An Orgy of Thieves

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and ALEXANDER COCKBURN

All through the 1980s and 1990s, professorial mountebanks like James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray grew plump from best sellers about the criminal, probably innate, propensities of the “underclass,” about the pathology of poverty, the teen predators, the collapse of morals, the irresponsibility of teen moms.

There was indeed a vast criminal class coming to full vicious potential in the 1990s: a group utterly vacant of the most elementary instincts of social propriety, devoid of moral fiber, selfish to an almost unfathomable degree. The class comes in the form of our corporate elite.

Given a green light in the late 1970s by the deregulatory binge urged by corporate-funded think tanks and launched legislatively by Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy, by the 1990s, America’s corporate leadership had evolved a simple strategy for criminal self-enrichment.

First, lie about your performance, in a manner calculated to deceive investors. This was engineered by the production of a “pro forma” balance sheet freighted with accounting chicanery of every stripe and hue, willingly supplied by Arthur Andersen and others. Losses were labeled “capital expenditures”; losing assets were “sold” to co-conspirators in the large banks for the relevant accounting period.

Later, using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, slightly more realistic balance sheets would be presented to the SEC and the IRS.

Flaunting the “pro forma” numbers, corporations would issue more stock, borrow more money from some co-conspiratorial bank, buy back the stock for the chief executives, who would further inflate its value by dint of bogus accountancy, sell the stock to the chumps and bail out with their millions before the roof fell in, leaving pension funds like CalPERS holding the bag. The fortunes amassed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are vivid illustrations of the technique.

The scale of looting? Prodigious. This orgy of thievery, without parallel in the history of capitalism, was condoned and abetted year after year by the archbishop of the economy, Alan Greenspan, a man with a finely honed sense of distinction between the scale of reproof merited by the very rich and those less powerful. When Ron Carey led the Teamsters to victory way back in 1997, Greenspan rushed to denounce the “inflationary” potential of modestly improved wage packets. Even though declared innocent by a jury of his peers, Carey was forbidden ever to run in a union election again. And so it goes now with the drumbeats about raising the minimum wage.

Where were the sermons from Greenspan or his successor Ben Bernanke about the inflationary potential of stock-option fortunes lofted on the hot air of crooked accountancy and kindred conspiracies?

Let someone die in a gang-banger crossfire in South Central, and William Bennett will rush to indict an entire generation, an entire race. Where are the sermons from Bennett, Murray and the Sunday Show moralists about the CEOs scuttling off with their swag, leaving their employees to founder amid wrecked pensions and destroyed prospects? A street kid in Oakland is in the computer by the time he’s 10. No “criminal propensity” profiles for grads of the Wharton or Harvard business schools.

You have to go back to Marx and Balzac to get a truly vivid sense of the rich as a criminal elites. But these giants did bequeath a tradition of joyful dissection of the morals and ethics of the rich, carried on by Veblen, John Moody, C. Wright Mills, William Domhoff, and others. But by the mid-1960s, disruptive political science was not a paying proposition if you were aiming for tenure. A student studying Mills would be working nights at the soda fountain while the kid flourishing Robert Dahl and writing rubbish about pluralism would get a grad fellowship.

Back in the 1950s, people were reading stuff about the moral vacuum in affluent suburbia by writers like Vance Packard and David Riesman. Presumably, inner loneliness soon became inner joy. There was nothing wrong about putting one’s boot on a colleague’s neck and cashing in. Where are the books now about these proving grounds for the great corporate criminal cohort of the 2000s, who came of age in the Reagan years?

In fact, it’s nearly impossible to locate books that examine the class of corporate executives through the lens of cool, scientific contempt. Much of the current writing on CEO culture is published in magazines like Fortune, Businessweek or Forbes. And though there are a few authors — like Robert Monks (Power and Accountability) — who focus their attention on executive culture, nowhere will you find empirical studies on the sociobiological roots of the criminal tendencies of the executive class.

Why? The rich bought out the opposition. Back in the mists of antiquity, you had communists and socialists and populists who’d read Marx, and who had a pretty fair notion of what the rich were up to. Even Democrats had a grasp of the true situation. Then came the witchhunts and the buyouts, hand in hand. Result, a Goldman Sachs trader could come to maturity without ever once hearing an admonitory word about it being wrong to lie, cheat and steal, sell out your co-workers, defraud your customers.

The finest schools in America educated a criminal elite that stole the store in less than a decade. Was it all the fault of Ayn Rand, of the Chicago School, of Hollywood, of God’s demise?

This essay is adapted and updated from an article in the November 2000 edition of The New Statesman.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch. Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
July 30, 2015
Bill Blunden
The NSA’s 9/11 Cover-Up: General Hayden Told a Lie, and It’s a Whopper
Richard Ward
Sandra Bland, Rebel
Jeffrey St. Clair
How One Safari Nut, the CIA and Neoliberal Environmentalists Plotted to Destroy Mozambique
Martha Rosenberg
Tracking the Lion Killers Back to the Old Oval Office
Binoy Kampmark
Dead Again: the Latest Demise of Mullah Omar
Kathy Kelly – Buddy Bell
No Warlords Need Apply: a Call for Credible Peacemaking in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
Darker Horizons Ahead: Rethinking the War on ‘IS’
Stephen Lendman
The Show Trial of Saif Qaddafi: a Manufactured Death Sentence
John Grant
The United States of Absurdity, Circa 2015
Karl Grossman
The Case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press
Cesar Chelala
Cultural Treasures Are Also Victims of War
Jeff Taylor
Iowa Conference on Presidential Politics
July 29, 2015
Mike Whitney
The Politics of Betrayal: Obama Backstabs Kurds to Appease Turkey
Joshua Frank
The Wheels Fell Off the Bernie Sanders Bandwagon
Conn Hallinan
Ukraine: Close to the Edge
Stephen Lendman
What Happened to Ralkina Jones? Another Jail Cell Death
Rob Wallace
Neoliberal Ebola: the Agroeconomic Origins of the Ebola Outbreak
Dmitry Rodionov
The ‘Ichkerization’ Crime Wave in Ukraine
Joyce Nelson
Scott Walker & Stephen Harper: a New Bromance
Bill Blunden
The Red Herring of Digital Backdoors and Key Escrow Encryption
Thomas Mountain
The Sheepdog Politics of Barack Obama
Farzana Versey
A President and a Yogi: Abdul Kalam’s Symbolism
Norman Pollack
America’s Decline: Internal Structural-Cultural Subversion
Foday Darboe
How Obama Failed Africa
Cesar Chelala
Russia’s Insidious Epidemic
Tom H. Hastings
Defending Democracy
David Macaray
Why Union Contracts are Good for the Country
Virginia Arthur
The High and Dry Sierras
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, the Season Finale, Mekonception in Redhook
July 28, 2015
Mark Schuller
Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting
Lawrence Ware
Why the “Black Church” Doesn’t Exist–and Never Has
Peter Makhlouf
Israel and Gaza: the BDS Movement One Year After “Protective Edge”
Carl Finamore
Landlords Behaving Badly: San Francisco Too Valuable for Poor People*
Michael P. Bradley
Educating About Islam: Problems of Selectivity and Imbalance
Binoy Kampmark
Ransacking Malaysia: the Najib Corruption Dossier
Michael Avender - Medea Benjamin
El Salvador’s Draconian Abortion Laws: a Miscarriage of Justice
Jesse Jackson
Sandra Bland’s Only Crime Was Driving While Black
Cesar Chelala
Effect of Greece’s Economic Crisis on Public Health
Mel Gurtov
Netanyahu: An Enemy of Peace
Joseph G. Ramsey
The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left
George Wuerthner
Bark Beetles and Forest Fires: Another Myth Goes Up in Smoke
Paul Craig Roberts - Dave Kranzler
Supply and Demand in the Gold and Silver Futures Markets
Eric Draitser
China’s NGO Law: Countering Western Soft Power and Subversion
Harvey Wasserman
Will Ohio Gov. Kasich’s Anti-Green Resume Kill His Presidential Hopes?
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode 4, a Bowery Ballroom Blitz