SCOTUS Extends Curbs on Death Penalty and Retardation:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday continued a trend to limit capital punishment, ruling that Florida’s I.Q. score cutoff was too rigid to decide which mentally disabled individuals must be spared the death penalty.

“Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an I.Q. test,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision.

Justice Kennedy was joined by the court’s four-member liberal wing, a recurring coalition in cases concerning harsh punishments.

When the court barred the execution of people with mental disabilities in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia, it largely let the states determine who qualified. Tuesday’s decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the four dissenters, represented a “sea change” in the court’s approach.

The ruling will affect not only Florida, which has the nation’s second-largest death row after California, but also as many as eight other states by Justice Kennedy’s count, including Alabama and Virginia.

For students who may remember, this all goes back to Trop v. Dulles (1958), “evolving standards of decency,” and counting states. The majority concluded that 41 states did not use IQ tests solely to determine whether an inmate should be executed. The dissenters concluded the majority was using fuzzy math (from Alito’s dissent).

Attempting to circumvent these statistics, the Court includes in its count the 19 States that never impose the death penalty, but this maneuver cannot be justified. he fact that a State has abolished the death penalty says nothing about how that State would resolve the evidentiary problem of identifying defendants who are intellectually disabled.

This is the same debate they’ve had since Atkins in 2002, when Kennedy et al began to add non-death penalty states to states that had the death penalty but may have refused to apply it to certain categories of defendants (the intellectually disabled, juveniles, child rapists, etc.) to come up with “majorities” of states that have done away with certain kinds of punishments, thus indicating cruel and unusual.

Conservatives have long had a beef with the “Trop test,” and the idea of a living Constitution, but Alito’s dismissal of scientific evidence is more troubling.

I cannot follow the Court’s logic. Under our modern Eighth Amendment cases, what counts are our society’s standards—which is to say, the standards of the American people—not the standards of professional associations, which at best represent the views of a small professional elite.

Apparently, he’s either ignoring or hasn’t read the other parts of the Trop test, which clearly allow for scientific evidence to be taken into account when deciding whether a punishment is cruel and unusual (along with world opinion and action, anathema to conservatives). From Warren’s opinion “the words of the 8th amendment are not precise and their scope not static.”

I also find it troubling that Alito cites Penry v. Lynaugh (1989) over and over in his dissent, which was done away with in Atkins over 12 years ago. The regressive analysis suggests that “evolving standards of decency” stopped evolving back in the days when we were whacking juveniles and the mentally retarded in our society.

Anyway, it’s been predicted since Atkins that the court would eventually have to come back and determine a more “bright line” for states to follow when it comes to executing the intellectually disabled, and that’s precisely what the Hall decision of yesterday has done (from Kennedy’s opinion):

No legitimate penological purpose is served by executing a person with intellectual disability. To do so contravenes the Eighth Amendment, for to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being. “[P]unishment is justified under one or more of three principal rationales: rehabilitation, deterrence, and retribution.” Kennedy v. Louisiana , 554 U. S. 407, 420 (2008). Rehabilitation, it is evident, is not an applicable rationale for the death penalty. As for deterrence, those with intellectual disability are, by reason of their condition, likely unable to make the calculated judgment s that are the premise for the deterrence rationale. They have a “diminished ability” to “process information, to learn from experience, to en­ gage in logical reasoning, or to control impulses . . . [which] make[s] it less likely that they can process the information of the possibility of execution as a penalty

and, as a result, control their conduct based upon that information.” Atkins , 536 U. S., at 320. Retributive val­ues are also ill-served by executing those with intellectual disability. The diminished capacity of the intellectually disabled lessens moral culpability and hence the retribu­tive value of the punishment.

The professionals who design, administer, and interpret IQ tests have agreed, for years now, that IQ test scores should be read not as a single fixed number but as a range. See D. Wechsler, The Measurement of Adult Intel­ ligence 133 (3d ed. 1944) (reporting the range of error on an early IQ test). Each IQ test has a “standard error of measurement,” ibid. , often referred to by the abbreviation “SEM.”

Can I just pause, as a sociologist, to say how happy I am part of this debate centered on something as common (in my work) as standard error of measurement?

The majority goes on to make its case in a very scientific manner, and thus fulfills the Trop test regarding scientific and intellectual evidence of the constitutionality of a punishment.

But I’ll let Kennedy’s words summarize this issue for me:

The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world. The States are laboratories for  experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitu­tion protects.

The case is Hall v. Florida (2014).

Cross Posted From: The Power Elite blog

herbertgansRGBSource: Sociology as a Vocation – Looking to the Future

“A good deal of work in measuring inequalities is already taking place but sociology needs to take a greater interest in its effects on America’s institutions and peoples. The micro-sociological aspects of economic, political and social aspects of inequality require more exploration than they have so far received. Whenever possible, sociological research should be policy-oriented. It cannot be expected to engage in actual public policy making, which is beyond the expertise of many sociologists. However, they can conduct research that helps answer questions raised by policy advocates, policy makers, analysts and critics of public policy dealing with inequality.

Since economists and political scientists still tend to deal with issues that concern the country’s elite, sociology must intensify its attention on the non-elite. Further research must be undertaken particularly with and about the most vulnerable Americans, notably the below median income population that will undoubtedly suffer more from rising inequalities than anyone else. Among them, those who are least well represented in and by the polity and most often left out of the public discourse, should come first.

Sociology cannot speak for these populations but it can focus more research attention on their problems. The studies should focus particularly on the social, emotional and other costs of the most important inequalities. For example, the last several decades, and the last few years especially, have seen a dramatic increase in downward mobility, the frustrations of aborted upward mobility and lowered expectations. Sociologists should long ago have begun to make the processes and effects of downward mobility a major research area.

In addition, sociologists need to pay more attention to the long-range effects of extreme poverty, such as hypotheses that suggest it can result in post-traumatic stress disorders that can last for several generations. At the same time, researchers should understand how people cope with, struggle against and try to resist downward mobility at the various levels of poverty. Properly designed, such studies may provide clues to policies and politics that can offer help.

Even more important, sociology’s concern with the below median income populations must also extend to the forces, institutions and agents that play major roles in keeping them in place and impoverishing them further. Studying the makers of increased inequality is as important a research topic as learning more about its victims.

Concurrently, sociologists should do more to demonstrate the social usefulness of the discipline. This is best done by providing new research findings and ideas relevant to currently topical subjects, issues and controversies. Although easier said than done, sociologists should place less emphasis on contributing to “the literature” and other disciplinary concerns. Fewer studies that unnecessarily elaborate the already known would also help.

Sociologists must also continue to explore topics that the rest of the social sciences are ignoring or do not even see. They should be undertaking more research on and in the backstages of society that do not interest or are hidden to other researchers.

Whenever possible, sociology should prioritize empirical work, quantitative and qualitative. Despite the increasing availability of Big Data, the discipline must continue to concentrate on the gathering and analysis of small data, particularly through ethnographic fieldwork. Understanding society by being with the people and in the groups and organizations that sociology studies is our distinctive contribution to Americans’ knowledge about their country.

The discipline ought also aim for innovative and adventurous theorizing, with frames and perspectives that question conventional wisdoms, such as labeling theory in the past and relational and constructionist theorizing more recently. The changes in the country generated by the currently rising inequalities may encourage and even require novel ways of looking at American society.

Above all, sociology must strive harder to reach the general public, by presenting new sociological ideas and findings that should be of interest to this public in clear, non-technical English.”

The Washington Post has a couple of very detailed data visualizations regarding the death penalty in the US. Here is the first one (click on the image for a larger view):

DP1

This graph reads like a population pyramid and clearly shows the racial distribution between the executed population (on the left) and the victim population (on the right). Apparently, the victims are factored in at the time of execution rather than actual year of death (see 2001, where the victims of Timothy McVeigh were counted when he was executed). It is easy to see the overrepresentation of African Americans on the executed side as well as the greater prevalence of whites on the victim side, which conforms what we know about the application of the death penalty.

Here is the second dataviz:

DP2

Here, one can clearly see that executions peaked in 1999 (the article explains why), then steadily declines after that. By method, one can see when lethal injections became prevalent, at the expenses of electrocution (although that my be changing has drugs needed for executions are becoming more difficult to obtain, see Todd’s post on this).

The age category might be affected by the length of appeals. Men (as they are mostly men, as one can see on the gender chart) may be sentenced while in one age group and actually executed in another. The chart is based on age of execution, not sentencing. So, the bulk of execution takes place for men in their 30s and 40s.

More shocking, yet not surprising, is the regional distribution. Check out the South. It dwarves all the other region by at least a factor of 10. And Texas alone dwarves the rest of the country by at least a factor of five. If the death penalty really worked, the South, and especially Texas, should be a crime-free heaven.

From the Guardian, on Uruguay president Mujica:

“After two years in office Mujica legalised abortion up to the third month of pregnancy. Even with substantial restrictions, this law is unique in South America. Less than a year later a bill authorising same-sex marriages was passed. Uruguay legalised divorce in 1913. “Yes, we have an innovatory spirit, deeply rooted in our history,” he asserts. “We’re a country of immigrants, anarchists and persecuted people from all over the world. The result is the most secular country in Latin America, with a clear distinction between church and state. For my part, I’m president but I don’t believe in God.” You would never hear anything of the sort in neighbouring countries. But in June 2013 he received a warm welcome when he met Pope Francis.

The pinnacle of his presidential career came in June 2012 when defence minister Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro announced that the state would be taking over the production and sale of marijuana, which would be legalised and regulated. Compared with the experiments under way in the US, in Colorado and Washington, in the Netherlands and Spain, this system seemed so avant garde that the journalists present thought it might be a hoax. But the bill was passed and came into force last month.

Before the end of this year, by which time a new crop will have grown and a market set up, adult Uruguayan consumers registered with the authorities will be able to purchase up to 40g of marijuana a month at chemists, paying $1 per gram. It will be produced and marketed under government control. Consumers will also be allowed to grow their own in a neighbourhood co-operative or indeed at home, limited to no more than six plants per household. Somehow this is typical of Mujica, who says he has never smoked a joint and knows very well that 62% of voters are opposed to legalisation, yet has no qualms about launching the world’s first state-grown marijuana. He says it is a question of public security and that he is determined to separate consumers from dealers, and marijuana from other narcotics.

Drug trafficking has reached alarming levels in Latin America but has spared Uruguay, where the number of users is relatively low. “There’s a saying among farming people here,” Mujica explains. “When you see your neighbour’s beard on fire, you drench your own.” Adding, with a smile: “This law is a trial. It doesn’t mean we have the final answer. But our neighbours will have to take a look at our little country which might actually be a perfect location for this experiment.” He pushes his chair back. “The only thing I’m sure of is that the policy of combating drugs which has been enforced for decades is a crashing failure. I’m glad we’ve kicked over the ant hill.””

Göran Therborn published The Killing Fields of Inequality as what looks like an expanded version of a 2009 article on the same subject. And contrary to Picketty’s massive economic volume, Therborn’s book is short and sweet even though it covers some of the same territory. However, Therborn’s book focuses more on theoretical conceptualizations of inequality as well as its social consequences.

This is visible right off the bat in the way Therborn defines inequality:

“Inequality is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody’s human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life-chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world.” (1)

This is, I think, one of the most powerful statement of what equality truly is, beyond the relatively simplistic (and always contentious, nevertheless) economic indicators that do not capture the multi-layered nature of the impact, and mixing of cause and consequence, of inequality. But it is precisely this multi-layered nature that necessitates a more nuanced and inclusive approach to examining inequality, which is what Therborn focuses on:

  1. a multi-dimensional conceptualization of inequality;
  2. within a historical and global context;
  3. produced through a variety of mechanisms;
  4. and often countered by equalization mechanisms (which Therborn argues for).

The simple idea is that inequality is produced by a variety of mechanisms and is therefore not inevitable (like some weird atmospheric event) and certainly not desirable considering the social devastation it produces (which reproduces it at the same time). As such, equalization mechanisms are needed and available.

So, first of all, inequality means exclusion which comes in two forms:

Two main doors of social exclusion

Out of these, Therborn notes three different effects (click on the image for larger view):

The mechanisms through whichinequality tears society apart

To summarize:

“The social space for human development is carved up and restricted, above all for the disadvantaged, of course, but not only for them. Secondly, the inequality of ownership of, control of or access to economic resources means that what has been produced in a given society can easily be dissipated by the privileged few. Thirdly, inequality of economic resources and their political deployment has negated the nineteenth-century liberal fears of democracy: that citizens’ power would encroach upon private property. Instead, big property owners have, most of the time in most countries, been able to dictate what is ‘sound economic policy’.” (22)

The greater the inequality, the more of all three effects we will observe.

No conceptual work would be complete with some distinction and clarification although I do not find his conceptualization of the difference between difference and inequality persuasive:

Difference Inequality
Assumed or given Socially constructed
No commonality assumed Assumed commonality
No violation of norm of equality Violation of norm of equality
Difference can coexist with inequality

I have to say that I am not really convinced by this. Differences can be as socially constructed as inequalities and these inequalities can be constructing through othering, that is, by denying any commonality with the class of people being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. Similarly, inequality is often based on some imposed norm of essential inequality (gender, for instance) whether that supposed essence is assumed to be religion, tradition, or nature.

How much equality do we need? Here, Therborn invokes Amartya Sen’s capability approach to punt: inequalities prevent billions of people from full human development. Therefore, the focus should be on increasing capability for all and reducing social bads.

The bulk of Therborn’s conceptual work goes to delineating the different types of inequalities (click on the image for a larger view):

Three kinds of inequalityAccording to Therborn, while the mechanisms of vital and resource inequalities have been amply studied, the social sciences have yet to give existential inequality the attention it deserves. On the one hand, I disagree: Therborn refers to sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. and those have been extensively studied. On the other hand, yes, there have been discussions within the social sciences regarding identity politics as existential inequality, so conceived, goes back to issues of privileges and disadvantages.

Resource inequality refers not just to economic matters but also education, all forms of cultural inequality, inequalities in symbolic and social capital, as well as inequalities of power.

Needless to say, the distinction is conceptual. There is no question that these different forms of inequalities overlap and influence each other, and have impacts on one another.

How are inequalities produced and maintained?

“Inequalities are produced and sustained socially by systemic arrangements and processes, and by distributive action, individual as well as collective. It is crucial to pay systematic attention to both. ‘Distributive action’ is here taken as any social action, individual as well as collective, with direct distributive consequences, be they actions of systemic advance or retardation, or of allocation / distribution.” (55)

Therborn identifies four such distributive actions, each involving both individual actions (what Therborn call ‘direct agency’) and systemic dynamics (click on the image for a larger view):

--Types of distributive action--I numbered these actions because Therborn see them as a cumulative continuum, with distanciation at one polar end, and exploitation at the other polar end of the continuum. Each layer adds more inequalities to the system, with exploitation (which includes slavery as extreme form) as the most unequal.

However, each one of these distributive actions can be countered by an equalizing mechanism:

--Types of equality mechanisms--

I numbered them to refer them to their respective distributive action (and like the distributive actions, these mechanisms can be individual or collective).

So, this is the basic conceptual apparatus that Therborn deploys to then get to the historical and empirical aspects of inequality, that is, match the concepts to the data. Note that the apparatus is more descriptive than predictive.

I have to say that this is where the book gets a bit tedious mostly because of the too-limited use of some data vizualization. It is really useless to read paragraphs and paragraphs of data. I wish these empirical sections had been better visualized. I think Therborn is going to lose a lot of non-specialist readers on that aspect alone even though it is a book that should get a wider audience than academic types.

That being said, Therborn reviews the data based on his inequality three-part apparatus. Regarding vital inequalities:

“For recent increases in vital inequality, there are two main suspects. One is increasing economic uncertainty and polarization, between the unemployed and the labour market marginalized, on the one hand, and the surfers on the boom waves, on the other. The other is nowadays often called ‘lifestyle’, but is better termed ‘life-options’. It is not so much a choice of style as a perspective of possible options. People who have little control of their basic life situation, of finding a job, of controlling their work context, of launching a life-course career, may be expected to be less prone to control the health of their bodies – to notice and to follow expert advice on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, on diet and exercise – than people who have a sense of controlling their own lives.” (82-3)

Regarding existential inequalities:

“Even though blatant, institutionalized existential inequality, such as racism, sexism and ruthless developmentalism or ‘civilizing’ zeal, have been eroded, existential inequality is still permeating contemporary societies.

(…)

There are also current social tendencies driving new forms of existential inequality: de-industrialization outsourcing, immigration of the poor, and labour market marginalizations. Such tendencies are now directed against an ‘underclass’ of people marginalized or excluded from the labour market, the second generation of industrial immigrants, poor single mothers, the children of de-industrialized workers. In Britain, they have been given a new pejorative identity as the ‘chavs’ (Jones 2011). In a US conservative bestseller portrait, they are a new ‘lower class’, unmarried, lazy, dishonest and godless (Murray 2012). Class is here returning as an existential put-down.” (88-9)

[Note: I totally resent that Therborn cites Murray repeatedly, just positing him as a conservative rather than an awful racist who should have been banned for academic status ever since the publication of the giant pile of horse manure that is The Bell Curve.]

And as for resource inequalities, the story is well-known: deindustrialization, rise of financial capitalism, globalization and the rise of transnational forces able to undermine the social safety nets. On education, Therborn, I think Therborn engages in too much generalizing (for instance, that private systems are better at the primary and secondary levels). One cannot, on the one hand, deplore the persistence of educational gaps and not see the impact of private systems on such persistence.

As for power,

“Within nations, social movements, collective associations and wide-franchised elections – democratization, in short – have brought about a major equalization of political resources, once monopolized by monarchs and other despots. But, as with economic resources, political equalization has been stopped or reversed recently, by de-unionization, political party erosion, and general social dissolution of the popular classes. A difference from what has happened to economic resources, which are ever more concentrated, has been the rise of electronic social media and their possibilities of self-generated mass communication.” (99)

I think the jury is still out on that one. There may be a crisis of legitimation, but yesterday’s European Parliamentary elections show that the reaction is not one of demand for more democracy. Quite the opposite.

Therborn shows that progress on vital inequalities is still inadequate, even in some developed countries. At the same time, again, in developed countries, there has been considerable progress on existential inequality (gay rights, for instance), but I would argue that this has been at the expenses of resource inequalities. In other words, the power elite has figured out that they could keep on beating up on unions and the poor, as long as there was some (cost-free) progress on identity politics matters, there would be no class-based social movements to demand changes.

So where does this leave us:

“Violent revolutions, large-scale industrial wars, profound economic crisis – strong storms have been necessary to tame the ferocious anti-egalitarianism of late-feudal, patriarchal and modern capitalist societies. However, there has also been a fourth kind of egalitarian moment. Under certain circumstances, far-reaching peaceful social reform has been possible. This is obviously the experience most relevant to the current world.” (155)

And by fourth moment, Therborn mean “les trente glorieuses” (the post-WWII period until the 1980s) and the current political movement in Latin America.

When it comes to reducing inequalities, Therborn argues that this will require forces of equalization and that these can be divided in two: forces of demand (for equality) and forces of supply (those social actors who can actually deliver equalization) based on their motivations.

So, regarding these forces of demand, exit the labor movement and the working class, enter identify-based movements and what Therborn solidaristic individualism:

“Solidaristic individualism – ‘I want to choose my own lifestyle, but I am concerned about the possibilities of others to make their choice’ – is a vital force of equality. It provided the vibrant, albeit unsustainable, dynamic of the Occupy movements (see, further, Castells 2012; Mason 2012).” (162)

I think he is absolutely right on that.

What of the forces of supply, then?

“Equality derives basically from demand. But as social equality is a social force of cohesion, of combat as well as of development, it has its forces of supply, driven first of all by fear. There is the fear of the unequals, of their anger and their possible protests and rebellion. Secondly, there is the fear of the external enemy, the fear of not being up to the lethal capacity of the latter. Thirdly, there is the fear of backwardness, and projects of inclusive national development. While fear is a basic source of equalization measures by the powerful and privileged, it is not the only one. Ruling elites and/or their staff are not always fully absorbed by their own privileges and greed. They are not necessarily incapable of comprehensive visions and far-sighted strategic calculations – occasionally even of empathy with their subjects.” (163)

Again, here, I would argue that the elites have been able to continue the pursuit of resource inequalities by trading it for existential equalization.

For the future, Therborn sees three potential battlefields (and they are all institutional and systemic: family, capitalism, and nation as all three are essential in producing inequalities. There has been a lot of progress on the family front, not just with the redefinition of family in and of itself (and the progressive acceptance of multiple family forms) but also with respect to children’s rights. Ultimately, that battlefield is about individual rights to form families of one’s choice. When it comes to capitalism, though, Therborn goes back rights tied to labor and against precarization. Finally, the national battlefield goes to rights of citizens:

“Asserting the rights of citizens means, first of all, a vigorous defence of democracy, of people’s right to self-determination. Citizens have a right to assert their collective will regarding their economy and their environment over any private capital interests, or any anonymous global aggregation of, e.g., financial markets. The ongoing 2008 crisis, caused by an absence of any civic control over the opulent little world of reckless speculators and high-stake casino-gamblers, acted out more in Europe than in America, is the costliest defeat of the North Atlantic democracies since the German crash of 1931–3.” (173)

Therborn argues that these battlefields might not be primarily in developed countries but outside of the Global North. But he also thinks that certain factors will lead to fighting for equalization:

  1. the obvious cost of misery that is visible to all;
  2. the crisis of legitimation for the elite after they destroyed the economy;
  3. equality is good for society.

I am not so sure about #1, the rise of the Tea Party, and fascist parties all over Europe are precisely movements that are based on a complete lack of compassion for underdogs and victims of all forms of inequalities. They are based on resentment and hatred. That’s an extra obstacle that Therborn does not consider.

Yes, the elites have been somewhat discredited but the challenges have been limited: a threat of protest at commencement speech, the short-lived Occupy movement and Arab Spring movements. None of the contestation has led to any systemic change.

Yes, equality is good for society and there is ample data to prove it, but the dominant discourse is not that idea at all, and especially considering, again, my response to #1.

So, this is a book very much worth reading and important. I don’t agree with all of it. The conceptual apparatus is worth exploring and using. The diagnosis is sound, but the prescriptions, I think, are a bit too optimistic.

Nevertheless, I think this is required reading for all sociologists.

And while you’re at it, also go read Kathleen Geier’s review.

Seriously, am I the only one who sees a problem here?

DSC00127

The 37% for biofuels is the only one that looks ok to me. But food crops are listed as 25% in the paragraph but on the chart, it looks more like 12%. Livestock reads as 3% in the paragraph but barely registers on the chart. Non-food crops read as 5% in the paragraph, but at about 1.5 / 2% on the chart.

I re-read this several times, just to be sure, but the paragraph clearly refers to fig 2,1 (which it is, even if it does not show up on the photo).

This is from a serious book, published by a serious academic publisher, and written by one of my favorite (really serious) sociologist, so, this bothers me a lot even though it looks like first world problem.

Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of The Wealth Gap is not technically a sociology book, but it is an important piece of reporting on a topic that, I think, is central to the discipline as a whole. After all, sociologist have been harping about increasing inequality and its consequences long before it was cool (that is, long before Occupy, and Picketty-mania).

Overall, the book is organized along a “compare and contrast” format, alternating chapters of the way “the system”, and especially the social structures of social control deal with the powerful and wealthy v. the powerless and poor or near-poor.

For people who follow the news, none of what is in the book will be entirely surprising, but the contrasting structure of gentle handling of the powerful by their regulatory agencies compared to the kafkaesque nightmares of stop-and-frisk, and border policies, and welfare present a powerful picture of grotesque inequalities at the individual level.

And quite frankly, even cynical me was horrified at the ways these structures used by, or imposed upon, the poor and powerless actually work (or don’t work). In effect, these chapters are a perfect reflection of what Frances Fox Pivens depicted decades ago regarding the welfare system: a system designed to NOT provide its prescribed services, and that would crumble if it had to (exposing the real levels of social precarity). In addition, what all three systems have in common, whether it’s stop-and-frisk, the border / private prison system, or the welfare system is that they are designed to discipline the poor and minorities, more than anything else (paging Foucault).

Of course, it is neither innocent nor coincidental that each of these systems deal with minorities: African Americans, undocumented migrants, and single mothers. By contrast, the chapters on the powerful deal with massive scale mismanagement and fraud, including on public money, committed by powerful, white, men, who almost never see any kind of accountability.

Taibbi’s main issue is this:

“We’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.” (Loc. 80)

And how we got to this point. These are both cultural and structural issues:

“Finding the answer to some of this turns out to be easy, just simple math. Big companies have big lawyers, most street criminals do not, and prosecutors dread waging long wars against bottomless-pocketed megabanks when they can score win after easy win against common drug dealers, car thieves, and the like. After winning enough of these blowout victories, the justice bureaucracy starts drifting inexorably toward the no-sweat ten-second convictions and away from the expensive years-long battles of courtroom attrition.

Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.

(…)

It’s come around to that point of view at the end of a long evolutionary process, in which the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.” (Loc. 141)

And that is the point, for Taibbi, is that one cannot understand what is going on in the United States without both sides of that picture: more than ever, and to an even greater extent, the rich do get richer, and the poor get prison (the 10th edition!).

“We’re creating a dystopia, where the mania of the state isn’t secrecy or censorship but unfairness. Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process. Winners get rich and get off. Losers go broke and go to jail. It isn’t just that some clever crook on Wall Street can steal a billion dollars and never see the inside of a courtroom; it’s that, plus the fact that some black teenager a few miles away can go to jail just for standing on a street corner, that makes the whole picture complete.” (Loc. 316)

This, for Taibbi, is a perfect illustration of the state of inequality in the US. And as we all know, what we witness today, and is described at length by Taibbi, is the culmination of trends that started in the 80s and led us to the 2008 recession. It is a combination of deregulation that let companies grow bigger and stronger, and therefore harder to prosecute, dismantling of the regulatory tools (Glass-Steagall), globalization and technological innovation that gave us stateless corporations.

And there is also a change in attitude towards prosecuting the corporate powerful that is encapsulated by the 1999 “collateral damage” memo penned by Eric Holder that started the idea that prosecuting corporations might lead to the collateral damage of job loss and community damages, and that these collateral damages should figure in prosecuting decisions. Funny how we never asked the question of collateral damages when government drafted the War on Drugs legislation that would devastate entire communities through the massive incarceration of young African-American men.

“From abandoning criminal prosecutions in favor of deferred prosecutions and nonprosecution agreements, the state now began to emphasize fines as a new means of settling with white-collar criminals.” (29)

And gloating about the imposition of what looks like heavy fines to us mortals, but are mere pennies to the corporations that have to pay them.

This change also has to do with a mechanism that C. Wright Mill would have recognized very-well: the power elite revolving door:

“The same process was now about to transform the federal law enforcement system, thanks in large part to new president Obama, who ushered in a herd of Ivy Leaguers and high-powered corporate defense lawyers to be his top crime-fighting officials. This new crowd of bookish lawyers was headlined by the Columbia University/Covington & Burling duo of Holder as attorney general and Lanny Breuer as head of Justice’s Criminal Division, essentially the top crime-fighting job in the country.” (31)

And indeed, Taibbi devotes a few chapters explaining how the recession of 2008 was neither a technical screw-up, or a few bad apples, or reckless borrowers, but corporate crime on a massive scale:

“Not mere technical violations, mind you, not just a thumb on a scale here and there, but crime, real crime, the kind of thing people once went to jail for. Specifically, this was a massive criminal fraud scheme, something akin to a giant counterfeiting operation, in which banks mass-produced extremely risky, low-quality subprime mortgages and with lightning-quick efficiency sold them off to institutional sucker-investors as highly rated AAA bonds. The hot potato game targeted unions, pension funds, and government-backed mortgage companies like Fannie Mae on the secondary market.” (38)

Time and time again, the evidence is there for law enforcement to see and yet, nothing happens. Part of the reason is collateral damage (a version of Davis / Moore explanation for stratification: some people are just more functionally necessary than others): just a whiff of possible job loss is enough to make prosecutors back off. But there is also the fact that large banks and corporations can marshall armies of well-paid, private attorneys to drag their cases for years, at great costs to underfunded government agencies that do not have the manpower to deal with such complicated cases, and with the risk of losing in the end. It’s better just to slap a fine that will look big to the public and will spare everybody else. And as the quote above notes, most of Obama’s top Justice department officials come from corporate law firms. There is a certain amount of empathy and thinking that, really, these are not “real” crimes.

But go to the other end of the social ladder and one can observe the legacy of another awesome gift from the 80s: the broken windows theory of law enforcement. This is a version of the slippery slope trope: if you let petty crime go unpunished (broken windows), then, you open the door to more serious criminality. So, the solution is to crack down on petty crime to prevent said slippery slope. Stop-and-frisk is an avatar of that idea, with extra dose of racism on top.

“These were programs like the infamous CompStat system and other lesser-known outgrowths of the celebrated “broken windows” urban policing strategies, programs whose effectiveness depended upon massive numbers of low-level arrests for minor violations.

All over America, indigents or the merely poor were being hauled in in ridiculous numbers, often detained even if just for a short time, given tickets, and searched. These cast-a-wide-net street-policing strategies were ostensibly designed to snag illegal guns or serious criminals with outstanding warrants, but they didn’t always work out that way. At exactly the time Holder was penning his famous memo in the late 1990s, the abjectly purposeless arrest was becoming more and more common, even as, perversely, the numbers of actual violent crimes committed had begun to drop precipitously.

And as every individual who’s ever been charged with a crime knows, anyone facing criminal arrest can expect collateral consequences. A single drug charge can ruin a person’s chances for obtaining a student loan or a government job. It can nix his or her chances of getting housing aid or a whole range of services—even innocent members of your family may lose access to government benefits. You can lose your right to vote and your access to financial aid. You can even have your children taken away.

But no police anywhere were officially asked to weigh the collateral consequences of arrests for prostitution, stealing cars, assault, selling weed, jumping turnstiles, even the simple offense of being homeless. There’s no memo in the Justice Department that wonders aloud what happens to the families of those sorts of arrestees. Instead, the new trend in policing is and has been to aggressively no longer care about any of it.” (52)

An additional consequences of the application of this kind of criminology (if you can call it that), in addition to its failure, is that it shatters any kind of legitimacy the police might have in poor and minority neighborhoods

And, so, for Taibbi, the divide in the United States today is between the arrestable and nonarrestable classes. The arrestable classes are the poor, the minorities, the single mothers, the undocumented migrants, for such crimes as standing on the street (if you don’t believe that black men are being arrested for standing on the sidewalk and talking to people  – loitering – you need to get out more).

The chapter that Taibbi devotes to stop-and-frisk is a kafkaesque nightmare where black men can be arrested 50, 60 times for just being there, not charged, but detained for days (hello, job loss), then having to deal with the court system (having to show up multiple times, whether it works with one’s job or not or be convicted in absentia), being represented by overburdened public defenders (when they’re not incompetent), and finally, being pushed to accept a deal that might leave one free, but with a criminal record. Don’t even think about fighting back against baseless charges. Justice by attrition.

Of course, the mechanism is well-known: after having pushed countless African-American men to agree to plea agreements, the criminal justice system then uses these aggregated masses of conviction to declare African-Americans as a criminal class to be subjected to more law enforcement, and the cycle repeats itself.

The power of Taibbi’s book is in these stories: of being arrested while coming home from work and not being able to show up for work the next day because one has not yet been processed, being caught in a dragnet where what matters is the stats (can anyone say “big data”?), and they have to be big. And the people caught in this nightmarish “logic” do not have the armies of well-paid private attorneys to fight back against it. So, they agree to plea just so they can go home and not have to show up for court again, but now, they have a record. And then, they get arrested again, and again, and again… and now they have a record.

“There are two important concepts here that work hand in hand. One, there’s the idea that failure to follow a police order, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is cause for an arrest or a summons. The second idea is that the prosecutor can essentially turn any misdemeanor case against almost anyone into a de facto conviction, simply by filing charges and following through long enough with pretrial pressure to wrest a plea out of the accused.

These two concepts operating together have resulted in a new policing method, one that relies upon thousands of arrests for trivial offenses, real and imagined.” (130)

On the other hand, when it comes to corporate crime, it’s all different.

“What’s happened now, in this new era of settlements and nonprosecutions, is that the state has formally surrendered to its own excuses. It has decided just to punt from the start and take the money, which doesn’t become really wrong until it turns around the next day and decides to double down on the less-defended, flooring it all the way to trial against a welfare mom or some joker who sold a brick of dope in the projects.

(…)

That’s what nobody gets, that the two approaches to justice may individually make a kind of sense, but side by side they’re a dystopia, where common city courts become factories for turning poor people into prisoners, while federal prosecutors on the white-collar beat turn into overpriced garbage men, who behind closed doors quietly dispose of the sins of the rich for a fee.” (84)

Emphasis mine. This quote is quintessential Taibbi.

Taibbi then moves on to re-telling the story of the Lehman Brothers collapse but the point is the opposite as with stop-and-frisk: high crime, committed by people in high places, no criminal accountability. Taibbi is pretty good at explaining the complex machinations involved with securitization. That could be a tedious topic but it is not. But actually, prosecutors do count on the fact that this stuff is boring and complicated so, the public will not be clamoring for prosecution, especially when the party line on the media is that what happens might be unethical (it is) but not illegal (though it is). Taibbi does a good job of explaining the illegal nature of it all.

Taibbi then turns to his second case of the powerless getting the book thrown at them when the powerful get off scots-free: Gainesville, Florida:

“A ferocious federal immigration rule called 287(g) that essentially deputizes any and all state and local law enforcement officials to arrest undocumented aliens on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Today every local official with a badge—every cop, sheriff, ranger, or even game warden—has the power to instantly separate children from mothers, husbands from wives. All America, from the smallest town on up, has become a dragnet.” (199)

And here again, people arrested are thrown into a bureaucratic mess that also now involves private prisons, that Taibbi describes as such:

“A giant legal purgatory in which detainees don’t have any real rights or enjoy any real due process. People disappear into it, hundreds of thousands a year, and become less like prisoners with rights than like objects or packages to be crated and shipped out like cargo. ICE even has a UPS-style tracking system that allows immigrant families to punch in a number and see where their deported relative is in his or her serpentine journey through the detention system. In the real justice system, you get habeas corpus; in the shadow system, you get a tracking number to see where your familial “package” is. (201)

Similarly, the power of this is in the individual stories of people actually caught up in this system. The ICE system is described in gruesome details, with immigration judges that are actually employees of the Department of Homeland security, the pushing of stipulations (the ICE equivalent of plea bargains whereby migrants get deported fast, before they get to see an attorney), etc.

And there is a class divide here as well:

“There’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities. The flip side is that there is a growing subset of people, like undocumented immigrants, who live below the level of full citizenship. If the first group is stateless by choice, these people are involuntarily stateless and have virtually no rights at all.” (206)

And with private prisons in the mix, as Taibbi puts it, migrants are the new cash crop. And the consequences are also far-reaching. Basically, the whole arrest / deportation system puts its victims in the hands of cartels in Mexico as this is who meets them when they get thrown across the border. And this is all very profitable:

“Overall, the corrections industry is one of the soundest stock/equity bets in the world, with soaring revenues—the industry as a whole pulled in more than $5 billion in America in 2011.

The jailing-Hispanics business is the perfect mix of politics and profit. Companies like CCA donate generously to politicians everywhere, particularly at the state level. The firm has spent as much as $3.4 million lobbying in a single year and on average spends between $1 million and $2 million a year.

(…)

Local police forces go along because the federal government compensates them for their detention of immigrants. A program called the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) pays local police forces out of the federal kitty for any detained immigrants who meet certain criteria (they’re undocumented, they stayed for at least four days, and they’ve been convicted of at least two misdemeanors). According to the GAO, states received about $1.6 billion annually in SCAAP payments through the end of the 2000s, and the numbers are likely to rise in this decade.” (215)

And this where this connects to corporate crimes of massive scale:

“In many states across the country still, immigrants from south of the border have to take taxis and bicycles everywhere they go, because the law enforcement presence is so massive that traveling any other way is a huge risk. Capture can mean the loss of everything, from never seeing a spouse again to being kidnapped, in addition to being thrust into debt for years. And this is for crimes that are essentially administrative in nature, immigrating in a proscribed way, trying to live without the right papers.

But on the flip side, there are certain kinds of crimes a native-born American can commit without any risk of arrest at all. It turns out that we prosecute administrative/political violations like serious crimes, and serious crimes like administrative violations. ” (241)

Probably because he could not resist, Taibbi also includes in the book the story of a Canadian company, Fairfax, to illustrate that not only were Wall Street people criminals, but also insane and malevolent and yet, get away with it.

Finally, Taibbi gets to its 3rd case of the way the powerless are handled by governmental bureaucratic systems: the welfare system. Here again, the stories are powerful. The amount of humiliation and degradation one has to endure to get measly benefits in the US, or, as is shown in the book, in California, is enormous. And here as well, that system is a nightmare:

“Today, every single person who applies for aid and is accepted has to be preemptively searched. These people are almost all nonwhite. And while in L.A. in the late 1980s, the person visiting the home of someone like Maria Espinosa was just a social worker from the local welfare office, the state has since upgraded. In San Diego now it’s a law enforcement official, a representative of the district attorney’s office, who comes in to look through your underwear drawer.” (316)

Because, you see, one has to be sure that the sluts are not living with a man as that would automatically be considered fraud. So, you apply for welfare, and then, you have to sit at home, sometimes for weeks, waiting for some guy to show up and go through all your stuff, while he insults you throughout the entire ordeal. These guys really seem to get off on that power. Too bad if you have a job though or if you need to go to the doctor. If you are not home when the official shows up, no benefits. The idea is that if you request aid, then, you have to be willing to endure all kinds of abuse without protesting.

“In those tens of thousands of searches over the years, P100 investigators have looked in every nook and cranny, finding sins everywhere. They rejected an applicant who shared an apartment with a roommate for failing to properly label her food in the refrigerator—how could the state be sure, after all, that the applicant wasn’t illegally sharing food with her roommate? They rejected a woman for having a Victoria’s Secret bra (“How can you afford this?” the investigator asked, again holding up the item with the favored pencil eraser end), for having too big a jacket in the closet (it must be a man’s!), for having a teenage son whose pants were too ghetto (too baggy—again, it must be a man’s clothes). Searchers looked in dresser drawers, in bathrooms, in freezers and refrigerators, under and behind couches, everywhere.” (317)

And so, if you need public assistance, your basic rights are forfeit. Protection against illegal search and seizure? You have to give that up. Oh, and never mind the bureaucratic mistakes that are made within the system and leave people without benefits. These are practically impossible to correct. And the way the system works, you never get to talk to the same caseworker twice. Every call or every visit to a welfare office will land you a different person that has to start from scratch and may have a different opinion on your case (that’s of course, after the several weeks it takes to get into the system in the first place).

“The entire world becomes a legal minefield. If you’re poor and on public assistance, just about anything you do that defines you as a living human being can turn into the basis of a fraud case. Getting laid can be fraud. Getting sick can be fraud. Putting your kids in day care can be fraud. Not “sounding poor” can be fraud.

(…)

I spent a year following a few people in different parts of the country and watched as they tried to receive their benefits on the one hand and avoid being prosecuted for fraud on the other. Both activities turn out to be essentially full-time jobs.” (329)

And in this case, it all started with Bill Clinton and welfare reform. As banks and corporations became more and more deregulated, the lives of the poor and minority became more and more regulated. Corporate fraud is massive, but it is welfare fraud that is massively investigated.

Oh, and here’s the kicker:

“For instance, in 2011, the state of Ohio—the same state that lost tens of millions in the early 2000s when its pension fund bought severely overpriced mortgage-backed securities from a Lehman Brothers banker named John Kasich, who would later become governor—tried to recoup some of its losses by sending out 22,000 notices to Ohioans seeking “overpayments” in either welfare or food stamps. Many if not most of these “overpayments” were actually the state’s own errors, but they went as far back as 1986 anyway, seeking checks as small as $78.” (341)

Taibbi’s chapter on robosigning and the epidemic of illegal foreclosures is also horrifying regarding the way deregulation led to rampant criminality. And the pity the poor whistle-blower who ends up living in a trailer for her conscience.

For credit card debt, the game is even more rigged:

“Once a bank like Chase “serves” its delinquent customer, there are just three paths on the flowchart of outcomes. They are:

The customer doesn’t show up in court and loses by default judgment.

The customer answers the summons and settles with the bank.

The customer answers the summons and contests the case.

In the first two cases—and this is a crucial part of this entire scheme, and the key reason that Linda’s bosses were so unconcerned about the absence of good paperwork in the debt sale—the collector typically does not come into court with any supporting documentary evidence. “They almost never have [evidence] on the first appearance,” says Straniere. All the collectors have, typically, is a complaint and the assertion of an owed balance. But in the vast majority of cases, that’s enough. Two-thirds of the time, the defendant doesn’t show and loses automatically.” (374)

And defendants don’t show up because collectors only have to say they delivered the summons, no signature or receipt needed. Too bad if you changed address and the summons never reached you. But if the defendant shows up and contests the case, collectors usually simply drop the case.

But the bottom line is this:

“What all this means is that the bulk of the credit card collection business is conducted without any supporting documentation showing up or being seen by human eyes at any part of the process. The meat of the business is collecting unopposed default judgments from defendants who either never receive a summons or receive one and never appear in court.

For debt buyers like DebtOne, the whole game is a bluff. If they buy a pile of open accounts or already-won judgments, what they’re banking on is collecting from delinquent customers who don’t fight back.” (376).

So, what does this amount to? None of this is dysfunctional or a system of justice gone wrong. It is all by design and the designers might even convince themselves that this is the way things should be.

“There’s a concrete difference between how we treat an individual who commits fraud within the structure of a giant multinational company with a lot of settlement money lying around, and how we treat, say, an ordinary broke person who commits welfare or unemployment fraud.

If you choose to take the money over and over again from the Wall Street crowd while the welfare moms keep getting jail and community service, now suddenly you’ve institutionalized the imbalance. From there, it’s not long before the tail starts wagging the dog. A massive, unconscious tendency toward reverse profiling occurs. Because, thanks to all these various factors, executives from giant multinationals simply don’t end up in the prison population, law enforcement soon starts to operate on the reverse principle, that those huge companies are not the places where jailable crimes take place. So even white-collar investigators start to look for targets elsewhere, like at smaller businesses.” (408)

Again, emphasis mine.

So, obviously, this is a very rich, well-researched, detailed book, but very well-written narratives and stories that will make your blood boil more than once.

Highly recommended.