This story was written by Steven Cupps, Harvard Crimson
Lets say hypothetically that because of a few bad decisions and utter negligence on my part, I destroyed the Washington Monument. People would be upset. School children would lose a quality backdrop for photographs. Jerry Bruckheimer would no longer have the archetypical Washington aerial shot needed before the president decides to send in an elite team, always manned by Nicholas Cage, to kill someone. And lets not forget the mountainous heap of rubble. The consequences of my actions, I would estimate to cost the taxpayers around $500 million, and I of course would go to jail.
Now lets say 1,400 people, through bad decisions and utter negligence, destroyed the equivalence of 1,400 Washington Monuments in a period of four years about one per day. Morever, instead of leveling a few 19th century phallic monuments symbolizing our nations might, they razed the United States economy you know that thing that keeps us from fighting over road kill in order to survive.
The current scenario facing our country and these hypothetical situations are similar in two ways: The American taxpayers are ultimately going to pay for the negligence and poor decisions of a few, and as a consequence of this, somebody needs to go to jail.
Bringing up Wall Streets role in the current financial crisis may seem dated. The two and a half months since Lehman Brothers collapsed have been rather eventful a presidential election, A.I.G.s bailout, Citigroups bailout, a 2,000 point decrease in the Dow, Iceland becoming insolvent, a requested bailout for the Big Three automakers, and as of Monday a bona fide, American-made recession. Because of all of this, its easy to forget what started this debacle the subprime mortgage fiasco. If youve forgotten, then Id suggest Michael Lewiss recent article in Portfolio.com, The End of Wall Streets Boom, as a refresher on the greed and incompetence that got us in this situation.
Of course, the greed and incompetence was not limited to a few individuals, but nearly systemic. As a result, finding out who is responsible for the collapse of our economy is as difficult as determining who is responsible for the death of Jdimytai Damour, the Wal-Mart employee who was trampled to death last Friday by around 2,000 people who continued shopping after it was announced that an employee had been killed. Both of these mishaps were the result of a large number of people acting irresponsibly and arguably some acting criminally.
So what needs to be done?
Somebody needs to go to jail. The American people have been cheated enough this century by individuals who shirked both their responsibilities and consequences. No one has been held accountable for faulty WMD intelligence or for the politicization of U.S. prosecutors, to name just a few scandals. Now a group of individuals has wrecked the economy and with it the global security of the United States. Undoubtedly, some people broke the law, and the time and effort should be expended to make sure they face the consequences.
Its not that the United States is inept at punishing people. America has the largest total prison population in the world, and incarcerates people at rates four times higher than most other countries. Mandatory federal guidelines require a five-year sentence for a first-time offender individual caught with 500 grams of cocaine. But people balk at the idea of putting CEOs in prison. Obviously this is because having half a kilo of coke is much more damaging to the country as a whole than train wrecking the entire economy.
The heart of the matter is a question of justice. A democratic society such as ours only works if the weak are protected from the unfair exploitation by the strong. Its why its illegal for physically stronger people to prey on the powerless nd for individuals who own guns to use them against people who dont. The same is true for intelligence. As a society, we cannot allow people who are smart to exploit people who dont know how to read a mortgage statement or dont understand that the free money advertised on late-night TV isnt free at all.
An economy is a manmade invention. This financial crisis was not caused by an act of God but rather was made by individuals who chose to put the U.S. economy into extreme risk for short-term profit. The risk has come home to roost, and now its time for someone to go to jail.
Steven T. Cupps 09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.