[Marxism] The Real Crime Is What’s Not Done

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 24 08:32:52 MDT 2016

NY Times Op-Ed, August 24 2016
The Real Crime Is What’s Not Done

The latest criminal charges of public officials in the contamination of 
the Flint, Mich., water supply seem righteous. After so much government 
ineptitude with such hideous consequences — tens of thousands of Flint 
residents poisoned; elevated blood lead levels in nearly 5 percent of 
the city’s children, many with possibly irreversible brain damage — 
surely these criminal charges will bring, at long last, justice for Flint.

Not really. Though these sorts of charges fulfill an emotional need for 
retribution and are of great benefit to district attorneys on the make, 
they are seldom more than a mediagenic booby prize. Prosecutorial 
responses fill the void left when health and safety regulations succumb 
to corporate and political pressure.

Take the collapse at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that 
killed 29 miners in 2010. Flouting safety regulations was an integral 
part of the corporate culture of the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, and 
last year its chief executive, Donald L. Blankenship, was convicted of a 
misdemeanor carrying a one-year sentence. Although some portrayed this 
as a blow for social justice, it’s difficult to see how it had much 
impact on mine safety.

Far more significant was the West Virginia Legislature’s passage last 
year of the Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act, the first statutory 
loosening of mine safety standards in state history. While on its 
deregulatory binge last year, the state almost entirely rolled back 
aboveground chemical-tank safety standards enacted in response to the 
Elk River contamination disaster of 2014 – which made the water of 
300,000 people undrinkable.

Prosecution and regulation are not mutually exclusive, but political 
energy and media attention are disproportionately expended by the lust 
for criminal punishment. Food safety is not assured by punishments like 
the 28-year sentence handed down last year to Stewart Parnell, former 
chief executive of the Peanut Corporation of America, for the lethal 
2008 salmonella outbreak stemming from his company’s contaminated 
warehouses. But the outbreak could have been prevented altogether if the 
company hadn’t been allowed to use a dodgy private inspection system. 
New Food and Drug Administration regulations under the Food Safety 
Modernization Act might be a potent safeguard against outbreaks if the 
rules can survive business-group lobbying and if the agency’s 
enforcement budget is adequate, unlike that of the Securities and 
Exchange Commission, which is getting squeezed as the Dodd-Frank Act 
expands its regulatory authority.

Our prosecutorial response tends to be reactive. Volkswagen will pay at 
least $15 billion for cheating on emissions tests on its diesel 
vehicles, and may face criminal charges. The tiny research center that 
caught the discrepancy is now facing cuts to its $1.5 million annual budget.

A well-enforced regulatory regime lacks the TV-movie narrative arc of a 
criminal trial. But none of these crimes could have been committed if 
the government had been doing its job properly.

“Every mine safety regulation we have was written in blood,” said Mike 
Caputo, the minority whip in the West Virginia House of Delegates and a 
vice president of the United Mine Workers of America, who worked 20 
years in his state’s coal fields. “These regulations would never have 
passed if some miner hadn’t died, and for the government to take them 
away is a slap in the face.”

With regulatory structures in willful disrepair, the corporate world has 
become one more sphere colonized by the police and prosecutors. But even 
as progressives have begun to question the overuse of criminal law 
elsewhere, its encroachments into the white-collar world are generally 
cheered: Finally, a chance to stick it to “crime in the suites”!

Criminal law, however, turns out to be a lot better at catching the 
small, sad fish of middle management than the sharks of industry and 
finance. Go to the F.B.I.’s “most wanted” webpage for white-collar crime 
and what leaps out is how many on the list are nonwhite and how petty 
their swindles are.

As for the Flint charges — nine officials face them now — no one can 
doubt that they shine a helpful media spotlight on Michigan’s attorney 
general, Bill Schuette, a Republican with a widely reported eye on the 
governor’s mansion in 2018. Nothing in Mr. Schuette’s long career in 
politics indicates that he would try to resolve the infrastructural 
crisis of Flint and Michigan’s Flints-in-waiting with major public 
investment in infrastructure and a regulatory framework. That would take 
courage in today’s climate of neoliberal austerity. On the other hand, 
Mr. Schuette is brave enough to go after a handful of low-to-mid-level 
state officials.

The injustice of the Flint contamination and other safety disasters 
demand a meaningful response. Criminal law is not the right tool for the 

Chase Madar is the author of “The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story 
Behind the WikiLeaks Whistleblower.”

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