Show Us the Money

Make the corporate criminals give their fair share back to the investors they suckered.

Another couple of CEOs were on TV doing the perp walk today, and I am just so unimpressed. If they'd been in rags and lions had been pawing the sand and snapping their chains in the background, there would have been some satisfaction in the spectacle. As it was? Lame. Very.

They were cuffed and everything--why, just like common criminals!--but tens of thousands of small investors are broke and, frankly, marching a few Harvard MBAs in front of the cameras doesn't cut it, vengeance-wise. These people get home from their arraignments in time for dinner, which you can bet is not going to be macaroni and cheese.

If some of them actually do, at some point, go to jail, they'll do a couple years in a clean, un-scary facility and then they'll be out and, dang, somehow the money will be there waiting. I am speaking from observation: Remember Michael Milken? How about Arizona's own Charlie Keating? They're wealthy men today, happily enfolded in the warm bosoms of their families.

Here's where we call for the Wayback Machine. Cast your minds far back into the misty Reagan years, my children ...

The savings and loan scandal, which took place in an earlier epoch of chummily larcenous deregulation known as The Eighties, featured a slightly different cohort of the moneyed aristocracy raping and pillaging regular people. Back then, a bunch of unleashed business guys--most of whom remained nameless, faceless and unprosecuted--emptied small savings accounts like magic all across this great land. Those accounts stayed empty, except for what we, the taxpayers, all eventually divvied up in what was known as a "bailout."

Thousands of folks were ruined and a couple of suits went to jail after long, boring trials. Big whoop. They got out early and went back to the wife and the manse and set up zillion-dollar foundations. They were able to get on with their lives--as we say--on a big, comfy scale because, for some reason, they got to keep the cash.

This is the part I didn't get it then and don't get now. Why doesn't the Justice Department make them give the money back? I don't want to see these guys' impeccable suits, or their grim facial expressions, or, especially, their impeccably suited lawyers' grim facial expressions. I want to see the cash.

I want to gloat while watching my government RICO every last one of them. The RICO statutes are mostly used against drug dealers, but my impression is that they can be trained on anyone involved in a conspiracy. I'm not that big a fan of the war on drugs--you ask me, all we've got to show for it is sneakier, more heavily armed criminals--but the laws are the bomb. They go right to the criminal heart because, among other excellent things, they empower the government to take bad guys' stuff away.

Confiscation hurts criminals because their stuff is what they love--their boats and houses and numbered accounts. This is obvious: If they didn't love money more than life itself, they wouldn't be criminals. They'd stop and think, "Whoa, I can't cook the books and run up the price of my shares and dump them quick because that would be wrong, and against the rules, and agonizing to small investors and, also, it might come back and bite me and my family bad if anybody ever found out." Nooooo. These are people who think, "Money! Want money!" right before extending their uppermost appendages toward it.

So taking it away from them not only deprives them of the means of doing further harm, it causes them pain. That's a good thing, and I want to see it happen to the Enron boys, and the Worldcom guys and to everyone like them and to all their generations. These are rich people who steal. In a better world, they'd be worrying about how to stretch their Social Security checks on the evening news. If the CEO Meltdown is anything like the savings and loan scandal, though, nobody's eye will be on the ball. In fact, the ball will disappear. Probably it already has.

The money? Oh, those billions.

Back in the fabled Eighties, the money vanished, or vaporized, or something. We got the appalling numbers, and then the names, and then the trials and the appeals and along the line we were all supposed to forget about the loot. It was not easy to swallow this presto-disappearo, now-let's-smile-and-all-look-at-the-weather-forecast version of the world 15 years ago, and déjà vu hasn't made it any easier. I mean, imagine what it would take to spend $30 million a year. It'd be hard to blow that much on stuff you could completely consume, and what you didn't eat, burn, or throw off the end of a dock, you'd put in a (looter-proof) account, or into real property. There'd be evidence, somewhere, that it belonged to you, which makes me think that our guys, if they really wanted to, could track it down, take it back, divide by the number of ripped-off investors, and hand it back. Or just throw it into the general fund. I'm certain that it could be done--but not wildly hopeful.

Fellas, we don't care if you cuff them--just show us the money. Please.

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