Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Money, Creepy Criminals, and Respectability

Why do we equate money with respectability?

Maybe money has not always equaled respectability, but it certainly does now. I myself unconsciously assume that a man wearing a nice suit must be more trustworthy than a man wearing a blue-collar work uniform with his name tag sewn onto his shirt. Maybe some people are less prejudiced in favor of wealth than I am, but I know I am certainly not unique in this respect. There is a reason, after all, why professionals dress well—most of us would not place our confidence in, or give our money to, a man who dressed like a bum, or like a used car salesman.

This equation of wealth with respectability is so deeply entrenched in our society that we don’t notice it until something makes us examine this prejudice. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by government employees, university professors, businessmen who could afford to be country club members, etc. I didn't know any criminals. Criminals were people who did horrible things, like rob and murder people, in poor neighborhoods. I only knew about them because their crimes were reported in the local newspaper. That changed, though, once I started working for lawyers. But, before I started working for lawyers, I also didn't know anyone who embezzled tens of thousands of dollars. Over the last few years, I’ve realized that we underestimate the injury caused by the breach of trust that is at the heart of white-collar crime.

What first made me examine my prejudices about wealth was that I realized that money is not necessarily a predictive factor for "creepiness" among criminals. One of the occupational hazards of working for criminal defense lawyers is that you meet some real creeps. Some of the creepiest defendants I’ve met have been quite wealthy, or at least middle-class, not the poor street criminals I thought of as a child. The creepiness that emanates from all criminals comes from two sources. First, the initial meeting between a client and a criminal defense lawyer is always uneasy because (in my experience with criminal defense) there is generally not much doubt that the client at the very least did something bad, if not always criminal. Both client and lawyer do their best to dance around the question of guilt, and that dance produces a strange sensation in the onlooker.

Second, each individual criminal gives off his own weird vibe. Different sorts of criminals, though, are different sorts of creeps. And white-collar criminals have been among the creepiest, in my experience. What makes some white-collar criminals so creepy? The answer comes back to society’s equation of wealth and respectability. The fact that a man can maintain a façade of respectability for years, all the while defrauding those who trust him because of his respectable wealth, means that at a very fundamental level of his personality he must be extremely devious. This deviousness I find just as frightening as the lack of remorse in a cold-blooded murderer; in both cases it is a sign of a complete lack of conscience. It is this lack of conscience, which leads to a willingness to violate any confidence, or any ethical boundary, that is truly creepy and even more disturbing than a street criminal who can’t restrain his anger over a failed drug deal or his frustration in his personal life. These street criminals possess a certain simplicity. It’s obviously not a good type of simplicity, but at least these men are not devious and manipulative like most white-collar criminals.

(On a side note, pedophiles are especially creepy because they combine the worst aspects of both kinds of criminals. Their actions are violent and repulsive, like those of street criminals, but like white-collar criminals they usually first build up a great amount of trust between themselves and their victims before committing their crimes.)

* * * * *

The special creepiness of white-collar defendants prompted me to examine my prejudices, and led me to conclude that their violation of trust is in some ways worse than what common street criminals do. But we are rarely outraged over white-collar crime, usually because the criminal has money, even though we should be more outraged because the criminal has betrayed a trust.

The result is that somehow it's more "respectable" for an investment banker to steal money through fraud, e.g., through the use of complex financial instruments he doesn’t understand (see “master of the universe” Fabrice Tourre of Goldman Sachs), than it is to mug a pedestrian. It's even more respectable for a bank to commit usury, or for a lawyer to overcharge his clients. These are all forms of theft, and they often involve a breach of trust when one person relies on the professional for help. The 7th commandment makes quite clear that all theft is wrong, yet too often we make nice distinctions based on the criminal’s wealth where the 7th commandment doesn't.

Unfortunately, most of the time we view these behaviors in abstract economic terms; this makes us afraid to call a thief a thief. It takes some up-close experience to see that theft is theft, no matter who the thief is.

Lawyers for a prominent trust company can get away with depleting half the assets of a sizable trust in questionable fees—they were paying themselves directly from the trust until the primary beneficiary asked to see some invoices. Jarndyce and Jarndyce may be not a completely fictional case, after all.

A man can write checks to himself and embezzle from a charity for mentally disabled children. He may not get away with it forever—the IRS might want to ask him about his new personal airplane—yet, because such a man can pay for his defense, he is more respectable in most people's eyes than the simple street criminal who has to rely on the public defender.

On the other hand, there are men who rob jewelry stores who are not very clever—as well as oblivious to the fact that the entire robbery has been caught on videotape—and the police generally have little difficulty in recovering the jewelry within a couple days. They certainly deserve to spend some time behind bars, but I have a hard time seeing that what these armed robbers do is necessarily any worse than what white-collar criminals do. What these armed robbers do is obviously more traumatic for the victim in the short term but they generally steal less money than white-collar criminals; people like Bernie Madoff have easy access to lots of money. Finally, will those trust beneficiaries or charity beneficiaries ever be able to recover the money stolen by their trustees? It’s highly unlikely.

You can call me a soft-on-crime bleeding-heart liberal, if you want, but I am simply asking why we do not stigmatize white-collar crime as much as street crime. Is the physical injury the street criminal inflicts on his victim always worse than the breach of trust committed by a white-collar criminal? True criminality does not depend on a person’s violence. Rather, it depends on a person’s willingness to transgress basic ethical commands without compunction. And that lack of conscience is often more evident in a wealthy white-collar criminal than it is in a poor street criminal.
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