Tag Archives: white-collar crime

The losers of Superbowl XLVIII will be…

Francis facepalm

Religious moderates.

Here’s my reasoning.

After the game, someone on the winning team, exulting ecstatically, will say “God was on our side” or words to that effect. It’s as sure as a post-touchdown two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, if the team is still down by a pair.

This will lead humorists and atheists alike to mock the athlete’s egocentric theology, along the lines of the great “God-Man on the Gridiron” cartoon from a few years back. Which will inspire angry rebuttals from offended fundamentalists.

Religious moderates are the collateral damage in this snake-vs-mongoose battle, bitten by both sides.

I’ve read aggressive atheists argue that religious moderates “give cover” for fundamentalists, by making religion seem respectable. The faulty reasoning is that if the only religious people around were crazed fundamentalists, no one would ever be converted to religion, and humanity would break the chains of irrational superstition forever. I find great humour in such atheists’ irrational belief that we could one day cure ourselves of our own irrationality. :)

I’ve also listened to religious fundamentalists classify religious moderates as pseudo-apostates, who have fallen away from the authentic faith the fundamentalists (naturally) perpetuate. The flawed logic here sees moderate religious views are seen as a kind of “gateway drug” to the godless secular atheism, the rise of which has led to, uh, the lowest crime rates in the U.S. in fifty years. This misplaced ethos is aptly captured by the misplaced priorities of God-Man’s sidekick Fan-Boy in this cartoon here.

The book Freakonomics popularized the incorrect idea that crime rates in the U.S. dropped because abortion was legalized. (Given the machinations of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan et al, one would be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a golden age for white-collar crime.)

The strong factor actually seems to have been reduction in kids’ lead exposure. Another economist found that in each of nine countries he studied, violent crime rates fell off a cliff, about twenty years after their respective governments phased lead out of gasoline. But his publications weren’t best-sellers. :)

Basically, religious moderates get fragged by both sides.

Back, briefly, to the Super Bowl

Though I’m an atheist, I’m sincerely glad so many football players are religious.

Statistics and psychological studies show that religious people are more generous than heathen like me. And the religious are particularly generous towards fellow worshipers, and others in their faith-defined “in-group”.

As an atheist, I value this factoid. It’s dangerous to think one is morally superior to one’s occasional opponents. So in a sense, I want to believe that some of the people who disagree with me, live with more upright selflessness – whether it’s a fact or fiction, the idea itself should keep me from developing a caustic arrogance about myself or my “side”.

Considering how much head trauma an NFL player will suffer in his career, after he retires and the symptoms start to show, he’s almost certainly going to need help. A lot of help. Possibly, very expensive help. For years and years afterwards.

As such, if I want the best for an NFL player when he retires, I would want him to be part of a large, supportive faith community. (I would also them to have access to single-payer universal healthcare, to prevent medical complications from bankrupting them or any other American, but hey, that’s just my Canadian perspective.)

Sadly, all light casts shadows

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious fundamentalists, there’s a downside to their generosity – while they’re more generous to members of their in-group, they tend to be more hostile to members of out-groups. (As the authors of this paper explain, religious fundamentalism combines the benefits of religious pro-sociality with the defects of authoritarian intolerance.)

In our day and era, gays are a favourite scapegoat of so many Christians who must otherwise be well-meaning people. This despite the fact that the centurion’s servant whom Jesus healed, was probably the soldier’s teenage gay lover, and He seemed fine with that. (Actually, all this really proves is that liberals can proof-text the Bible to argue what they want, as skilfully as conservatives.)

Still on the NFL, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team after the 2012 season, several months after he expressed his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. While his stats were middle-of-the-pack, he claims to’ve gotten pushback from some members of the coaching and management who were particularly opposed to his opposition to, uh, bigotry.

[update: from this ESPN report, it looks like Kluwe may have been a bottom-dweller in some stats important to the Vikings, and as such, he may be less of a martyr than a mediocrity whose time was up. Keeping in mind that being a mediocre NFL punter is still someone in the top 30 or so at that position in the world. I edited the last sentence of the following paragraph to reflect this.]

To their credit, the Vikings have launched a formal investigation. And it’s entirely possible that the Vikings thought they could get a better punter for less money. Sadly, given the religious views of some members of the Viking staff and management, there’ll always be the question of whether faith-based reasons may have partially influenced the decision to cut Kluwe.

I’m hopeful that by the time Leo grows up, things will change and there’ll be comfortably out athletes. No doubt there will still be other social prejudices still to overcome – I may be an atheist, but I’m hardly a utopian.

And Warren Moon

To end with on football, I remember when I first found out that CFL and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a tough time becoming a quarterback in the 1970’s, because of an apparent social inertia in football culture that blacks didn’t become quarterbacks.

University football teams would convert high school prospects to other positions. This wasn’t only a football thing either; there was a strong anti-European sentiment in the NHL, until pioneers like Borje Salming proved that Europeans were just as good – and just as tough – as North Americans. (Hockey’s last remaining Europhobe can be found on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner…)

When Moon finally got to be a starting quarterback, he led his college team to the Rose Bowl, and was the game’s MVP. And he still didn’t get drafted. So he played in the CFL, where he was part of an Edmonton Eskimos team which won five straight championships. Then, finally, the NFL came calling.

The thing that shocked me the most was that the NFL’s antipathy to black quarterbacks – and the NHL’s reluctance to give Europeans a shot, for that matter – was recent enough that it I was alive for the back end of it!

I do hope that, as a society, our definition of “in-groups” keeps growing, so that one day Leo can tell his own kids that, as frustrating as the day’s social issues may seem, he too was alive at the back end of this long-standing social inertia, which swiftly, satisfyingly dissipated, soon thereafter.

(As for why I chose the Pope, that’s another post. While they’re hardly religious progressives, the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of evolution, and its almost two-thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting parts of the Bible allegorically instead of insisting it’s all factually accurate, mean that by my amateur classification, they go in the “moderate” pile. Moderates whose hierarchy has shielded countless pedophiles from the law for decades, yes… but moderates none the less.)

On Theft and Punishment

(originally written May 5, uploaded July 29)

Wal-Mart executives were recently accused of bribing foreign officials, a serious offence under US law. Fortunately for them, if history is any guide (and in a justice system which highly values past precedent, it so often is, isn’t it?) no one will go to jail. By and large, white-collar crime goes lightly punished, one of many possible reasons being that wealthy people in deep-pocketed organizations can muster all-star legal lineups in their defense. Perhaps we could call this the “law of the jingle”. ;)

In yet another example of how the world is different for the 99%, punishments for “blue-collar” crime tend to pick up the slack. More troublingly for our “equal before the law” ethos, many soon-to-be-prisoners are represented by overworked court-appointed lawyers, who can’t devote as much time to cases as privately-hired counterparts. One wonders how different things would be if we all shared public defenders, the way we share public healthcare…!

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As they do in so many fields, our southern cousins seem to lead the way in judicial asymmetry. In an infamous case several years ago, a repeat offender tried twice to steal videotapes from Kmart — nine movies worth about $150. (Compare this to the expansive music and video collections your, ahem, cousin acquired through file-sharing.) These being his third and fourth offences, and California having a “three strikes” law, the thief got two consecutive twenty-five year prison sentences: a half-century in the slammer. While he had committed other offences in the past, this brings to mind how in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean was jailed five years for stealing a loaf of bread!

Bearing in mind that it costs California about $50,000 to incarcerate someone for a year, one could say the state is “investing” $2.5 million to keep this fellow behind bars. Riffing on the economic theory that people always act in their self-interest, it would seem the criminal justice system thinks it would be even more expensive for society to leave him on the streets.

On the other end of the spectrum, executives at brokerage firm MF Global recently stole $1.6 billion from customer accounts, most of it in the “chaos” of the final days as the company went under. Because as you know, when it gets busy, banks only balance their books to the nearest billion. ;) (“Your honour, we were moving that money into so many different offshore tax-haven shell company accounts we honestly lost track of what went where. And what with all the shredding… wait, you’re not buying it?”) Unfortunately, since sentencing probably won’t happen for a few years, we’ll have to turn to older examples for comparative purposes.

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About ten years ago, two top executives at Tyco stole $600 million from the company, eventually earning sentences of up to 25 years each. Pulling out ye olde calculator app, each Tyco exec got a maximum of 25 years for $300 million, or roughly one day’s jail time per $33,000. Grading on the curve for the failed Kmart thief, he would’ve gotten six and a half minutes, a bit less than the time it takes to sing “Hey Jude”.

Scaling the other way, each Tyco exec successfully stole two million times as much as the Kmart felon tried to, so in a parallel universe they both would’ve gotten one hundred million years in prison. By comparison, the dinosaurs only lasted a hundred and sixty. Forget watching paint dry, they could’ve watched oil form! (And if they had, no doubt they’d shake their heads at our tar sands extraction, muttering “what are they thinking? That junk needs to cook another million years at least!”)

It would be unfair to blame the justice system for these iniquities, because the root of the problem is probably more fundamental to our human nature. (Similarly, blaming religion for all the terrible things done in its name overlooks the fact that we’re really, really good at finding excuses to kill each other.) Many societies distinguish between higher-esteemed and lower-esteemed communities — you may recall from school that in feudal Europe, the aristocracy were called the nobles, and the serfs, villains. Nowadays we have respectable businessmen and impoverished ethnic minorities. And sentencing sure seems to depend on whether the accused is subconsciously classified as “one of us” or “The Other”.

We can see hints of this in the difficulties of the earliest Christians in the city of Rome. Europe having been the “home base” of Christianity for so long, it’s easy to forget that the first Christians arrived there from the East. Community leaders were darker-skinned folks, probably impoverished and illiterate, who didn’t speak Latin (though some might’ve known Greek). They had newfangled ideas that irritated the more respectable members of their own synagogues, like worshipping a man who’d been executed as a common criminal. And they were rumoured to’ve been cannibals.* They were such a perfect “Other” that Nero simply could not have found a better scapegoat for the Great Fire of Rome, if he’d told his people to try. Heck, it wouldn’t be surprising if he did…!

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It’s also plausible that the thought of retail theft (purse-snatchings, stick-ups) triggers a fight-or-flight response in us, and accordingly, demands for harsh punishment. In contrast, wholesale thefts (diddling the business books and similar corruptions) tend to be banal actions involving computers — hardly adrenaline-pumping stuff. This may also help explain why they’re treated less severely, despite involving much larger sums. A recent example of the latter is the “robo-signing” scandal in the US, where banks have been shown to’ve foreclosed on thousands of homes they did not in fact have title to, then tried to falsify documents after the fact, and now seem poised to escape with fines representing a small fraction of their winnings.

This explanation unfortunately turns into the logical pretzel that if a society punishes (theft of $100 + threat of violence) more severely than (theft of $1,000,000’s), when you balance the equations, the courts treat one threat of violence as the equivalent of millions of dollars. Which just seems odd; it almost comes across as incentive for wannabe white-collar crooks.

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No doubt all these issues have been addressed with careful nuance and subtlety in the Conservative Canadian government’s recently-passed crime bill. It is an omnibus bill, after all. ;) It’s also encouraging that they’ve shown such restraint with their opponents, instead of caricaturing them as “hijacking radicals”. That would be a subtle attempt to link environmentalists with the 9/11 terrorists; to their credit, thus far they’ve kept “hijacking” and “radical” in separate sentences. ;)

To offer other credit where it’s due, much of the above was influenced by The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, a book I read at university. After getting mugged. While I was pretty much a cookie-cutter law-and-order type beforehand, it raised some formidable questions about why we choose to focus most of our crime-fighting on the bottom of the pyramid, instead of the top. (Admittedly, having the Avengers do a forensic audit of Conrad Black’s dealings, would make for a Very. Boring. Movie.)

The book’s now in its ninth edition, which means that even if the book it’s wrong, it’s pervasively wrong — not unlike today’s standard economic models. ;) The bottom line is that, because of it and other tomes, I’m one of the few people who ever got less conservative on crime, after being a victim of it! How’s that for unexpected? :)

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* some Christian traditions hold that the communion bread and wine literally becomes Jesus’ body and blood when it is consumed; others treat this metaphorically. If even one Christian proselytizer were to explain this to a local Roman without proper context, you could see how claims of cannibalism would arise…