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"Broken Windows" on Wall Street
The obits for James Q. Wilson, who recently died, were glowing. This arch-conservative sociologist had developed the "broken windows" theory of crime, which was embraced by such tough guy prosecutors as Rudy Giuliani. Unmentioned in all of elegies, however, was the curious fact that Wilson had a soft spot for certain kinds of criminals.
His controversial theory was that tolerating broken windows in a neighborhood's vacant buildings creates an escalating crime problem. Street criminals, he argued, see such dilapidation as a sign that community standards are low, convincing them that more serious crime would be tolerated there. The key to stopping big crime, he concluded, was to crack down on the little things, targeting beggars, petty thieves, and prostitutes.
But if this theory deters crime in the streets, what about crime in the suites? Bill Black, a noted expert on financial fraud, points out on the New Economic Perspectives blog that Wilson was willfully blind to the economically-crushing crimes of white-collar elites. Black quotes Wilson dismissively declaring that "street crime is a far more serious matter than consumer fraud [or] antitrust violations. I am rather tolerant of some forms of civic corruption," Wilson writes, adding parenthetically that "(if a good mayor can stay in office and govern effectively only by making a few deals with highway contractors… I don't get overly alarmed)."
Oh, great – this crime theorist taught a whole generation of prosecutors to be aggressive about broken windows in poor neighborhoods, but wink at the broken ethics of corporate, financial, and political elites. This class bias by authorities is precisely what allowed Wall Street to break our economy – a Wilson legacy that continues today. To read Bill Black's full posting, go to www.neweconomicperspectives.org.
"Wall Street’s Broken Windows," www.neweconomicperspectives.org, March 4, 2012.