Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March Madness

I had a little time to catch up on backlogged articles over spring break last week. Here's a quick synopsis of two you should consider reading.

Why Isn't Wall Street In Jail? by Matt Taibbi

Nobody goes to jail. This is the mantra of the financial-crisis era, one that saw virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street embroiled in obscene criminal scandals that impoverished millions and collectively destroyed hundreds of billions, in fact, trillions of dollars of the world's wealth — and nobody went to jail. Nobody, that is, except Bernie Madoff, a flamboyant and pathological celebrity con artist, whose victims happened to be other rich and famous people.
Of course, the mantra should be "nobody goes to prison" since prison is the formal institution these bottom-feeders belong in. But semantics aside, Taibbi echoes (be warned: in his usual colorful language) many of the same themes we have been arguing here at TPE for over three years now: why hasn't anyone been prosecuted in this crime of the century?
To understand the significance of this, one has to think carefully about the efficacy of fines as a punishment for a defendant pool that includes the richest people on earth — people who simply get their companies to pay their fines for them. Conversely, one has to consider the powerful deterrent to further wrongdoing that the state is missing by not introducing this particular class of people to the experience of incarceration. "You put Lloyd Blankfein in pound-me-in-the-ass prison for one six-month term, and all this bullshit would stop, all over Wall Street," says a former congressional aide. "That's all it would take. Just once."
At the end, he compares the Obama administration's "real priorities" regarding law enforcement and prosecution (emphasis mine).
So there you have it. Illegal immigrants [arrested and deported]: 393,000. Lying moms [prosecuted for fudging her residence in order to get her children into a better school]: one. Bankers: zero.

The math makes sense only because the politics are so obvious. You want to win elections, you bang on the jailable class. You build prisons and fill them with people for selling dime bags and stealing CD players. But for stealing a billion dollars? For fraud that puts a million people into foreclosure? Pass. It's not a crime. Prison is too harsh. Get them to say they're sorry, and move on. Oh, wait — let's not even make them say they're sorry. That's too mean; let's just give them a piece of paper with a government stamp on it, officially clearing them of the need to apologize, and make them pay a fine instead. But don't make them pay it out of their own pockets, and don't ask them to give back the money they stole. In fact, let them profit from their collective crimes, to the tune of a record $135 billion in pay and benefits last year. What's next? Taxpayer-funded massages for every Wall Street executive guilty of fraud?
Sigh. Next I read another depressing article on mental health and the military, specifically members of the National Guard and the soaring suicide rate, in Time Magazine.
The National Guard and its weekend warriors have always been a mongrel military. Its 54 units — one for each state and territory — traditionally reported to their governors and only rarely to U.S. military commanders. But that changed after 9/11, when Guard units became a key cog in the U.S. war machine and spent more time fighting enemies overseas than floods and forest fires back home. Guardsmen account for nearly 400,000 of the 2.2 million troops who have served in combat since 2001. They're part-time soldiers, typically spending 39 days a year training, and were never intended to fight for so long. The Guard lacks even the overstretched mental-health capabilities of the regular Army, relying instead on the VA and other government and private care to tend to its mentally ailing.
Most of these programs have been cut by governors during the hyped "state budget crisis" the past few years. And those seeking help, as many of National Guard are, end up denigrated along with other public servants as "21st century welfare queens" in seek of a "handout."
"They lack the ready camaraderie of fellow soldiers and the daily oversight and hands-on assistance from members of the chain of command experienced while serving on active duty," Chiarelli said in January when he released the 2010 suicide toll. "They are more vulnerable to the challenges of an adverse economy and a troubled labor market, especially for our young people." Young, jobless and lacking support — the general might as well have been describing Matthew Magdzas.

The National Guard suicide rate may be even higher than the official tally because families may not report the deaths as self-inflicted. "There's a disincentive for reporting suicides on the civilian side because life insurance won't pay up if there's a suicide," a National Guard official tells TIME.

Suicide prevention has been a persistent challenge for the VA. In 2008 the department estimated that 6,500 veterans kill themselves each year — 18 a day — including 1,800 under VA care.
Not to blow my own horn, but these issues have been written about endlessly during the past four years here at TPE and elsewhere, and yet the problem continues to grow worse. When mental health programs are dismissed by budget hacks as "handouts," and their intended recipients dismissed as "welfare queens" by political sloths, we've crossed the rubicon into a societal indifference we may never be able to rectify.

And more service men and women will continue to die by their own hand, and the carnage will continue to mount. We all bear responsibility for this tragedy.

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