Capital Punishment: What Should We Do To Wall Street's Villains?

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 2:00 AM EDT

According to the principles of retributive justice, punishment is supposed to be more or less in proportion to the magnitude of a crime. So—which do you think is an appropriate punishment for the Wall Street executives whose greed and corruption not only bankrupted their own companies, but set in motion a meltdown that has deprived millions of Americans of their homes and their life savings, driven millions more into unemployment and poverty, and triggered economic chaos, political unrest, and even starvation and death around the world?

A. Don’t give them a bonus this year.

B. Fire their asses.

C. Lock them up and throw away the key.

If you answered A, you are in line with the policies of the Obama administration, which, after giving billions in bailout money to the likes of AIG, discovered that the company intends to pay out millions in executive bonuses.  The administration’s response has been to get really, really pissed off, and say that they just aren’t going to stand for  these guys getting multi-million-dollar bonuses on top of their multi-million-dollar salaries–if only they can figure out a way around those pesky contracts.

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If you answered B, you agree with the surprisingly small number of politicians in either party who have come out and said that the leadership of these companies–who must surely be incompetent if they aren’t crooked–should be jettisoned from their jobs without golden parachutes.  House Financial Services Committee Chair Barney Frank raised eyebrows yesterday when he said that since the federal government now effectively owns some 80 percent of AIG, maybe they should do some housecleaning:  “Maybe it’s time to fire some people. We can’t keep them from getting the bonuses, but we can keep some of them from continuing in their jobs.”

If you answered C, I suspect you have a lot of company among the world population at large–but not so much among politicians or the press.  I really had to look around to find anyone talking about investigating and prosecuting these guys, even with an eye toward fines and restitution--as Ralph Nader does in this piece from Counterpunch:

Where are the resources for comprehensive law enforcement against the Wall Street crooks, swindlers and purveyors of costly deceptive practices? Isn’t there a need to add two to three hundred million dollars for more FBI agents, prosecutors and corporate crime attorneys under the Justice Department to obtain the fines and disgorgements which will far exceed in dollars what is spent by the forces of law and order?

Americans want justice. They want jailtime not bailtime for these crooks. Look how many of the swindled just turned out in a New York City winter to let Bernard Madoff have a piece of their mind as he entered the courtroom and immediate imprisonment. There has been very little movement so far in Congress or the White House toward this necessary action.

The lesson in all this is that regardless of what happens with their bonuses, the Wall Street execs have suceeded in controlling the terms of the debate. Because as long as we’re arguing about whether they should get a few million more or a few million less, we’re not discussing whether they should serve their time in a medium-security federal penitentiary or a maximum-security one.

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