I don’t know about the rest of you, but I spend a lot of time being angry at white collar crime. I have a fantasy that I like to entertain from time to time: I like to imagine that we as a society were actually serious about punishing such crimes the way they deserve. With jail time. To take a page out of the Onion’s book, I’d like to see some rich white people treated by the legal system as if they were black men.
The following are a few of the cases where I like to fantasise that we had the collective nerve to put people away in prison. In each of these cases, I’m pretty sure that the people in question are breaking the law, and yet, the law is either not enforced, or there are no legal consequences for breaking the law. I will be using a very broad definition of “white collar crime” here.
Dishonest bankers and investment professionals
This seems as good a place as any to start. Do you remember when hundreds of unscrupulous bankers and investment professionals across the U.S., Canada and Europe were prosecuted and sent to prison for their roles in the financial mismanagement that brought about the 2008 financial crisis?
That never happened. No one went to prison for the near-collapse of the financial world as we knew it. In fact, most of the architects of the financial collapse got generous multi-million dollar severance packages. And they screwed the rest of the world over. They profited massively, and destroyed people’s lives, and not a single one of them went to prison.
Canadian senators who cheat on their expenses
There has been a rash of Canadian senators who have been caught cheating on their expenses. There is no excuse for this. These are supposed to be smart people. These are supposed to be people who have some clue as to how the government works, and the best excuse they have is that the rules for expenses are “confusing.”
There are investigations ongoing, but it looks like none of them will lose their job or their generous pensions, and of course, none of them will go to prison.
Government workers and politicians who destroy public records for political expediency
Wealthy people and corporations who avoid paying taxes
We take it as a given that the wealthy among us, as well as most corporations, will always be able to avoid paying their taxes. In a debate on CBC’s Ideas, Newt Gingrich even went so far as to say that he wouldn’t even want a government that was powerful enough to enforce its tax laws.
These people are illegally taking money that would otherwise go to government programmes that help all of us, but I bet that a person who steals a candy bar from a dépanneur has a greater chance of going to jail than a wealthy person who cheats on her taxes.
Those who participate in domestic spying
In the U.S. and Canada, there has recently been more scrutiny than usual over cases of domestic spying—our own government agencies using their powers to extract information about our own citizens. In the U.S., it’s mostly been about the NSA (which has been commented on ad nauseum), but within Canada, even the director of CSEC has expressed discomfort with the fact that reform of this agency has been delayed, and that it has too much leeway to look into the private lives of Canadian citizens.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if a bunch of people from the NSA / CSEC went to jail for doing this?
I mean, actual hard time. Not just “more transparency.” Not just promises to stop doing this sort of thing. I mean the director of the NSA / CSEC in handcuffs, and maybe a bunch of administrators. Enough to send a better message than the current strategy, which seems to be nothing more than shrugging our collective shoulders and saying, “Well, I have nothing to hide.”
Politicians who commit electoral fraud
Michael Sona should not be the only one facing charges for the Robocall Scandal. Just saying.
Pretty much everyone from the Charbonneau Commission
For those of you who are from out-of-province and who are unfamiliar with the Charbonneau Commission, the premiss is that the government of Québec needed to find a really efficient way to get a whole bunch of rich white guys off the hook for corruption in awarding government contracts, so they made it into a reality TV show, where every person who appears on it is pretty much given a “get out of jail free” card for every time they admit to having committed a white collar crime.
It’s kind of ridiculous. Makes for good TV though, so I guess it’s a win-win?
Politicians who vote for unconstitutional laws
A fun fact about the constitution of a country: The constitution of a country doesn’t apply to its citizens per se. Strictly speaking, it applies to the country’s government, telling it what sorts of laws it can and cannot pass, and by what means. So if a person says, “You can’t tell me to shut up! I have the right to free speech. It’s in the constitution,” it’s true that she has the right to free speech, but that right isn’t a guarantee that any other private person has to be accommodating of her views. The right is only a guarantee that the government of her country does not pass laws constraining her speech.
This means that if the government of the day decides to pass a law that is unconstitutional, they are breaking the law. Even if the courts decide to strike the law down later on, the law has been broken.
Striking down an unconstitutional law after the fact doesn’t satisfy justice. If a bank robber is caught and all the money is returned after the fact, we don’t say “no harm done!” and let the bank robber go free. Similarly, if the Québec Charter of Values passes in the provincial legislature, for example, but is later struck down by the courts as unconstitutional, the rights of a number of already-vulnerable minorities will be violated for no other reason than the political calculations of a racist premier. They will have been harmed in a real way, and just stopping the harm doesn’t undo what’s been done.
I would seriously be okay with time in prison for members of provincial or federal legislatures if they vote for a law that is later struck down as unconstitutional. And given the recent revelation that the PQ ignored the Justice Department’s advice that the proposed Charter is unconstitutional, it really looks like they knew they were trying to get away with breaking the highest law of our country (our constitution) in order to make this happen.
Why is this just a fantasy?
For reference, this is how we treat people who are suspected of armed robbery, and this is how we treat white collar criminals in Canada. I admit that I get some perverse satisfaction from imagining them being reversed—a person who’s down on her luck and forced into robbing a pharmacy being given extra government help, and conversely, the police being a little … “over-zealous” in enforcing the law with the rich and affluent.
Of course I know that this is all just a fantasy. There’s no way that there would ever be a government that’s “tough on white collar crime.” Then again, I really don’t know why prison time should be a real possibility in the case of petty theft, but not in the case of:
- Legislating institutional racism
- Systematic theft from various levels of government
- Undermining the democracy of Canada
- Domestic spying
- Large-scale financial mismanagement
All of the above undermine the confidence we have in the proper functioning of our society. These things cause real widespread harm (although mostly to the lower class and minority groups) and wrongly keep wealth and power in the hands of certain groups of people.
To be honest, I’m sick of promises of “greater transparency” that are usually taken to be enough in these sorts of situations. I’m insulted by the suggestion that just a fine is enough to set things right. And really, I don’t think I’m asking for anything very controversial. I just want people who break the law to go to prison.