While Michael Dukakis was stuck in a photo op with an ill-fitted helmet, the opposition trotted out Willie Horton. Fear kicked Dukakis’ butt, and George H.W. Bush became the nation’s 41st president. Fear works.
But given that the usual tough-on-crime fearmongering of the past isn’t in vogue at the moment, with neither street crime nor terrorism playing well in Peoria, it’s tough to find a bogeyman scary enough to light a fire under the faithful and generate enough fear and loathing to make people give a damn. Enter Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts and former Harvard prawf, as attack dog of the downtrodden.
In a single year, in case after case, across many sectors of the economy, federal agencies caught big companies breaking the law — defrauding taxpayers, covering up deadly safety problems, even precipitating the financial collapse in 2008 — and let them off the hook with barely a slap on the wrist. Often, companies paid meager fines, which some will try to write off as a tax deduction.
Curious that the metaphor has gone from “slap on the wrist” to “barely a slap on the wrist.” Perhaps Warren should be writing a letter to former AG Eric Holder about what the hell he was thinking. And what constitutes a “meager fine” is a relative thing, since many of us would struggle to pay off a few hundred million and find it slightly greater than “meager.”
But is Warren criticizing the conduct of the Department of Justice under President Obama for its massive failures? Not exactly.
The Obama administration has a substantial track record on agency rules and executive actions. It has used these tools to protect retirement savings, expand overtime pay, prohibit discrimination against L.G.B.T. employees who work for the government and federal contractors, and rein in carbon pollution. These accomplishments matter.
So the problem isn’t that the Obama administration, over two terms, hasn’t done great, but they couldn’t get around to doing all the important prosecuting they needed to do because they were so busy accomplishing other stuff?
Whether the next president will build on them, or reverse them, is a central issue in the 2016 election. But the administration’s record on enforcement falls short — and federal enforcement of laws that already exist has received far too little attention on the campaign trail.
I just released a report examining 20 of the worst federal enforcement failures in 2015. Its conclusion: “Corporate criminals routinely escape meaningful prosecution for their misconduct.”
Well, that’s pretty darned scary. And while it wouldn’t do to point at the evils that have worked so well at scaring people to vote, since it could be perceived as implicating communities of color or attacking Muslims, “corporate criminals” are the perfect target, fair game for any identitarian group to hate and fear.
The failure to adequately punish big corporations or their executives when they break the law undermines the foundations of this great country. Justice cannot mean a prison sentence for a teenager who steals a car, but nothing more than a sideways glance at a C.E.O. who quietly engineers the theft of billions of dollars.
A well-tuned analogy, for sure, but a teen who steals a car is a rather obvious malum in se crime. Is it comparable to the corporate criminal? Is that nasty C.E.O. sneaking into someone else’s bank vault at night and stuffing billions of dollars in his pockets?
When the Education Management Corporation, the nation’s second-largest for-profit college, signed up tens of thousands of students by lying about its programs, it saddled them with fraudulent degrees and huge debts. Those debts wrecked lives. Under the law, the government can bar such institutions from receiving more federal student loans. But EDMC just paid a fine and kept right on raking in federal loan money.
So the claim was the EDMC students got sucked into taking out federal student loans to pay tuition for college degrees, then couldn’t get jobs afterward and were saddled with debt. The public was out the student loan money, and the solution was to get EDMC to pay it back. Kinda makes sense, no?
But at the same time, it’s rather disingenuous to cry sad tears for the students crushed by student loan debt which, even though EDMC settled by paying it back, the government refuses to forgive. Is there a call for the government to relieve these poor students of their burden in there, Liz? Or just to send some executive to prison for over-selling the value of a college education?
When Novartis, a major drug company that was already effectively on federal probation for misconduct, paid kickbacks to pharmacies to push certain drugs, it cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and undermined patient health. Under the law, the government can boot companies that defraud Medicare and Medicaid out of those programs, but when Novartis got caught, it just paid a penalty — one so laughably small that its C.E.O. said afterward that it “remains to be seen” whether his company would actually consider changing its behavior.
But drug companies are selling cool new illnesses to the public on TV (restless legs syndrome, anyone?), which their pill can magically cure. And reps have been visiting doctors’ offices forever to hand out samples and trips to Hawaii to learn the benefits of their very expensive magic potions. When a drug is prescribed, and the maker wants a pharmacy to use its flavor rather than the other guy’s, this “undermined patient health”? Would Medicare and Medicaid patients be better off without any of the drugs Novartis offers?
As Warren makes clear, this all goes back to the appointed heads of federal agencies charged with regulating a capitalist system, its stated purpose to scare the public into voting for the candidate whose appointees will rid us of these corporate criminals by throwing C.E.O.s in prison with the teens who steal cars for selling their products too well.
Some will question the regulatory state, a curious mix of good and bizarre, which occasionally levels the playing field between the individuals and huge corporations, and other times micro-manages business to create some faux sense of fairness to pander to one interest group at the expense of another.
But to make “corporate criminals” the new Willie Horton because they’re the only target of fear that can be safely sold to the public, as if corporate presidents are out on the street wearing masks and pointing guns, is nonsense.
If you want a reason to hate Novartis, look to Obamacare’s failure to address big pharma costs to buy its love and support for passage. Now that was a crime worthy of redress, but it’s hard to blame Novartis for doing what was in its corporate interests. And calling out the real criminals wouldn’t make for a compelling target of fear and loathing for Senator Warren. And what is it with restless legs syndrome, anyway?