U.S. Politics and the Economy

Their Crimes and Our Punishments

By Bonnie Weinstein

If you fail to pay a traffic ticket or court fine for an offense—no matter how minor—all too often you can end up in jail. And if you do end up in jail or on probation you can be held responsible for those “costs” that kept you there—forever trapping you in a downward spiral of prison and more debt.

However, if you’re a wealthy corporate executive, like the heads of Volkswagen or General Motors, you can get away with killing people as long as it’s on behalf of increasing profits. At most, you may have to pay fines amounting to a slap on the wrist—what’s a couple of million dollars if you’re worth billions?

Their crimes

The title of an October 23, 2015 New York Times article by Jack Ewing and Jad Mouawad, “Directors Say Volkswagen Delayed Informing Them of Trickery,” says much about how capitalists look at things. They call the deeds of VW bosses who were caught not just falsifying emissions from their diesel engines, but actually designing devices to cheat the smog tests, “trickery.”

The word, “trickery” can imply an innocent joke as in “trick or treat,” but according to a September 28, 2015 New York Times article by Margot Sanger-Katz and John Schwartz titled, “How Many Deaths Did Volkswagen’s Deception Cause in the U.S.?” this “trickery” is much more deadly:

“The impact of smog and soot pollution on global health is substantial: A recent paper by Jos Lelieveld, at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, and colleagues estimated that air pollution causes some three million premature deaths a year, and that the number of deaths could more than double by 2050. ...The part of the country that has probably experienced the most harm from the Volkswagen fraud is California, which already has the worst air quality in the nation. About 7,200 premature deaths a year are caused by air pollution there, according to the California Air Resources Board, and 73 percent of the state’s population, or 28 million people, live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution.”

So far, no one from VW is in jail. So what about General Motors?

According to a September 17, 2015 New York Times article by Danielle Ivory and Bill Vlasic titled, “$900 Million Penalty for G.M.’s Deadly Defect Leaves Many Cold,” not only did GM go bankrupt in 2009, and get a $49 billion government (read taxpayer) bailout, their punishment for the 124 deaths they’ve caused, so-far, linked to their defective cars, is a drop in the bucket:

“In a settlement with prosecutors, no individual employees were charged, and the Justice Department agreed to defer prosecution of the company for three years. If G.M. adheres to the agreement, which includes independent monitoring of its safety practices, the company can have its record wiped clean. And even though General Motors will pay a $900 million penalty, it was 25 percent less than the record $1.2 billion Toyota agreed to pay last year.”

(Note: you need ten forklift trucks to cart around a billion dollars worth of hundred-dollar-bills; you only need a back pack to cart around a million dollars worth of hundred-dollar-bills.)1

And these are just two of the most recent examples of capitalists getting away with murder while doing business as usual.

Our punishments

For us, things are very different.

In an October 23, 2015 New York Times article by Shaila Dewan titled, “Court by Court, Lawyers Fight Policies That Fall Heavily on the Poor,” describing that essentially, the poor must endure debtors’ prison if they can’t pay bail or fines:

“…groups as small as Equal Justice Under Law, founded by Mr. Karakatsanis and a fellow Harvard Law School graduate, Phil Telfeyan, and as large as the American Civil Liberties Union are waging a guerrilla campaign to reverse what they consider unconstitutional but widespread practices that penalize the poor. These include jail time for failure to pay fines, cash and property seizure in the absence of criminal charges, and the failure to provide competent lawyers.”

The inequality of the legal system of capitalism is pervasive. A $69.00 parking meter fine is quite a hunk of money if you’re earning $7.50-an-hour and only working 20-hours-a-week. And while it makes no logical sense at all, if you fail to pay the ticket, you go to jail and then you earn nothing! We are criminalized for being poor.

We workers are taxed, fined, charged insane credit card and loan interest charges, etc., at a percentage of income that’s astronomically higher than the percentage of the income of the wealthy. And we work hard for our money; their incomes are accumulated often as the result of mass murder for profit—their own, personal profit.

This is how the capitalist system is designed to work. It is designed to protect the assets of the wealthy and make the poor pay for everything else.

Workers are dispensable in the pursuit of profits. This is the purpose of all the laws, the government, the political structure, the police, and the military. These are the tools of oppression necessary to maintain the capitalist power structure.

But it doesn’t have to be this way—there is another way to live on this planet. It requires that we find all the ways we can to unite and fight the injustices we face every day. It requires that we put aside our differences and concentrate on our similarities because we have far more of them than differences.

We must not only find ways to solidify our unity and solidarity which will make our bond stronger; but come together to design and build a united struggle that will propel us to a socialist world.