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Bill Black: Why do Conservatives Oppose Prosecuting Elite Corporate Frauds?

William K Black, Naked Capitalism

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

There are at least four principles that virtually all conservatives purport to support – except when the potential defendant is socially elite. I have written previously about two of these principles on several occasions – the need for accountability and “broken windows” theory that calls for the prosecutors to make the prosecution of even minor street crimes a high priority if they have, even indirectly, a material effect on the community.

The third principle is that it is vital to punish in order to deter crime. Gary Becker, the very conservative Nobel laureate in economics, emphasized this point (again, in the context of street crime). Under Becker’s theory of crime our current practices of allowing elite banksters to become wealthy through leading the “sure thing” of accounting control fraud with immunity from the criminal laws will predictably lead to new, larger epidemics of fraud that will continue to cause our recurrent, intensifying financial crises. It is rare, however, to find a prominent conservative who is demanding a priority effort to prosecute the elite bank officers who ran those frauds. I know of no conservative member of Congress publicly making that demand today. Senator Chuck Grassley has previously criticized the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute elite bankers.

The fourth principle, the one this column addresses, is the conservative love of “creative destruction” – a concept made famous by the economist Joseph Schumpeter. I have a simple proposition – there is no more creative destruction than putting a control fraud out of business through a prosecution, receivership, or enforcement action. I have never met personally a conservative, however, who agrees with that proposition in the context of a large, elite corporation. When blue collar workers complain that their clothing manufacturing firm was put out of business by a rival firm that locates its plants in Bangladesh and is able to charge less for their goods because they pay their workers a pittance and “save” money by building factories that are death traps the conservative answer is to tell the U.S. workers to stop whining and light a candle on the altar devoted to the worship of capitalism celebrating the “creative destruction” of their jobs.

Conservatives should view control frauds as the supreme evil that they will devote their lives to eradicating. Control frauds are the ultimate betrayal of capitalism. First, they are the elite face of capitalism that gives capitalism a terrible name. They become wealthy not because they are skilled, innovative, or willing to take risk but because they cheat.

Second, control fraud harms not only the primary intended victim, e.g., the bank’s creditors and shareholders, but also honest firms by creating a “Gresham’s” dynamic in which bad ethics can drive good ethics out of the markets. George Akerlof was the first modern economist to explain this point in his famous 1970 article on anti-purchaser control frauds (“lemons”) that led to him becoming a Nobel laureate.

Third, control frauds are the agents of crony capitalism. Their CEOs may spout Randian sayings, but they are ultimate moochers who delight in translating their immense economic power into dominant political power that they use to defraud with impunity. Control frauds betray and destroy capitalism. If they are not stopped by the regulators and prosecutors (the “cops on the beat”) they destroy capitalism and democracy.

I urge conservatives to lead the charge for the creative destruction of the elite control frauds. This is one of the many critical areas in which people of different political views should be able to find common cause.


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