The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

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by Matt Taibbi, Molly Crabapple

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A scathing portrait of an urgent new American crisis
Over the last two decades, America has been falling deeper and deeper into a statistical mystery:
Poverty goes up.

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A scathing portrait of an urgent new American crisis
Over the last two decades, America has been falling deeper and deeper into a statistical mystery:
Poverty goes up. Crime goes down. The prison population doubles.
Fraud by the rich wipes out 40 percent of the world’s wealth. The rich get massively richer. No one goes to jail.
In search of a solution, journalist Matt Taibbi discovered the Divide, the seam in American life where our two most troubling trends—growing wealth inequality and mass incarceration—come together, driven by a dramatic shift in American citizenship: Our basic rights are now determined by our wealth or poverty. The Divide is what allows massively destructive fraud by the hyperwealthy to go unpunished, while turning poverty itself into a crime—but it’s impossible to see until you look at these two alarming trends side by side.
In The Divide, Matt Taibbi takes readers on a galvanizing journey through both sides of our new system of justice—the fun-house-mirror worlds of the untouchably wealthy and the criminalized poor. He uncovers the startling looting that preceded the financial collapse; a wild conspiracy of billionaire hedge fund managers to destroy a company through dirty tricks; and the story of a whistleblower who gets in the way of the largest banks in America, only to find herself in the crosshairs. On the other side of the Divide, Taibbi takes us to the front lines of the immigrant dragnet; into the newly punitive welfare system which treats its beneficiaries as thieves; and deep inside the stop-and-frisk world, where standing in front of your own home has become an arrestable offense. As he narrates these incredible stories, he draws out and analyzes their common source: a perverse new standard of justice, based on a radical, disturbing new vision of civil rights.
Through astonishing—and enraging—accounts of the high-stakes capers of the wealthy and nightmare stories of regular people caught in the Divide’s punishing logic, Taibbi lays bare one of the greatest challenges we face in contemporary American life: surviving a system that devours the lives of the poor, turns a blind eye to the destructive crimes of the wealthy, and implicates us all.

Praise for The Divide
“Ambitious . . . deeply reported, highly compelling . . . impossible to put down.”—The New York Times Book Review
“These are the stories that will keep you up at night. . . . The Divide is not just a report from the new America; it is advocacy journalism at its finest.”—Los Angeles Times
“Taibbi is a relentless investigative reporter. He takes readers inside not only investment banks, hedge funds and the blood sport of short-sellers, but into the lives of the needy, minorities, street drifters and illegal immigrants. . . . The Divide is an important book. Its documentation is powerful and shocking.”—The Washington Post
“Captivating . . . The Divide enshrines its author’s position as one of the most important voices in contemporary American journalism.”The Independent (UK)
“Taibbi [is] perhaps the greatest reporter on Wall Street’s crimes in the modern era.”Salon

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Timothy Noh
…highly compelling…The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap [is] as infuriating as it is impossible to put down…what Taibbi shows off to especially good effect here…is what a meticulous reporter he can be, with a facility for rendering complex financial skulduggery intelligible…Taibbi is similarly skillful at explaining how bureaucratic imperatives in the criminal justice system can spin scarily out of control.
Library Journal
Rolling Stone contributing editor Taibbi argues that the widening gap between the rich one percent and the rest of us has altered our sense of justice. With a six-city tour.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-02-13
Rolling Stone journalist Taibbi (Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America, 2010, etc.) once again rakes from the muck some most malodorous information about inequality in America. Readers with high blood pressure should make sure they've taken their medication before reading this devastating account of the inequality in our justice, immigration and social service systems. Taibbi's chapters are high-definition photographs contrasting the ways we pursue small-time corruption and essentially reward high-level versions of the same thing. Mixing case studies, interviews and anecdotes with comprehensive research on his topics, the author's effort should silence the sort of criticism that says, "Yes, those are horrible incidents and miscarriages of justice, but are they representative?" His answer, "Oh, yes!" Taibbi deals with the frisk-and-stop campaign in New York City, the 2008 financial collapse (he reminds us that no one went to jail for the egregious activities of the investment banks involved), the vast resources we allocate for pursuing, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants (mostly for petty behavior that pales in significance to that of the wolves of Wall Street), our horrendous persecution of people on food stamps and other public assistance, and the case of whistle-blower Linda Almonte, a well-paid employee for Chase Bank, which summarily fired her when she pointed out their unethical and illegal practices with their credit card holders. Taibbi does not tiptoe through his text. He believes many of our practices are characteristic of a "dystopia," and he calls Dick Fuld, a major banker, "one of the great assholes of all time" and illegal immigrants, "one of America's last great cash crops." Moreover, he is an equal-opportunity critic: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all wither under the intense sun of Taibbi's relentless scrutiny. Rising from the text is a miasma of corporate and political malfeasance and immorality that mocks the platitudes of democracy.

Income inequality is growing in the United States: According to the Congressional Budget Office, in the period between 1979 and 2007, the top 1% of households doubled their share of pretax income while the share of the bottom 80% fell. And that was before the Great Recession... In the The Divide, investigative journalist Matt Taibbi goes beyond the corrosive economic effects of this continuing trend by laying out evidence that this frightening trend is transforming and undermining the meaning of rights, justice, and basic citizenship in our country.

From the Publisher
“Ambitious . . . deeply reported, highly compelling . . . impossible to put down.”—The New York Times Book Review
“These are the stories that will keep you up at night. . . . The Divide is not just a report from the new America; it is advocacy journalism at its finest.”—Los Angeles Times
“[Matt] Taibbi is a relentless investigative reporter. He takes readers inside not only investment banks, hedge funds and the blood sport of short-sellers, but into the lives of the needy, minorities, street drifters and illegal immigrants, to juxtapose justice for the poor and the powerful. . . . The Divide is an important book. Its documentation is powerful and shocking.”—The Washington Post
“Captivating . . . The Divide enshrines its author’s position as one of the most important voices in contemporary American journalism.”The Independent (UK)

“Taibbi [is] perhaps the greatest reporter on Wall Street’s crimes in the modern era.”Salon
“[Taibbi’s] warning is all about moral hazard. . . . When swindlers know that their risks will be subsidized . . . they will surely commit more crimes. And when most of the population either does not know or does not care that the lowest socioeconomic classes live in something akin to a police state, we should be greatly concerned for the moral health of our society.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Trenchant . . . a scathing, accessible, and often riveting look at the U.S. finance industry and justice system.”—Publishers Weekly
“Readers with high blood pressure should make sure they’ve taken their medication before reading this devastating account of inequality in our justice, immigration, and social service systems. Taibbi’s chapters are high-definition photographs contrasting the ways we pursue small-time corruption and essentially reward high-level versions of the same thing.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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Random House Publishing Group
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The Divide

American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

By Matt Taibbi, Molly Crabapple

Random House LLC

Copyright © 2014 Matt Taibbi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8363-0


Unintended Consequences

Tuesday, July 9, 2013, a blisteringly hot day in New York City. I'm in a cramped, twelfth-story closet of a courtroom, squeezed onto a wooden bench full of heavily perspiring lawyers and onlookers, watching something truly rare in the annals of modern American criminal justice—the prosecution of a bank.

The set for this curiosity is the city's 100 Centre Street courthouse, a beat-up old building located far downtown, just a stone's throw from the thicket of gleaming skyscrapers housing the great financial powers of Wall Street.

It's a pretrial hearing. The defendants—nineteen individuals plus the corporation itself—are here today to argue a motion to dismiss. There's no press here that I can see, despite the historic moment. And it is historic. This case, filed by New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., represents the only prosecution of a bank to take place anywhere in America since the collapse of the world economy in 2008. (In fact, it's the first since the early 1990s.)

So who's the defendant? Is it Citigroup? Goldman Sachs? Wells Fargo? JPMorgan Chase? Bank of America? After all, these companies had all been involved in countless scandals since the financial crisis of '08, a disaster caused by an epidemic of criminal fraud that wiped out some 40 percent of the world's wealth in less than a year, affecting nearly everyone in the industrialized world. If ever there was a wave of white-collar crime that cried out for a criminal trial, it was this period of fraud from the mid-2000s. And it would make sense that the defendants should come from one of these companies. In the years since the crash, all of them, and a half-dozen more too-big-to-fail megafirms just like them, had already paid hundreds of millions of dollars in civil settlements for virtually every kind of fraud and manipulation known to man.

Moreover, District Attorney Vance had once seemingly had all these Wall Street firms in his sights. He'd sent subpoenas out to Goldman and other companies the previous year. So surely one of these banks in those big skyscrapers a few blocks south of here must be the one on trial.

Nope. In the end, the one bank to get thrown on the dock was not a Wall Street firm but one housed in the opposite direction, a little to the north—a tiny family-owned community bank in Chinatown called Abacus Federal Savings Bank.

As a symbol of the government's ambitions in the area of cleaning up the financial sector, Abacus presents a striking picture. Instead of a fifty-story glass-and-steel monolith, Abacus is housed in a dull gray six-story building wedged between two noodle shops at the southern end of New York's legendary Bowery, once the capital of American poverty.

This is the bank in court today, dragged to the cross to take the blame for the many sins of the financial sector. It is a grimly comic scene. The judge, the Honorable Renee White, is a legendary city curmudgeon, a wraithlike woman with a long turtlish neck and orange hair who seems unhappy not only to be listening to a motion to dismiss but to be on planet Earth at all.

Before the hearing began, in fact, she'd barked at a young Chinese woman who'd had the audacity to dip her head near the floor to sneak a drink from a water bottle in her bag, trying to fight off the stultifying heat. "No refreshments!" the judge yelled. "You should have had your lunch before you came to this courtroom!"

The young woman meekly put her bottle back into a bag. Judge White craned her long neck and glared. A burly bailiff, acting as many bailiffs do—as the physical manifestation of his judge's whimsy—hovered angrily past to make sure the offending bottle was no longer visible.

"Is she always like this?" I whispered, to no one in particular.

"What are you talking about?" a lawyer in front of me answered. "She's in a good mood today."

Judge White frowned and then went about the dreary task of reseating the courtroom. She sent Cantonese-speaking defendants to her left, Mandarin-speaking defendants to the right, and had a single translator plopped into the middle of each bewildered group.

Some of the accused were low-level loan officers, immigrants mostly, who had been as young as twenty-one or as old as seventy at the time of arrest. None of them were what one would describe as wealthy persons. None were millionaire CEOs of the Jamie Dimon/Lloyd Blankfein ilk. Instead, they were mostly Chinese immigrants in cheap blouses and worn suits, people who spoke little English or none at all, and who looked white with shame and confusion as they huddled around their respective translators.

Many of these criminal masterminds had been earning as little as $35,000 a year at the time they were hauled in for what the state described as a far-reaching scheme to falsify loan applications for home mortgages that their bank, Abacus, ultimately went on to sell to the government-sponsored mortgage dealer, Fannie Mae.

What were these nineteen people charged with? The case had been sold to the court and to the public—by Vance, mostly—as having something to do with the financial crisis, setting up the bank as a scapegoat for the 2008 blowup. Vance bragged that it was the first indictment in New York of a bank since the BCCI crisis in 1991, and he subtly compared Abacus to the aforementioned bailout all-stars like Citigroup and Bank of America, ostensibly the true villains of the financial crisis, by warning that Abacus's crimes might ultimately lead to the taxpayer footing the bill. "If we've learned anything from the recent mortgage crisis," he said, "it's that at some point, these schemes will unravel and taxpayers could be left holding the bag."

Vance made sure to play rough with the defendants, just to let them know how angry The People were about the financial crisis. In an extraordinary scene over a year before, on May 31, 2012, Vance had hauled all nineteen of the Abacus defendants into court to face indictment. For the benefit of the press, he had them chained not only at the hands and feet but to one another.

This otherworldly chain gang of bewildered immigrants had been led into the courtroom like a giant, slow-moving snake. It was like a scene out of Bagram or Guantánamo Bay—all that was missing were the hoods.

Incredibly, three of the nineteen people who were put in chains had already been arraigned by Vance and released on bail. Prosecutors had asked them to voluntarily report to court that day, and they came, having no idea what for. When they appeared, Vance had had them cuffed and chained all over again, then paraded into court to be rearraigned, purely for the benefit of the cameras.

"I'm no softie on crime," says Kevin Puvalowski, the attorney for Abacus and a former federal drug prosecutor. "But I've seen death penalty defendants treated with more dignity."

Again, on the same day as this bizarre photo op, Vance had stood up in a press conference and described the indictment of Abacus as a direct blow against the behavior that had caused the financial crisis. "The lessons of the financial crisis are still being learned," he said sternly.

And in its limited coverage of the case, the press mostly upheld the notion that the Abacus indictment was aimed at the heart of the financial crisis. "The indictment against the bank and its employees describes the sort of scheme that led to the financial crisis of 2008," wrote The New York Times in a typical account, "when the risk of mortgages to borrowers was disguised and passed on to investors."

As for Vance, he got what he wanted out of the presser: a trophy. In subsequent coverage in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, he would henceforth be referred to as the DA who "indicted a bank for mortgage fraud."

But this case had nothing to do with the financial crisis. In fact, it was clear just from reading the indictment that the improprieties uncovered at Abacus were highly idiosyncratic and specific to Chinatown's immigrant population. Though tax evasion wasn't part of the case, it lurked in the background. Clearly, many mortgage applicants, who worked in cash businesses in the immigrant Chinese community, had not wanted to declare all their income.

After the Abacus indictment, in fact, I heard whispers from a police source with long experience in Chinatown that some of the bank's customers may have been involved in schemes like trademark counterfeiting—not exactly a surprise, since it's hard to visit Chinatown and not run into someone selling phony Prada bags or Rolex watches out of the back of a van somewhere.

Thus the underlying crime in this case seemed to be that Abacus's customers could afford to pay for a mortgage but didn't want to say how, exactly. They had been, in other words, not overreporting but underreporting their incomes.

There was also a bizarre racial component to the case. Buried in the charges was the thinly veiled assumption that Abacus senior management encouraged their borrowers to commit fraud in their applications because they knew they could rely upon the generally accepted cultural proposition that Chinese people, like the evil Lannisters in Game of Thrones, always pay their debts. Vance's indictment more or less says this out loud, claiming that Abacus management "falsely told employees that the exceptionally low default rate of Abacus-originated loans made the underlying accuracy of loan documents insignificant."

The description had been true—the Abacus mortgage holders had paid their debts. In fact, from the date of the first offense as defined by the prosecutors, the quasi-governmental Fannie Mae had made a profit of $220 million on Abacus-issued home loans. In all, Abacus had one of the lowest default rates in the entire country. It was about 0.5 percent, roughly ten times better than the average.

Thus this was a very different kind of case from the more common fraud of the financial crisis era, which mostly involved gigantic banks and mortgage lenders selling the toxic and ultimately worthless subprime mortgage loans of broke and underemployed middle Americans as AAA-rated investments to state pension funds, foreign trade unions, and other suckers. Abacus was almost certainly a case about hiding income; the financial crisis was caused by a snake-oil scheme to sell worthless loans as gold.

Everyone got what they wanted from the Abacus prosecution. The city got to say it was being tough on financial crime. The press got to run a thrilling picture of harsh justice. Vance got a line to add to his résumé. The only losers were the public, who had no idea that the real culprits for the financial crisis were being set free, while the bank on trial had nothing to do with the losses that had been suffered by almost every ordinary American in the crash. As one city investigator put it, Abacus was "the Lee Harvey Oswald of banks— a patsy."

In any case, this same collection of freaked-out immigrant patsies were back in court now, this time without their chains. Most of the defendants had their own lawyers, as did the bank itself, so the courtroom was fairly packed with defense counsel. Most of these defense lawyers had filed "Clayton motions," a New York state legal procedure in which a defendant can ask a judge to dismiss charges on the general grounds that doing so would be in furtherance of justice.

Among other things, a Clayton motion asks the judge to consider "the purpose and effect" of punishment and the "impact on the public interest" of a dismissal. They are motions, in other words, that ask a judge to consider the consequences of prosecution, balanced against the public interest.

One by one, defense counsel stood up to argue to the ostentatiously bored Judge White why their clients should be let go. Some argued their clients were too old or too young, or had been at the bank for only a few months, or had never in their whole lives been in trouble with the law. (They virtually all argued that.) Some said their clients had been new on the job and had simply filled out a few papers incorrectly according to the instructions of superiors. The list of reasons for leniency went on and on.

But finally one of the defense lawyers, a former city prosecutor named Sanford "Sam" Talkin, a man with a deep tan and a neatly shaven head, got to a larger and more dangerous point. Gently waving a hand in the direction of the Abacus defendants, Talkin confronted Judge White. "Your Honor," he said, "I want you to compare them to Citigroup. Just last week Citigroup settled for $968 million for either underperforming or defaulted home loans....

"But this pales in comparison to Bank of America, which paid $6.8 billion dollars, with a b, for underperforming or defaulted home loans. Civil settlement, no criminal charges ... Wells Fargo Bank, $3.3 billion, no criminal prosecution ... Ally GMAC, $3.3 billion, civil settlement, no criminal charges. JPMorgan Chase ... another $3.3 billion for the same purpose, civil settlement, no criminal charges."


Excerpted from The Divide by Matt Taibbi, Molly Crabapple. Copyright © 2014 Matt Taibbi. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
DougCA More than 1 year ago
The author presents a dramatic, well-documented contrast of the two systems of American justice: lenient for the wealthy, harsh and unforgiving for the poor.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In The Divide Matt Taibbi lays out the case that wealthy individuals and corporations more and more aim to be “above citizenship”, seeking rights and privileges while shedding responsibilities, justifying outright fraud with the idea that punishing powerful entities for any wrongdoing mainly hurts the little people they employ. At the same time, he argues, people living in poverty are having more and more of their rights stripped away and more aspects of their lives criminalized, while facing a justice system that reinforces inequality. Furthermore, Taibbi argues that both law enforcement and financial regulators are going to begin casting wider and wider nets – with police scrutinizing the daily lives of middle class people on one end, while on the other end financial regulators pursue small businesses without the wealth to hire a small army of attorneys.  This could have been a deadly boring read and a real slog, but instead it is thought provoking and quite gripping. Taibbi successfully outlines and clarifies some very complex legal and financial matters in straightforward language, and does so with acerbic wit. He peppers the book with pop culture references (as when he compares aggressive prosecutors to hockey-mask wearing Jason of the Friday the 13th movies) and snarky one-liners that take potentially tedious and confusing material and make it relatable and absorbing. He also focuses a lot of attention on the real human suffering created by arrest quotas and stats-based policing on the one hand, and corporate fraud on the other, using the lives of real people to illustrate broader trends. Provocative and compelling.
papadonMI More than 1 year ago
Matt does a great job of putting the facts together in an easy to read fashion. Good Job, Matt Taibbi.
Johnny_Shin More than 1 year ago
We often hear of the unfair treatment of the poor, generally non-white population getting less than fair treatment in our American legal system. We also hear of how the super rich, especially in the financial areas, generally don't do jail time for even the worst of their crimes. Taibbi's hypothesis is that these two phenomena are inextricably linked and he explains the hows and whys. Although his stance may seem that of a crusading liberal, he is definitely not a fan of either Obama or Eric Holder on this issue. Perhaps of necessity, the book at times gets a bit bogged down in detail, but I found it worth the effort. Very enlightening.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Given the nature of the divide, its not sensationalized. Matt Taibbi gives solid background of how the inequality of the justice system toward white collar crime (and the corruption of the US Banking system) developed, and how its intended and unintended consequences are reverberating from the legal documents in the Justice Department, and Supreme Court rulings to the real lives of regular Americans and the currently bonus-ridden, slap-on-the-wrist punished banking corporations.
plappen More than 1 year ago
Among the consequences of the Wealth Gap in America seems to be the establishment of two different sets of laws, one for the rich and one for everyone else. This book gives the details. The sale of Lehman Brothers to Barclays Bank was advertised as a last-minute, desperation fire sale. How did Barclays manage to get an extra five billion dollars as part of the deal? Among the reasons why the Justice Department doesn't prosecute "too big to fail" banks, or their top executives, is because they have lots of money, and lots of lawyers, to delay and delay the case until the government gives up. It is easier for the government, and it looks better, to go after smaller targets. Evidently, the agreements where a bank agrees to pay several billion dollars without admitting guilt, even for money laundering or handling Colombian drug cartel money, "sends a message." (Really?) There is the story of a group of billionaire hedge fund managers who conspired to drive a Canadian insurance company out of business, using dirty tricks. Countrywide Financial intentionally did not want to know details of the financial health of the people to whom they were lending money. They were happy to lend to anyone. On the other side of the divide, how can America's prison population be going way up while the rate of violent crime is way down? The answer is: Stop and Frisk. Did you know that standing on the sidewalk in front of your house in New York City can get you arrested and thrown in a police van that just happens to be nearby? After going through the court system, charged with Blocking Pedestrian Traffic (even if there was no one else on the sidewalk at the time), you could be back in front of your house. This time, you are standing at the edge of the sidewalk, almost on the street. Prepare to get arrested again, charged with Blocking Vehicular Traffic (even if you weren't actually in the street). The new criminal class in America seems to be welfare applicants and recipients. The author does not mean to suggest that accusations of welfare fraud should not be investigated, and, if necessary, prosecuted. What is the sense in assuming that Everyone is trying to defraud the system? This is not a case of "guilty until proven innocent" but "we know you are guilty, and eventually, we'll prove it." This book easily reaches the level of Wow. It is a very eye-opening, and rather disheartening, look at life in present-day America. It is extremely highly recommended for all Americans.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read very insightful.
cwbMT More than 1 year ago
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existence3essence More than 1 year ago
Reality-Man More than 1 year ago
There is not a word in this book that anyone over age 21 with an IQ over 100 doesn't already know. What he writes is true but the solutions are not realistic. We live in America, as good a country as there is in the world. The present President has tired to do something about this but in the process is ruining America. Theory is one thing. Realism is the other and naivity is the worst.
manwithmanybooks More than 1 year ago
I haven't started reading this book. I have a few to catch up on before I get to this one. I'm currently reading 3 books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read the Headline