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Immunity and impunity in elite America

The top one per cent of US society is enjoying a two-tiered system of justice and politics.

Glenn Greenwald Last Modified: 27 Oct 2011 16:08

As intense protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street continue to grow, it is worth asking: Why now? The answer is not obvious. After all, severe income and wealth inequality have long plagued the United States. In fact, it could reasonably be claimed that this form of inequality is part of the design of the American foundation - indeed, an integral part of it.

Income inequality has worsened over the past several years and is at its highest level since the Great Depression. This is not, however, a new trend. Income inequality has been growing at rapid rates for three decades. As journalist Tim Noah described the process: "During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth - the ‘seven fat years’ and the ‘long boom’. Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80 per cent of total increase in Americans' income went to the top one per cent. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts [the first decade of the new century], but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20 per cent. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads."

The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated the trend, but not radically: the top one per cent of earners in the US have been feeding ever more greedily at the trough for decades.

Inferiors and superiors

In addition, substantial wealth inequality is so embedded in US political culture that, standing alone, it would not be sufficient to trigger citizen rage of the type we are finally witnessing. The American founders were clear that they viewed inequality in wealth, power, and prestige as not merely inevitable, but desirable and, for some, even divinely ordained. Jefferson praised "the natural aristocracy" as "the most precious gift of nature" for the "government of society". John Adams concurred: "It already appears, that there must be in every society of men superiors and inferiors, because God has laid in the… course of nature the foundation of the distinction."

Not only have the overwhelming majority of those in the US long acquiesced to vast income and wealth disparities, but some of those most oppressed by these outcomes have cheered it loudly. Americans have been inculcated not only to accept, but to revere those who are the greatest beneficiaries of this inequality.

In the 1980s, this paradox - whereby even those most trampled upon come to cheer those responsible for their state - became more firmly entrenched. That's because it found a folksy, friendly face. Ronald Reagan, adept at feeding the populace a slew of Orwellian clichés that induced them to defend the interests of the wealthiest. "A rising tide," as one former US president put it, "lifts all boats". The sum of his wisdom being: It is in your interest when the rich get richer.

Implicit in this framework was the claim that inequality was justified and legitimate. The core propagandistic premise was that the rich were rich because they deserved to be. They innovated in industry, invented technologies, discovered cures, created jobs, took risks, and boldly found ways to improve our lives. In other words, they deserved to be enriched. Indeed, it was in our common interest to allow them to fly as high as possible, because that would increase their motivation to produce more, bestowing on us ever greater life-improving gifts.

Gratefulness for the leadership

We should not, so the thinking went, begrudge the multimillionaire living behind his 15-foot walls for his success; we should admire him. Corporate bosses deserved not our resentment but our gratitude. It was in our own interest not to demand more in taxes from the wealthiest but less, as their enhanced wealth - their pocket change - would trickle down in various ways to all of us.

This is the mentality that enabled massive growth in income and wealth inequality over the past several decades without much at all in the way of citizen protest. And yet something has indeed changed. It’s not that Americans suddenly woke up one day and decided that substantial income and wealth inequality are themselves unfair or intolerable. What changed was the perception of how that wealth was gotten and so of the ensuing inequality as legitimate.

Many Americans who once accepted or even cheered such inequality now see the gains of the richest as ill-gotten, as undeserved, as cheating. Most of all, the legal system that once served as the legitimising anchor for outcome inequality, the rule of law - that most basic of American ideals, that a common set of rules are equally applied to all - has now become irrevocably corrupted and is seen as such.

While the founders accepted outcome inequality, they emphasised - over and over - that its legitimacy hinged on subjecting everyone to the law’s mandates on an equal basis. Jefferson wrote that the essence of America would be that "the poorest labourer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionaire, and generally on a more favoured one whenever their rights seem to jar". Benjamin Franklin warned that creating a privileged legal class would produce "total separation of affections, interests, political obligations, and all manner of connections" between the rulers and those they ruled. Tom Paine repeatedly railed against "counterfeit nobles", those whose superior status was grounded not in merit but in unearned legal privilege.

Definition of tyranny

After all, one of their principal grievances against the British king was his power to exempt his cronies from legal obligations. Almost every founder repeatedly warned that a failure to apply the law equally to the politically powerful and the rich would ensure a warped and unjust society. In many ways, that was their definition of tyranny.

Americans understand this implicitly. If you watch a competition among sprinters, you can accept that whoever crosses the finish line first is the superior runner. But only if all the competitors are bound by the same rules: everyone begins at the same starting line, is penalised for invading the lane of another runner, is barred from making physical contact or using performance-enhancing substances, and so on.

If some of the runners start ahead of others and have relationships with the judges that enable them to receive dispensation for violating the rules as they wish, then viewers understand that the outcome can no longer be considered legitimate. Once the process is seen as not only unfair but utterly corrupted, once it’s obvious that a common set of rules no longer binds all the competitors, the winner will be resented, not heralded.

That catches the mood of the US in 2011. It may not explain the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it helps explain why it has spread like wildfire and why so many Americans seem instantly to accept and support it. As was not true in recent decades, the American relationship with wealth inequality is in a state of rapid transformation.

It is now clearly understood that, rather than apply the law equally to all, Wall Street tycoons have engaged in egregious criminality - acts which destroyed the economic security of millions of people around the world - without experiencing the slightest legal repercussions. Giant financial institutions were caught red-handed engaging in massive, systematic fraud to foreclose on people’s homes and the reaction of the political class, led by the Obama administration, was to shield them from meaningful consequences. Rather than submit on an equal basis to the rules, through an oligarchical, democracy-subverting control of the political process, they now control the process of writing those rules and how they are applied.

Writing laws

Today, it is glaringly obvious to a wide range of those in the US that the wealth of the top one per cent is the byproduct not of risk-taking entrepreneurship, but of corrupted control of our legal and political systems. Thanks to this control, they can write laws that have no purpose than to abolish the few limits that still constrain them, as happened during the Wall Street deregulation orgy of the 1990s. They can retroactively immunise themselves for crimes they deliberately committed for profit, as happened when the 2008 Congress shielded the nation’s telecom giants for their role in Bush’s domestic warrantless eavesdropping programme.

It is equally obvious that they are using that power not to lift the boats of ordinary Americans, but to sink them. In short, Americans are now well aware of what the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Illinois’s Dick Durbin, blurted out in 2009 about the body in which he serves: the banks "frankly own the place".

If you were to assess the state of the union in 2011, you might sum it up this way: rather than being subjected to the rule of law, the nation’s most powerful oligarchs control the law and are so exempt from it; and increasing numbers of Americans understand that and are outraged. At exactly the same time that the nation’s elites enjoy legal immunity even for egregious crimes, ordinary Americans are being subjected to the world's largest and one of its harshest penal states, under which they are unable to secure competent legal counsel and are harshly punished with lengthy prison terms for even trivial infractions.

‘Two-tiered justice system’

In lieu of the rule of law - the equal application of rules to everyone - what we have now is a two-tiered justice system in which the powerful are immunised, while the powerless are punished with increasing mercilessness. As a guarantor of outcomes, the law has, by now, been so completely perverted that it is an incomparably potent weapon for entrenching inequality further, controlling the powerless, and ensuring corrupted outcomes.

The tide that was supposed to lift all ships has, in fact, left startling numbers of Americans underwater. In the process, we lost any sense that a common set of rules applies to everyone, and so there is no longer a legitimising anchor for the vast income and wealth inequalities that plague the nation.

That is what has changed, and a growing recognition of what it means is fuelling rising citizen anger and protest. The inequality under which so many suffer is not only vast, but illegitimate, rooted as it is in lawlessness and corruption. Obscuring that fact has long been the linchpin for inducing Americans to accept vast and growing inequalities. That fact is now too glaring to obscure any longer.

Glenn Greenwald is a former constitutional and civil rights litigator and a current contributing writer at Salon.com. He is the author of two New York Times bestselling books on the Bush administration's executive power and foreign policy abuses. His just-released book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful (Metropolitan Books), is a scathing indictment of America's two-tiered system of justice. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.

A version of this article previously appeared on TomDispatch.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


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In Nashville Tennessee protesters of Occupy Nashville at the Tennessee Legislative Plaza in front of the state capitol were arrested for breach of curfew and trespass but were ordered released. Twenty-nine protesters were taken into custody at shortly after three Friday morning. Some were dragged from the campsite they've occupied for about three weeks.

Those arrested were taken to Davidson County Night Court for booking, but were freed by Night Court Commissioner Thomas Nelson.

"You have no lawful basis to arrest and charge those people," Nelson said to state troopers.

"For three weeks they've sat up there and protested under no admonition whatsoever that they were violating state policy regarding camping out on Legislative Plaza or that they were committing a crime."

Karla Weikal, spokeswoman for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, said the protesters were taken to the sheriff’s office earlier today where they were booked. Night Court Commissioner Tom Nelson refused to sign the warrants after finding there was not probable cause to charge them, Weikal said.


The Tennessee state government has enacted a new policy that the Legislative Plaza, War Memorial Courtyard, and Capitol grounds areas closed to the public from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. Also the revised policy also states protests are allowed by permit between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Those permits cost $65 a day and groups will be required to buy $1 million in liability insurance coverage.

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Personally I think people are more pissed than that, especially in the US. And there are a LOT of people down there that are the proverbial "sleeping bear". The corporations/elite/politicians have been prodding them with a stick and they've merely started to stir and grumble as yet. If that bear actually gets woken... LOOK THE FRACK OUT!

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I think there are less people than you think, and I think you're giving them too much credit with their organizational skills and 'sticktoitiveness'. I'd be willing to bet that these protests are just a distant memory by next Valentines day.

We are the '7%, and only not if its snowing' is probably a more apt slogan.

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I think there are less people than you think, and I think you're giving them too much credit with their organizational skills and 'sticktoitiveness'. I'd be willing to bet that these protests are just a distant memory by next Valentines day.

We are the '7%, and only not if its snowing' is probably a more apt slogan.

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Man urges mailing junk if you can't Occupy Wall Street

By Melanie Eversley, USA TODAY

Oct 28, 2011

Updated 29m ago


One San Francisco man whose day job has been getting in the way of his taking part in the Occupy Wall Street protests has come up with another idea: Mail junk to the banks in prepaid credit card mailers.

Artie Moffa suggests in a YouTube video that people who cannot take part in the Occupy protests in person take prepaid credit card mailers and fill them with junk -- not just any junk, but pieces of wood or any other items that would be heavy enough to cost the banks more postage, he tells ABCNews.com.

"I kept getting all of these credit card mailers," he told the news organization. "It struck me as tone deaf that banks would continue hawking their wares in the midst of all this."

Moffa, a poet and SAT tutor, believes such mailings would help encourage a dialogue with Wall Street.

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Peter Schiff interviewing some of those protestors. He's there to education those people (eg. they should be protesting the government for propping up the banks/etc, and not all of the 1% are "Bad").

You can tell a lot of the protestors are misinformed and stuff.

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Sounds more like he's trying to deflect the target of the protests (financial institutions), back to the politicians, when they're basically walking hand-in-hand most of the time. I think it's safe to say that the protestors are upset with both, but more so with the financial industry.

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C'mon, he's been pointing fingers @ the FED n gov't corruption for years. He's been saying the politicians are lobbied and bought off constantly, he's been saying we don't have real free market capitalism but crony corporatism. The answer to these problem's isn't saying end capitalism and "tax the rich".

In the end the only "rich" that will get taxed will be poor-middle class folk, REAL 1% Billionaire/Trillionaires stay tax free offshore and exempt from all of this.

There is a very wrong perception being sent out that hey if you make 150k a year your 1%...couldnt be farther from it.

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Haven't heard the protestors say that people making 150K are part of the 1%, no. I think they're more concerned about the system itself, which is largely controlled by people and institutions that make a lot more than 150 a year.

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