Book Review: The Divide – American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

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In journalist Matt Taibbi’s latest book, The Divide, readers are lead through a justice system which is full of injustices.

The sections of Matt Taibbi’s latest book, The Divide, vacillate between two different worlds: the first is one of impunity, where crimes take place on a massive scale and no one is held responsible; the other realm is inhabited with minor crimes, or in some cases, no crime at all, yet people are investigated, abused or prosecuted under the fullest extent of the law (and sometimes beyond the law). Taibbi’s argument is that one of these worlds can exist, but both should not exist simultaneously. Yet that’s what the legal system in the U.S. has devolved into. He writes, “The rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.” And this is a fact society has come to accept—some people just have more rights than others.

The book reads well because it intertwines individual stories which illustrate how the system works as a whole. In his reporting for the book, Taibbi follows a number of people as they make their way through the legal system. In doing so, he shows how pervasive the justice system is—from policies relating to immigration, stop and frisk, and the prison industrial complex. He also shows how one misstep can have lifelong implications, especially if you fall into a certain racial group.

Taibbi contrasts this with the financial crimes that led to the recession, pointing out that 40 percent of the world’s wealth was obliterated yet no high ranking executive saw the inside of a prison cell. While major banks such as Bank of America have paid out million and even billion dollar settlements, they avoid criminal prosecution and admitting responsibility. There are a multitude of excuses for not pressing criminal charges: from so-called collateral damage (in which all employees at an investment firm would be punished if the firm goes down) to drawn out lawsuits to complications with pinpointing individuals within a company to prosecute. However Taibbi argues that taking large sum settlements is not only ineffective as a deterrent, but that it’s the coward’s way out. While there is a heap of evidence (throughout the book there are emails and text messages he obtained which blithely show evidence of insider trading), the willpower to use it is lacking. The only downfall in his writing is that some of the financial concepts are a bit hazy. I’m still not sure what a derivative is or what short selling a stock really means.

Interspersed with the situations that Taibbi writes about are illustrations by Molly Crabapple that are symbolic and intricate. Her unique style adds a visual flair and even personalizes the stories with portraits of some of the individuals profiled.

I think one of the book’s main points is to show the absurdity of it all. An inordinate amount of time and money is spent investigating individual welfare applicants yet not the financial fraud that caused the emptying of pension funds and mass home foreclosures. And while the government has spent millions prosecuting and jailing marijuana users, HSBC gets away with laundering money for a notoriously violent Mexican drug cartel. Taibbi’s deeply researched book delves into these irrationalities, so if you’re interested in understanding what the justice system really looks like, The Divide is worth your undivided attention.

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