One thing right-wing populists and left-wing progressives can agree on is that U.S. society is too soft on white-collar crime, says The Economist. Conservatives abandon their admiration for business when it comes to “crooked bankers.” Left-wingers forget their qualms if locking up “corporate evil-doers.” Hillary Clinton’s line that “there should be no bank too big to fail but no individual too big to jail” might go down equally well at a Donald Trump rally. Is society really soft on corporate wrongdoing? And would locking up bankers and businessmen and throwing away the key really solve any problems?
The Economist says two new books “try to inject reason and evidence into a discussion more commonly driven by emotion and hearsay.” They are “Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White Collar Criminal” by Eugene Soltes, of Harvard Business School, and “Capital Offenses: Business Crime and Punishment in America’s Corporate Age” by Samuel Buell, the lead prosecutor in the Enron case, now at Duke University. Soltes and Buell demonstrate that the U.S. is getting tougher on business crime. Between 2002 and 2007 federal prosecutors convicted more than 200 chief executives, 50 chief financial officers and 120 vice-presidents. Between 1996 and 2011 the mean fraud sentence in federal courts nearly doubled, from just over a year to almost two years, as the average sentence for all federal crimes dropped from 50 months to 43. The Justice Department could bring far more individual prosecutions. But most corporate crime is the result of collective action rather than individual wrongdoing. The authorities have adjusted to this reality by increasingly prosecuting companies rather than individual miscreants.