Imagine we had a brazen and powerful gang stealing trillions of dollars from the American people. Then imagine that our law enforcement folks knew the identities of every one of that gang’s ringleaders.
Wouldn’t it be great if the government of the United States had the technological wherewithal to track those ringleaders day in and day out? The ability to see who they were phoning. Or emailing. Or where they were going on the Internet.
Oh, wait, the government of the United States already does have that wherewithal. The National Security Agency, we now know thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, has all the high-tech wizardry it needs to track virtually anyone anywhere.
And the NSA has certainly been tracking away, vacuuming up — in the name of our national security — billions of records from average Americans, spying on friends and foes alike, outraging our allies, and barely paying even lip service to our most basic of constitutional rights.
But this vast dragnet somehow omits from surveillance the perpetrators of some of the most serious assaults on our homeland security. These perpetrators — the power suits of Wall Street — have wrecked our economy and continue to bleed it dry. No terrorist bomb has destroyed as many lives as our “banksters.”
So why doesn’t the NSA start watching Wall Street’s agents of financial terror? Why don’t its snoops look into every nook and cranny of our economy where investment bankers, hedge fund managers, private equity kingpins, and derivative wheeler-dealers are trading inside information and rigging markets, milking mergers and nuking jobs, all the while stuffing multiple millions (or billions) in their pockets?
“In the present crisis,” as economist James Galbraith has noted, “the vapor trails of fraud and corruption are everywhere.”
“Every day brings multiple new scandals,” former bank regulator Bill Black adds. “At least they used to be scandals. Now they’re simply news items strained of ethical content by business journalists who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak not about evil.”
Black helped prosecute law-breaking bankers three decades ago when the Savings and Loan scandals came to light. Over a thousand of them went to jail. As late as the mid-1990s, 17.6 percent of all federal prosecutions filed targeted white-collar crooks.
And today? Between 2010 and 2012, only 9.4 percent of these federal prosecutions involved white-collar crime.
The precious few high-powered Justice Department investigations into the white-collar world these days typically end in fines that banking and corporate execs happily write off as the cost of doing business — and virtually no one in an executive suite ever sees the inside of a jail cell.
The closest our nation’s misbehaving execs come to spending time in confined spaces? That may be the weekends they spend on football-field-sized private yachts.
Worried about our civil liberties if the NSA takes on our financial elite? Our NSA spymasters wouldn’t have to run roughshod over constitutional rights to keep tabs on Wall Streeters — and their pals in corporate boardrooms. Our economic “smoking guns” remain more than plentiful enough to gain independent judicial oversight approval.
The NSA could find plenty of those smoking guns just by moseying over to the Labor Department and looking through the wage-theft files. In 2012 alone, the stats show, businesses in America had to pay out $280 million in back pay for the wages they illegally denied their workers, a figure, The New York Times notes, that’s “nearly double the amount stolen that year in robberies on the street, at banks, gas stations, and convenience stores.”
Really good criminal investigators live by the maxim “follow the money.” Unfortunately, federal prosecutors today seem to have taken a new adage — “don’t mess with the money” — to heart.
How foolish of us to expect anything else — and how naïve of us, of course, to think that the NSA would ever spy on our richest and most powerful. NSA folks today, after all, are just doing their job. They’re safeguarding the national security — of our plutocracy.
Jeff Vogel is a long-time New York-based labor activist and a member of the New York City Labor Chorus. OtherWords columnist Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the Institute for Policy Studies weekly on excess and inequality.