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The Criminality of the Elites

by Fabio De Masi and Laura Wiesboeck
The offenses of the upper class are hardly publicized. The little are hung while the big can run. People wait in vain for strong interventions in the economic realm while police measures are enforced in no time on the street. Financial criminality harms the state, the community and economic growth (e.g. high-frequency trading, shadow banking, financial products).

By Laura Wiesboeck

[This article published on September 7, 2018 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

While police measures are enforced on the street, people wait in vain for rigorous prosecution of “crime in the suites.”

What first comes to mind when you think of “criminality”? Corruption, financial fraud, falsifying balance sheets, money-washing, tax fraud or subsidy fraud? Probably not, because crime lives on the street. If you follow the dominant political discourse, criminality arises in the cellar of society, in the environment of poverty. So the sociologist Erwin Sutherland explained 80 years ago.

The widespread conception of criminality as a violent crime like robbery, surprise attacks or murder only reflects a part of reality, that part in which the culprits come mainly from the less privileged milieu. The offenses of the so-called upper classes that occur in business life on a large scale are hardly problematicized and publicized to the same extent.

Complicity, Law and Justice

80 years later, this problematic is more burning than ever. A great distinction exists today in how the public sees different forms of crime and who commits them, particularly because of how the media report them. We regularly see reports about street criminality; they are the daily bread and spice of the yellow press promoting their circulation.

Criminality’s presentation in the mass media affects the shaping of opinion and often reflects media reality. The focus is on reports about sexual- and violent offenses; the prevailing figures of fear and presumed perpetrators are immigrants and fleeing persons. What are lost are the many criminal acts occurring in high finance that inflict enormous harm on taxpayers. A current proverb suspended between resignation and sarcasm summarizes this: the little are hung while the big can run.

Heroes Standing Above the Law

The great names of economic criminality become heroic figures; their personalities become part of general education. In films and television series, culprits are often represented as doers, success types and the elite surrounded by young attractive women acting in smart and creative ways, seeing through the system and playing it like a piano.
When their risky game is lost, the grief focuses on the personal disgrace and torment, not on the social harm. The tragedy is that the protagonist has to abandon his lifestyle, not on the costs that the population must pay as a consequence.

The ability to make the most of all possibilities, niches and special cases under existing laws is generally ascribed to big businesses and wealthy and influential persons. They are able to invest in businesses in the border area of legality to maximize advantages and resist all fines and risks and escape all legal infractions with impunity. Lastly, they have the power to jointly create and control laws and amendments through lobbying, influencing and – partly – corruption.

Victims of Crimes and Damages

Nevertheless, indignation is hardly heard. A picture of a personified victim is helpful to generate a feeling of injustice. Victims of crimes often confront authorities with great challenges. But the will to act is clearly lacking.

People wait in vain for strong interventions in the economic realm while police measures are enforced on the street in no time. Thus, gigantic financial losses arise for the state whose costs must be borne by citizens. Financial criminality harms the state, the community and economic growth very negatively. For this reason, the question who are the beneficiaries of the system should be discussed again.

Laura Wiesboeck is a sociologist at the University of Vienna. In her book “In Better Times. The self-righteous view of others,” she grapples with the principle of devaluation and the longing for superiority.


Ten years have passed since the beginning of the financial crisis. Missing bank regulations are striking. A new crash is probable

By Fabio De Masi

[This article published in September 2018 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, Fabio De Masi is a member of the Left Party (Die Linke) in the German Bundestag.]

On September 15, 2008, the US investment bank Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers led to the economic and financial crisis. 10 years after the crisis, the question is when the new crash will come, not whether it will come. This has several reasons:

Firstly, the bailout packages for banks and the trillions in the cheap money of the central banks calmed the financial market but the inequality intensified with the cuts to public investments and pensions.

The cheap money of the central banks lands on the Dax stock exchange in real estate and stocks instead of the real economy. New financial bubbles arise. The privatization of old age insurance is another fire accelerator for the financial markets since pension funds feed the beast. Therefore, there is enormous investment pressure for financial innovations.

Instead, a New Deal as under Roosevelt is necessary: skim off mammoth wealth, invest the cheap money against climate change, in the infrastructure and strengthen the domestic economy in wages and pensions. A former chairman of the US Federal Reserve said rightly: the only sensible financial innovation of the last years was the ATM, the automated teller machine. We need a financial consumer protection agency for licensing financial products and scrutinizing new financial products regarding dangers and political and economic benefits.

Secondly, new economic imbalances have developed. Germany – the fourth largest national economy on earth – continues to live from the demand and indebtedness of foreign countries. Our exports have shifted to up-and-coming threshold countries and the euro zone together realizes balance-of-payments surpluses over against the rest of the world. New monetary crises threaten without selective controls on capital transactions and the support of exchange rates by the most powerful central banks.

Short-term oriented financial investors invest cheap dollars in growth markets like Turkey. Raising interests in the US leads to the withdrawal of funds in the devaluation of the currencies of threshold countries. This encourages new crises since countries like Turkey have huge deficits in the balance of payments and their real debt burden increases. Dollar credits are now used by the weak Turkish lira, Argentinean peso and the South African rand.

How bank monitors ignored the threatening financial crisis

Thirdly, banks are by no means sound or healthy. They must hold more of their own capital resources to cushion crises. However, their capital resources are less than in the US where the state reformed banks early on. 700 billion euros in rotten credits lie on the bank balance sheets, particularly in Southern Europe. The banks cannot grow out of rotten credits if there are no adequate good credits because of inadequate public and private investment.

There is now a joint supervision over banks. The core problem of the mega-banks that are too big and too interlinked to fail is by no means solved. The mammoth universal banks enjoy an actual subsidy of the taxpayers in the risky capital market business since they will be bailed out on account of their danger for the financial system…

Isolating investment banking from the credit and deposit business is urgently necessary…

Fourthly, the shadow banks grow unchecked. The regulation of banks is not effective here. Shadow banks like hedge-, private equity- and money-market funds manage wealth of nearly 100 trillion dollars.

The bank-centered financing of businesses should be overcome with the capital market union in the EU and the securities market, the packaging and selling of junk credits. There are only two possibilities: either central banks support shadow banks in the future – which increases their risk readiness (moral hazard) – or raise sanctions against regulatory cases and taxes on transfers and profits shifted there.

Withdrawing bank licenses for banks doing business with shadow financial centers would be one option.

Fifthly, the financial markets were not controlled. High-frequency trading in which securities are purchases automatically and profitably resold at lightning speed is a danger for financial stability. High-frequency traders pull the plug and quickly reduce liquidity from the financial markets. These actors could be contained with a genuine financial transactions tax that makes many small transactions unprofitable.

A new financial crisis conceals extreme risks. The central banks are at their limit with the interest policy. It is by no means certain democracy will survive a new financial crisis.
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