2009, Books, Non-Fiction

Greed is Good (2009) by Matthew Robinson, Daniel Murphy

I was excited to read this book. It was recommended to me by someone on the internet (maybe at Defector) and the subtitle made it sound like it was right up my alley. Though I am not a utilitarian, I strongly believe our courts need to completely adopt a utilitarian approach to white collar crime as, in toto, it is far more damaging to society than individual acts of crime (or “street crime” as these people would call it). So I should be the perfect audience for a book like this, the purports to offer a theory explaining white collar crime.

But this book is maddening. It reeks of academics writing for other academics in their field and not remotely bothering to try to convince the general public of their ideas. (If they think they are convincing to the general public, they should get out and talk to some people.) One thing I learned when I left academia was how isolated we were and how distorted our perceptions of the world were and these authors strike mas two people who remain isolated in a little criminology bubble where certain claims are taken for granted and do not need to be back up, except by a reference to some other academic work.

I want to focus on three claims they make that discredit them to most people outside the field of criminology (and likely some in it): their overly broad definition of “corporate crime” and their overly broad definition of “violence.”

In defining “corporate crime” they make some odd claims. They imply that “media companies pump[ing] out violence for children” is as “antisocial” at the very least. (I grew up in two different households with two different views of “violent” TV but am I less violent than average because of my mom’s restrictions? Am I more violent because of my dad’s lax attitude? To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence to suggest that violence on TV or in movies is associated with criminal behaviour. And it’s easy to believe that because crime in the West is at historic lows in the last few decades, despite an increase in violence in media. Ahem.)

But, in the next paragraph, they get even crazier: “Other examples of corporate wrongdoing include “the corporate lobby against measures to reduce the impact of global warming; corporate practices that are environmentally destructive; corporate dislocation of people’s lives through ‘rationalization measures; corporate exploitation of Third World workers; corporate participation in the worldwide illegal arms traffic; corporate concealment of harmful side effects of widely used pharmaceuticals; systematic corporate tax evasion (impoverishing the public sector); corporate suborning of information media; corporate promotion of the excesses of consumerism , and so on.” All of this is far more damaging than street crime.” (My emphasis.) On of these things is not like the other. Regardless of whether or not you believe that list includes actual criminal activity, the idea that promoting consumerism can be considered worse than criminal acts against actual, living human beings is laughable. And among the more infuriating things I’ve read in the last year. Are you fucking kidding me?

And this is a problem throughout the book. They both fail to properly indicate that they are discussing crime in terms of its total social costs (in total dollars) and they also seem to forget that real victims of “street crime” exist and have to live with those experiences. When they argue like this, they embody the right wing caricature of the academic, utterly out of touch with society, making claims that are absurd on their face.

This approach also applies when they get to their actual examples, later on in the book, when they finally try to provide some evidence for their theory. (It takes a long time in this very short book to get to the evidence.) At one point they strongly imply that accidents caused by defective products are worse than assault. (I ask you: if you were injured by your blender would it be just as bad emotionally as if someone assaulted you?)

But I want to focus on the packaging shrinkage section, which is hilariously absurd. They argue that shrinking the size of a package you are selling but maintaining a price is a form of deviance and they imply it is a crime. I understand that getting less for your money than you did before is frustrating, I do. But I don’t understand how in any way it could ever rise to a level of criminality. Even if we did collectively decide that it should be illegal to sell a smaller amount of stuff for the same amount of money as you used to sell it for (or more), how could that possibly be enforced? At some point caveat emptor has to apply. No matter how often corporations abuse it, and they do, people do have to bear at least some responsibility for the things they buy. (I do not ask for my money back when I accidentally buy “light” cheese because the packaging is insufficiently distinct, to my eyes, than the regular stuff. And I don’t insist anyone should go to jail every time the amount of cheese shrinks.) I really don’t know why this example of “corporate deviance” is in the book or why they think it makes their argument stronger. It makes them sound like crackpots.

They have a similarly broad and unhelpful definition of “corporate violence.” They argue that the negative health effects of consumer products and corporate externalities constitute violence. Now, there may be some kind of semantic and/or academic definition of violence in which this makes sense, but it does not fit the layperson’s definition of violence and arguably demands a different, more appropriate word. I think externalities can be and often do rise to the criminal, and there are numerous instances of corporations selling dangerous products to the public with full knowledge of their danger, but I don’t think calling these things “violence” helps their argument, at least in the eyes of the average person. Numerous other words should suffice. Now, this is hardly the biggest problem with the book, but by the time I got to this point I was so frustrated with their loose definitions – in a book in which they spell out definitions of other words! – that this bugged me too.

The book is way too ambitious for its short length. They get even further off track in the conclusion when they push into justice theory (and quote Rawls at me, sigh). They need to better document they actual acts they see as deviant and damaging and present the actual evidence, rather than primarily just linking to criminology texts, in order to make their case. It takes way too long to present any data and once they do, I was so frustrated by their broad definitions that I didn’t want to accept what they had to say. A good argument would overwhelm the reader with the evidence of their theory (which they admit has not been empirically tested). And it wouldn’t include bizarre personal gripes about marketing.

About that lack rigour, Adam Mastroianni has recently argued that psychology is still in its infancy as a science, as it lacks a general theory of its field. Reading this, it strikes me that criminology is not even in its infancy yet. (Sorry to damn the whole discipline from this book. If there is more rigourous criminology out there, I’d love to read it, especially if it concerns white collar crime.) This theory feels like the creation of academics who have read other theory and want to improve upon what they see as the theoretical deficiencies of those theories. They then cherry pick evidence to match it (and some evidence that doesn’t seem to help their case). Notably, they focus entirely on the US, leaving us to ask how their theory could possibly explain white collar crime in other countries, that don’t have the “American Dream” but do have white collar crime.

Just a thoroughly disappointing book and a maddening read in which I was regularly audibly exasperated.


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