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What If the “Broken Windows” Theory Were Applied to Wall Street?

James Q. Wilson's famous “broken windows” theory led to strict policing of working class behavior. What if his ideas were applied to Wall Street?

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I listened in stunned amazement to the presentations of law professors who specialize in white collar crime and securities law at the two annual meetings that followed the ongoing financial crisis. Virtually every speaker presented arguments calling for reducing white collar criminal liability and liability for securities fraud. At the time they were speaking, the Justice Department had already ceased prosecuting major firms and the SEC brought a pathetically high percentage of its small number of enforcement actions against tiny firms with fewer than 10 employees.

We have systematically reduced effective peer restraints in our most important controls against financial fraud. Law firms, audit firms, and investment banks used to be professional partnerships. Each partner was potentially liable for any firm misconduct, which maximized the incentive to insist on higher levels of integrity. These firms are now virtually all corporations or limited liability partnerships. The incentive of partners to monitor other partners’ actions to ensure their integrity has largely been lost.

In the elite white collar crime context we have been following the opposite strategy of that recommended under “broken windows” theory. We have been breaking windows. We have excused those who break the windows. Indeed, we have praised them and their misconduct. The problem with allowing broken windows is far greater in the elite white collar crime context than the blue collar crime context. The squeegee guys make tiny amounts of money and are hated and politically powerless. The mediocre financial CEO who engages in accounting control fraud because it is a “sure thing” causes the bank to report record (albeit fictional) profits and becomes wealthy and politically powerful. He uses his wealth to make charitable and political contributions that make him far harder to sanction. He claims that any crackdown on him is “class warfare” by “neo-Bolsheviks.” Incredibly, the Wall Street Journal continues to serve as the cheerleader and apologist for those who become wealthy by breaking windows, communities, and economies.

Wilson warned of blue collar “super predators.” He called them “feral” – wild animals. These criminals are in fact dangerous, but they are odd candidates for the title of “super predators.” Wilson noted that they were disproportionately black and that they were confined almost entirely to the poorest neighborhoods in America where their pickings are poor. Accounting control frauds occupy Wall Street and other financial centers – the richest neighborhoods in the world. Their “take” from fraud is extraordinary. The blue collar criminals that occupied Wilson’s attention late in his career were politically and socially powerless. The fraudulent CEOs that drive our recurrent, intensifying financial crises are wealthy and socially and politically dominant.

Wilson had a fabulous career and added greatly to the policy debate about how to respond to blue collar crime. Our most fitting tribute to him and contribution to his legacy would be to apply his “broken window” theory to the elite white collar crimes and criminals that drive our financial crises. The troubling paradox is that the strongest proponents of “broken windows” theory and policies in the blue collar crime context are the strongest opponents of applying analogous policies in the elite white collar crime context. The Wall Street Journal is the most prominent example of this class-based incoherence.

Bill Black is the author of 'The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One' and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He spent years working on regulatory policy and fraud prevention as Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention, Litigation Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Deputy Director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement, among other positions. Bill writes a column for Benzinga every Monday. His other academic articles, congressional testimony, and musings about the financial crisis can be found at his Social Science Research Network author page and at the blog New Economic Perspectives.

 
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