to be gotten for cracking down on “those people”—plenty of incentives to make their lives even more miserable than they already are.
But the infuriating part is that things are the exact opposite on the other side of the divide. Are you a key executive in a major financial institution? It would cost the government lots of money to investigate your arcane dealings, and if they do find evidence of wrong-doing it will cost them even more to fight your company’s multitude of sharp lawyers in trying to prosecute you. If they prosecute or sue your company it could jeopardize thousands of jobs and could even endanger the national or world economy.
So mostly they don’t investigate or prosecute. Or at the very worst, they settle with the company for millions out of its billions in revenue: the proverbial slap on the hand.
Attesting to false documents? Defrauding the government? Manipulating the stock market or interest rates? Cheating pension funds? Causing millions of people to lose their homes? Nearly bring down the world economy? You won’t see the inside of a jail, nor will any money come out of your pocket. You might even get a nice bonus after the government bails out your company from its risky and illegal maneuvers.
Taibbi illustrates all this with colorful tales from both the high and low ends of society, drawing on interviews, court documents and other sources. A journalist as well as a best-selling book author, he has a lively writing style that entertains even as you are incensed by what you are reading. He manages to make the convoluted financial and legal processes clear for the most part, although you may have to read carefully to understand the elaborate chicanery of the wizards of Wall Street.
I was disappointed that Taibbi didn’t look at the larger economic forces at work: how the decline of wages has stifled consumer spending and led investors to turn to financial institutions for their profits rather than to companies that produce real goods. If you can’t sell people stuff, lend them money. Easy credit gives consumers hope of maintaining a middle-class lifestyle, only to find it’s a trap for stripping away any assets you have: your home equity, your savings, your pension, your future earnings.
But he does a good job of documenting the consequences of this. The divide has become wider in our age of growing inequality, and even become institutionalized in government policy, whether intentionally or not.
The “justice” system certainly can smell money. And it stinks.