April 10, 2009

High End Murder

Impossible to understand the current economic crisis if you take it as a one-off: think of it rather as a high water mark on a crisis wave that crests and ebbs; bearing in mind that the low water mark generates more than enough ruined and outright excised lives to be gong on with. By the same token Bernie Madoff is better read less as an aberration than a very slight extrapolation from everyday commercial practice; the subprime mortgage fiasco scarcely seems less consciously fraudulent, and it appears that until almost the end, knowing his methods grew more questionable and his hopes of recovery more desperate hour upon hour, Madoff still imagined that his superior fiduciiary powers, coupled to one exceptionally luck turn of fortune's wheel would save him yet: which was the fervent prayer of the subprimers and the AIG fiasciators--now enjoying their golden handshakes--as well. (After all he had perhaps the world's largest collection of statuary bulls, nary a bear in the lot; surely that would protect and save him in a market, as everybody knows, governed by phases of the planets overhead and concentrate effusions of sympathetic magic.) And as for the Ford Pinto

--(Google this under "gas tank that explodes" if you want the full background)--

that can't be comprehended at all if regarded as an isolated incident, or even one of a firecracker string of them throughout a century and more of intense commercial history--the Dalkon Shield; Bhopal; the Three Gorges Dam; IBM's collaboration with Nazi Germany on the death camps (you ever wonder why those tattooed numbers on the victims' arms? Each was matched to a stippled card with the same number in a primitive version of computerized filing.) I'll grant you IBM's crime has features that are unique. More indecent even than the collaborations of Krupp and IG Farben (now Bayer); IBM's was as great a crime against humanity, but also an act of high treason. Still, it has features in common with relatively much less extreme commercial crimes.

Nobody writing about this or the Pinto case has ever suggested that either board of directors was composed of anything but typical businessmen. I don't know if a paper trail exists from the late thirties, early forties that would show who at IBM was down with the deal, who if anyone resigned in outraged horror, but memos that came to light in the class action suit over the Pinto make it clear the executive board of Ford Motors, fully aware that they were seeding every highway in North America with car bombs, released the Pinto unmodified because it made more sense on a cost/benefit analysis. A fifty cent piece of equipment they might easily ahve attached to the Pinto's volatile gas tank would have corrected the problem, but they would have had to put up the price about a dollar, or absorb an infinitesimal reduction in profit on each auto sold. Add it all up car by car that's a lot of bucks; two hundred thou per wrongful death suit is what accountants tell them insurance settlements are going for and hey! that works out cheaper. What kind of system so easily and reflexively performs cost/benefit analysis on the merits of murdering random strangers in cold blood? How many? Eight hundred is the lowball estimate.

How many of the most depraved serial killers on death row (in the U.S. states that still maintain it) would you need to assemble in a room until confirmed kills among the lot would total eight hundred? The bloodiest hundred fifty cover that spread? Almost certainly double that number, you'd be down from the eight-ten range to triple, double and onetime murderers long before they added up to such a sum.So why do people who are rabid for the death penalty concentrate so exclusively on such comparative small fry. A CEO and twelve or fourteen presidents and vices round a table conspire to murder eight hundred people and the only sanctions called upon are economic ones. They lost that lawsuit big time, paid out way more than $200,000/wrongful death. That'll teach 'em.

Alas, I'm pretty much an absolute opponent of the death penalty, and besides in this case its woeful inadequacy is plainly to be seen. How many times can you effectively execute any one murderer? Once remains pretty much the upward limit in spite of the dazzling technological advances we've seen in so many areas of our lives. Even if the means existed to spark life back into a corpse so you could execute again, 800 executions would ultimately be not only sickening but way monotonous. Even assigning a value of twenty-forty murders per board member, poking in that many successive lethal needles would surely prove ultimately as tedious as assembly line work. So by the law of an eye for an eye, strict retributive justice must remain a perpetually elusive goal. And I did think the money settlement, humungous as it was by the standard of its day, was rather a timid slap on the wrist. What settlement then might have seen rough justice done and, more importantly, allowed good to win out in glory at last?

What if instead of a huge but inadequate (and for a corporation the size of Ford, fairly easily assimilable) money settlement, or better yet along with it, the defendants had been stripped of their stocks in Ford Motors and the class action plaintiffs, in equal shares, invested with them? appointing a new board of directors from among their own number and taking over management of the company completely.

I'm not sure this wouldn't be a wise thing to attempt everywhere in the corporate world, certainly in every failing or failed institution where people whose corruption, incompetence or both has bred chaos, insolvency and a begging bowl mentality on a global scale. Do you seriously think people randomly plucked off any street corner wouldn't handle things better than these self-inflated, overpriced frauds and financial know-nothings? Me, I seriously wonder if children randomly plucked from a playground could possibly misperform as badly.

How many people died of Madoff's scams? Not just ruined lives, pensioners with their savings wiped out joining the line at job fairs to seek entry level positions at McD's (rain forest assassin) in their golden years, but actual deaths directly traceable to sudden catastrophic plunges in the net worth of charities invested with him whose work literally spelt the difference between life and death in many cases? I don't know if it would be possible to calculate, but in spite of the general hatred of Madoff--loud applause in the courtroom when he was sentenced--it's a question, as far as I know, no-one's thought even to ask. (Given the circumstances, I'm not sure I'd put the charge any higher than negligent homicide in his case. But that much at least, justice should insist on.) With the exception of mob hits and killings associated with large inheritances or insurance payouts, people seem remarkable little inclined even to speak the word when it comes to murder visibly linked to commercial gain. Too brutal a word for most of us perhaps, to associate with gentles of such majestically hoarded wealth. The indisputable common denominator among those on death row in all but a statistically negligible number of cases is not that they've committed a murder--dubious prosecution methods cast doubt on how fairly that issue was decided in too many cases; I'm grateful that in the numerous cases in Canada where we've discovered a wrongful conviction, we've been able to restore justice partiallly by releasing the wrongly convicted, rather than speak useless words of apology to a headstone. No, what they have in common almost universally is that they're poor. Where the rich are convicted of murder they serve out terms in prison, and no-one's ever convicted of murder if it's carried out in the interest of a corporate bottom line.

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