New book paints depressing picture of American injustice

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Investigative journalist Matt Taibbi brought his latest work spotlighting some of the outrageous trends in modern American capitalism to the AFT on April 21 for a talk and book signing that attracted a standing-room-only audience.

Taibbi, a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone and a bestselling author, discussed his latest work, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. In his book, he looks at what he calls the "eye-opening and depressing" state of the American justice system. "Every day on Wall Street," he writes, "money is stolen, embezzled, burgled, and robbed. But the mechanisms of these thefts are often so arcane and idiosyncratic that they don't fit neatly into the criminal code, which is written for the dumb crimes committed by common stick-up artists and pickpockets."

In researching the book, he found that it's incredibly easy for people who don't have money to go to jail for just about anything, while the high-profile white-collar perpetrators of fraud—many of them responsible for the 2008 global financial crisis—are almost never prosecuted. The book contains many examples from both ends of the spectrum: On the one hand, a woman is jailed for checking the wrong box on an application for welfare benefits; on the other, the CEO of Countrywide Financial, who committed massive fraud, ends up paying a $1 million fine while still keeping $400 million he earned while at the company.

"You can't paint the full absurdity of the non-enforcement [of white-collar crime] unless you look at it side by side with other cases," he says.

"The rich have always gotten breaks and the poor have always had to swim upstream," he writes. "The new truth is infinitely darker and more twisted. … The rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth and success on the other."

Taibbi has brought attention to important topics close to the AFT before. In 2013, he featured the AFT's first "Ranking Asset Managers" report in a long Rolling Stone piece that exposed the hypocrisy of some Wall Street hedge fund managers who profit from managing the defined benefit pension plans of millions of workers, while at the same time supporting groups trying to eliminate those same plans. (See related story.) He also has written about the damage done to worker pensions by the same fraudulent Wall Street practices that are the focus of his new book.

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is published by Spiegel and Grau. [Dan Gursky]