Why They Fight

Old schoolTwo things perfectly explain the existence of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Contrast this:

The CEO of what had been one of the nation’s largest privately held mortgage lenders was sentenced Tuesday to more than three years in prison for his role in a $3 billion scheme that officials called one of the biggest corporate frauds in U.S. History.

The 40-month sentence for Paul R. Allen, 55, of Oakton, Va., is slightly less than the six-year term sought by federal prosecutors.

With this:

A homeless man robbed a Louisiana bank and took a $100 bill. After feeling remorseful, he surrendered to police the next day.The judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

I used to joke that the worst crime you could commit in the United States wasn’t rape or murder. It was stealing money from rich people. Bernard Madoff may have ruined the financial lives of countless people and got what he had coming to him, but to my knowledge he never killed anyone or harmed someone in a way that they could never recover from it. Yet Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison while actual murderers could be back on the streets less than a decade after ending someone’s life.

I’m not defending Madoff’s behavior or arguing that he shouldn’t have been harshly punished for what he did. I’m merely wondering (rhetorically) when it became a greater sin to steal money from the wealthy than to kill people. Not all of Madoff’s victims were rich, of course. But most of them were.

Joke or not, it was largely true at one time. But not anymore. That already twisted and perverted system has become even more perverse, such that minor crimes committed by powerless and desperate people who steal in order to survive routinely receive the harshest possible punishment, while those who destroy billions of dollars in wealth – often belonging to the middle class – can commit “one of the biggest corporate frauds in history” and only miss two or three NFL seasons.

The other example of this ugliness revolves around the practice of the country’s largest banks selling their own toxic assets (mortgage-backed securities, aka “derivatives”) to their own clients, knowing full well that they were crap balloons about to pop at any moment, and then betting on those balloons popping while in their clients hands. The SEC did the only thing it can do – sue in civil court – and appears ready to make such incredible fraud by Citigroup simply vanish with a pathetically small $285 million fine.

To understand how this is another horrible and exasperating instance of the federal government letting elite and powerful criminals get away with serious crimes with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, consider that Citigroup made $86.6 billion in revenue last year and $10.6 billion in pure profit. The “punishment” in America for one of the largest banks in the world knowingly selling toxic assets to its own clients and then betting that those assets will explode into worthless bombs, is about 2.6% of Citi’s 2010 profit.

Or put another way, the SEC settlement will cost Citi about what it earns once every 26 hours.

Goldman Sachs paid a $550 million fee for the exact same type of fraud, after earning $39.1 billion last year. JPMorgan Chase (a company formally chaired by Obama’s current Chief of Staff, Bill Daley) paid a $153 million fine after earning $102.6 billion last year.

A multi-state settlement in the works would give the entire banking industry civil and criminal immunity for crimes such as that, again, will be ignored for nothing more than a small fine. $20 billion is the figure being floated around, or about 4.4% of the combined 2010 revenue of Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase ($447.6 billion).

Again, most of the state Attorneys General are asking the banking industry to share a $20 billion fine spread over the course of several years when just five of those banks made a combined $447.6 billion last year – that’s nearly half a trillion dollars. For that legal bribe, all crimes committed by those companies over the past decade that we know about will be forgiven. All the crimes we don’t know about will simply be consigned to the memory hole.

Any and every individual and private group with grievances against the banks for screwing them over will have their lawsuits thrown out of court with no further legal recourse. Just as was the case with the telecommunications companies that helped the NSA spy on their own customers during the Bush administration, broad immunity will be handed out in exchange for more campaign dollars, it’ll all be forgotten.

That is the same settlement being heavily pushed by the Obama administration, by the way. A settlement that will financially and criminally benefit Obama’s Chief of Staff’s former employer. No conflict of interest there. Surely a settlement that most people in Washington think the industry shouldn’t even have to pay.

Those are just two of the many reasons why Occupy Wall Street exists and why it won’t be going away anytime soon.

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