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Capital Crimes

The Political Economy of Crime in America

George Winslow, a journalist living in New York City, is the editor of World Screen News, TV Europe, and TV Latina. He the author of Capital Crimes (1999). Sources for this essay can be found in the book.

American politicians have been declaring victory in the war against crime at least since Richard Nixon said in 1972 that “[c]rime…[is] finally beginning to go back down…[because] we have a remarkable record on the law-and-order issues, with crime legislation…and narcotics bills.” In other words, crime declines because the government passes laws and spends money; larger prisons, more police, fewer civil liberties, and tougher punishments are winning the war on crime.

There is no question that more stringent laws and larger expenditures are the government’s strategy. Federal, state and local spending for law enforcement jumped from six billion dollars in 1968 to 120.2 billion dollars in 1996, and may top two hundred billion dollars by the 2004 presidential election. And these numbers don’t include the 210 billion dollars spent by businesses and individuals on security systems, insurance, and other measures to protect themselves from crime. Supporters of all this spending point to the dramatic decline in the number of homicides (from a peak of 24,700 in 1991 to about 16,900 in 1999) and in violent crimes (from a peak of 4.1 million in 1994 to about 2.8 million in 1998) as proof that the war is being won.

Unfortunately, there is one problem with the notion that our law-and-order crusade is winning the war on crime. It isn’t true. The crusade was a dismal failure for many years. Violent-crime rates jumped 89 percent between 1972 and 1991, and victimization rates showed little improvement between 1973 and 1991. Even with recent declines in crime, the one trillion dollars spent by law-enforcement agencies in the last thirty-five years only managed to reduce the 1998 homicide rates to the what they were in 1967, when Nixon traveled around the country claiming that “America has become among the most lawless and violent [nations] in the history of free people.”

These dismal statistics exclude many of the world’s deadliest crimes. While U.S. drug use has declined, levels of addiction remain high and the global drug market continues to expand. Back in 1970, when Nixon declared war on heroin, the entire world produced about one thousand tons of opium a year. By 1973, Nixon was declaring that “we have turned the corner [in the war against drugs],” but opium production continued to increase. Today, global opium production is four times higher than it was in the early 1970s, and United Nations (U.N.) officials estimate that the global drug trade tops three hundred billion dollars.

Similarly depressing statistics can be cited for Nixon’s ill-fated war on the mob. Nixon’s 1970 Organized Crime Control Bill gave law enforcement agencies new powers to tap phones, trample civil liberties, and invade the privacy of individuals; these tactics were allegedly necessary to defeat organized crime. But it soon became clear that new police powers were not a magic bullet against gangsters. In the mid-1990s, U.N. researchers estimated that powerful organized crime groups—notably the Columbian cartels, the Mexican gangs, the Triads, the Mafia, the Russian crime groups, and the Yakusa—had established international operations that produced over one trillion dollars in revenues and gained control of assets worth over another one trillion dollars.

Then there are the wars Nixon didn’t declare. Back in the 1960s, the Kerner Commission argued that police misconduct had played a major role in touching off urban riots in New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities. Today, police brutality and corruption remain serious problems in cities large and small. In Los Angeles, the acquittal of the police who savagely beat Rodney King in 1992 produced one of the worst urban riots in American history and prompted widespread calls for reform. Los Angeles prosecutors are currently investigating another massive police corruption scandal. Officials have been forced to throw out the convictions of more than forty people, and the city may eventually have to pay at least two hundred million dollars in damages to people who had been sent to jail on the basis of fabricated evidence.

Similar stories can be found in many other cities. New York City police brutality is well-known, but other atrocities and miscarriages of justice have been committed by police in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New Orleans, Denver, and Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey.

In Newark, twenty-six officers were accused of raping and robbing prostitutes and four others were arrested for stealing cars. Overall, the October 22nd Coalition, a national organization that documents and fights police brutality, estimates that more than two thousand people have been killed by law enforcement officers in the United States since 1990.

The war on corporate crime has been even less effective. In 1972, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated that white-collar crimes cost the economy about forty billion dollars a year, far more than the six billion dollars the Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed was stolen by street criminals. Today, estimates of the costs of corporate crime just in the United States range from one trillion dollars to 2.6 trillion dollars. Accountancy professor Ralph Estes points out that toxic chemicals in the workplace cause 274.7 billion dollars worth of economic damage each year, and concludes that exposure to carcinogens on the job kills about 150,000 Americans each year. In sharp contrast, about seventeen thousand Americans were murdered in 1998, indicating that going to work in a polluted environment can be a lot more dangerous than walking through a high-crime neighborhood.

The Roots of the Problem

To avoid repeating this hugely expensive failure, it is important to ask fundamental questions about the causes of crime. In recent years, most American politicians have simply offered a few stock answers—violent Hollywood movies, permissive liberal ideas, the changing American family, and a general decline in traditional moral values. This has not only produced disastrous policies; it has also shifted the debate away from one of the key causes of crime: corporate power.

In the last half-century, corporate investment decisions have exacerbated the social problems that create crime—such as poverty and joblessness—and transformed the workings of the global economy, making it easier for criminals to launder money, pollute the environment, and expose their employees to dangerous working conditions. Some of the critical economic theories of the left, which emphasize the accumulation of capital, class relations, and imperialism, can help us examine some of the world’s deadliest crimes.

Street Crime

The right never tires of exonerating society and blaming crime on the criminals. This is, of course, nonsense. To understand the important role that basic social and economic problems play in the creation of street crime, simply take a map of a major American city and put a small red dot wherever a homicide occurred. Soon small red lakes start forming in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. For example, in 1993, the New York City Police Department reported that twelve of the city’s seventy-four precincts—all twelve located in impoverished areas of Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn—reported a total of 854 homicides (43.6 percent of the city’s 1,960 murders) while twelve other precincts—all located in more affluent terrain—reported only thirty-seven homicides (less than 2 percent of the total). In general, wherever neighborhoods are plagued by extreme poverty and unemployment, extraordinarily high levels of violent crime exist.

Not surprisingly, U.S. prisons are also filled with convicts who have little formal education, lousy job prospects, and dismal incomes. One government survey of prisoners who entered state prisons in 1991 found that 64 percent had not graduated from high school, compared to 19.8 percent in the general population. About 45 percent did not have a fulltime job when they were arrested, 33 percent were unemployed, about 70 percent earned less than fifteen thousand dollars a year (compared to 23.5 percent of all U.S. households), and only 15 percent earned more than twenty-five thousand dollars a year (compared to 59.2 percent of all American households).

Likewise, inmate populations are mostly people of color that have faced severe socioeconomic problems. Blacks, with unemployment rates twice as high as whites and poverty rates more than three times higher, comprise 30 percent of federal and 46 percent of state inmates, even though they make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population. Latinos, suffering unemployment rates nearly twice as high as whites and poverty rates nearly three times higher, make up 28 percent of federal and 17 percent of state inmates, but just 10.2 percent of the population. In short, the higher incarceration rates of blacks and Latinos are very strongly correlated with their higher unemployment and poverty rates.

The link between poverty and crime, however, needs to be handled with care. There is, for example, no evidence to support the view that young males of color and immigrants are “more criminal” than other members of the population. Most impoverished young men manage to get through life without committing serious violent crimes, and those who do enter a life of crime commit few of the worst crimes. Most corporate crimes are committed by wealthy, middle-aged white men, and young people of color have virtually no control over the global drug trade or money-laundering. The popularity of derogatory stereotypes also obscures the terrible impact that street crime has on less-affluent neighborhoods. We tend to forget that working and less affluent Americans are disproportionally victimized by crime. This is particularly true of corporate crime—poorer neighborhoods generally have the worst environmental problems, and working Americans are far more likely to die at work than more affluent white-collar workers. In addition, about half of all U.S. homicide victims are black. People who live in households that have less that fifteen thousand dollars in annual income are three times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted, two times more likely to be robbed, and one and a half times more likely to be a victim of an aggravated assault than those who live in wealthy households.

All of this goes to show that the salient difference between high-crime and low-crime neighborhoods in urban centers is economics, not morality. Communities that offer their residents economic and social opportunities have low rates of street crime. And it also tells us why hiring more police, building more prisons, and imposing tougher sentences has not worked. Spending on law enforcement has increased astronomically and the number of people behind bars now approaches two million, but there is little evidence that punishment has had much of an impact on crime rates. Crime rates rose in the 1960s, when the number of people behind bars fell, but those numbers rose in the 1970s as the prison population skyrocketed. Street crime rates then fell in the early 1980s, as the prison population soared. But, crime rates escalated dramatically between 1984 and 1992, when the prison population increased even faster and even more draconian laws were passed. Crime rates dropped in the mid-1990s, as still more people were put behind bars. While law-and-order fanatics have taken credit for this decrease, any honest observer can see there is no connection between stiffer punishment and lower crime rates.

Prisons have been ineffective because punishment doesn’t address what might be crudely called the supply of criminals. Government officials can double or triple the number of people behind bars and keep them there for longer periods of time, as they have in recent years. But crime will not decrease as long as social and economic problems create millions of new street criminals to take their place.

The effects of economic changes on crime can be seen in the recent history of poor white immigrants in major cities like New York. In the 1910s and 1920s, for example, Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighborhoods had extremely high rates of street crime. At the time, conservative commentators blamed the problem on genetics. Yet, a mere two generations later, the grandchildren of these supposedly degenerate races are generally affluent and well-educated, with low unemployment rates. Not surprisingly, their involvement in street crime has also plunged.

The success of these groups and the failure of others can be traced to the economic changes made during the New Deal in the 1930s and the early postwar period in the 1940s, which expanded the consumer economy, boosted wages, and improved educational opportunities. But these benefits were not spread equally throughout the economy.

For starters, U.S. farm policies, which encouraged the development of a capital-intensive agribusiness, pushed millions of small farmers and farm laborers out of the U.S. South, Appalachia, and Puerto Rico into Northern cities between 1940 and 1970. These new immigrants arrived at a time when government policies and corporate investment strategies were encouraging the flow of capital out of the older industrial cities and into the lower wage, nonunion urban centers and suburbs of the South and West. Massive U.S. military spending encouraged an enormous government-sponsored shift of capital from urban centers to either the suburbs or low- wage centers abroad. Domestic military spending during the Second World War was disproportionately made in suburban or Sunbelt areas, and the vast majority of postwar military spending occurred outside of urban centers.

Meanwhile, tax policies such as the interest deduction for mortgages favored suburban homeowners over urban renters and reduced investment in decaying urban housing stocks, while other aspects of the corporate tax code encouraged corporations to build new factories overseas or in the suburbs rather than remodel and upgrade urban facilities.

Over time, these capital movements destroyed the economic basis of many American cities and pushed up crime rates, despite the country’s overall prosperity. In one study, Don Wallace and Drew Humphries investigated crime rates in twenty-three cities between 1950 and 1971. They looked at the connection between different types of crime and larger economic changes, such as a region’s economic prospects, labor-force changes, levels of poverty, and unemployment and analyzed how this affected different types of crime. Overall, they found that older, industrial cities had lost jobs, suffered high unemployment, faced large numbers of new migrants, and had much higher levels of murder, robbery, auto theft, and burglary. They concluded: “This result supports our hypothesis as well as earlier studies linking industrial employment, community stability and low crime rates.”

Such problems were further exacerbated in the late 1960s and 1970s. Faced with growing international competition, higher oil prices, and worldwide economic stagnation, corporate America underwent a painful restructuring. Layoffs, attacks on organized labor, the movement of factories overseas to low-wage zones, reduced government regulation, probusiness tax policies, and a wave of mergers cut overhead, boosted profits, and created more globally competitive corporate behemoths. This increased the prosperity of the richest Americans, but it also caused family incomes to stagnate, poverty rates to remain high, and wages for low-skilled workers to drop.

The economic restructuring of the 1970s and 1980s had an enormous impact on street crime, and not just in the cities. In the 1980s, crime became an increasingly worrisome problem in both rural and suburban areas as millions of workers lost their jobs, the manufacturing sector was devastated, and real wages fell dramatically. Still, America’s cities and their low-wage and often minority workers suffered the most. Overall, almost three million manufacturing jobs were lost nationwide in U.S. cities between 1979 and 1990. Moreover, pay for many low-skilled jobs in the United States fell dramatically—a particularly important development because men with few skills and little formal education are much more likely to commit street crimes than other demographic groups. Wages for low-skilled white men in their twenties fell by 14 percent between 1973 and 1989, while wages for white high-school dropouts fell by 33 percent. Similarly, wages for black high-school dropouts fell by 50 percent and those for black men in their twenties fell by 24 percent during this period.

These problems were compounded by the right’s successful attacks on social programs designed to eradicate the causes of crime. Between 1981 and 1992, federal spending for subsidized housing fell by 82 percent; job training and employment programs were cut by 63 percent; and the budget for community development and social service block grants was trimmed by 40 percent. Between 1972 and 1992, welfare and food-stamp benefits for single mothers declined by an average of 27 percent nationwide. Although welfare benefits once provided enough money for a family of four to live at the poverty level, no state in the early 1990s (when crime rates hit record highs) provided grants and subsidies equal to 100 percent of the poverty level.

Reduced wages, higher unemployment rates, and lower government benefits played a crucial role in the rise of street crime and the growth of street drug markets. Likewise, improved economic conditions in many cities after 1993 begin to explain the recent reductions in street crime. It is no coincidence that street crime rates have fallen to their lowest levels in thirty-five years in a period when unemployment and poverty rates have also dropped back to the levels last seen in the more prosperous 1960s.

The Drug Trade

Changes in the larger capitalist political economy have also played a crucial role in the development of the drug trade. While the right blames much of the drug trade on the permissive cultural values of the 1960s, it is important to remember that U.S. drug users are only one (relatively small) part of a much larger system of distribution, marketing, finance, and production that involves million of impoverished peasants (who grow the drugs), global organized crime groups (who distribute the narcotics and earn most of the profits), hundreds of thousands of poor people who sell the drugs in the United States (one Rand study notes that the average street level dealer makes about ten thousand dollars a year and most of that money goes to support his or her own habit), and large financial institutions (which launder the profits).

It is important to stress that this system came into being long before anyone had ever heard of Timothy Leary, the American psychologist and author who promoted the use of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s. Many aspects of the modern drug trade were created by European imperialism. Between 1797 and 1831, as the British opened new opium-producing regions, Chinese imports of opium skyrocketed from seventy-five tons in 1775, when the British started the Bengal opium monopoly, to 2,555 tons in 1840. Opium became so important that, in 1839 and 1856, Britain went to war against China when the Chinese attempted to end the trade. Thanks to the forced legalization of the drug, about 27 percent of all adult Chinese males smoked opium in 1907, and the country had some 13.5 million addicts consuming thirty-nine thousand tons of opium each year. Meanwhile, the Dutch, French, and Portuguese continued to profit from the trade. They set up state-run opium dens, which encouraged the use of the drug, and they used the profits to help finance their colonial regimes.

The decline of colonialism following the Second World War ended the official state-sponsored drug trade, but the decline of colonialism also marked the beginning of the Cold War and a vicious battle for control of Asia’s rich natural resources. The Cold War created the modern heroin trade, producing a deadly mixture of narcotics, peasant revolts, and political corruption. Opium production expanded exponentially, growing from fifty tons a year in 1948 to well over three thousand tons today. Currently, between 180,000 and 190,000 acres of poppy fields are cultivated in the Golden Triangle region of Burma, Thailand, and Laos, and the enterprise employs well over a million people.

In Latin America, mechanized agribusiness, imported manufacturing goods, and the debt crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s devastated many peasant economies, forcing millions of people to enter the drug trade. In Peru alone, over seventy thousand people moved into the coca-producing regions in the 1980s as the economy shrank by 20 percent, inflation hit 3,399 percent, and real wages dropped by 60 percent. In Colombia, coffee prices fell over 33 percent between 1980 and 1986 as the drug trade boomed and in Bolivia, prices for tin and natural gas plummeted as production of coca leaves skyrocketed. By the mid-1990s, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia were earning billions of dollars from drug exports and about one million people were growing, processing, or smuggling cocaine.

Organized Crime

In the postwar period, the U.S. policy of supporting corrupt anticommunist dictatorships allowed some of the world’s deadliest crime groups to expand into multibillion dollar operations. Just as Al Capone relied on a corrupt Republican party machine to thrive in Chicago during the 1920s, Asian heroin smugglers and drug lords thrived under the protection of U.S.-backed dictators in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Taiwan. As these groups smuggled more heroin into the United States, the number of heroin addicts in America shot up from about thirty thousand in 1945 to about 750,000 in the late 1960s. Similar events occurred throughout Latin America, with similar consequences, and today are taking place in Russia, where criminals now control a quarter of the country’s banks.

U.S. support for corrupt but anticommunist governments in Japan and Europe also aided important crime groups. In Japan, the Yakusa, who helped conservatives crush leftwing labor unrest in the 1950s, established close ties to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which allowed them to operate openly and set up multibillion dollar enterprises. In Italy, an alliance was formed between the Mafia and U.S.-backed Christian Democrats, who were saved from possible defeat by the communists in 1948 by ten million dollars in covert U.S. aid. Eventually, political protection from the Christian Democrats allowed the Mafia to rebuild its power and establish a global organization producing twenty-one billion to twenty-four billion dollars in revenues in 1994.

The most important example of how larger economic changes have benefitted organized crime groups can be found in the area of money laundering. As global trade expanded after the Second World War, major multinational corporations and financial institutions created new and unregulated financial systems to make it easier for them to move goods and services internationally. By the mid-1990s, unregulated offshore banks in Panama, Hong Kong, and the Bahamas managed more than five trillion dollars worth of assets. Today, trillions of dollars worth of currency, stocks, and bonds flow across borders each day, protected by strict secrecy laws, lax government regulations, and virtually nonexistent taxes.

Unfortunately, these same features are attractive to organized crime groups and have allowed them to accumulate almost unimaginable wealth. When Nixon declared his war on the Mafia in 1970, few organized crime leaders were worth more than five or ten million dollars. But, by the mid-1980s, organized crime groups in the United States were bringing in an estimated fifty billion dollars a year and, by the late 1980s, some drug cartel leaders had made it onto Forbes magazine’s annual list of billionaires. Today, organized crime has so much economic power in countries like Mexico, Colombia, Thailand, Burma, and Russia that it will be extremely difficult to curb its operations in the future.

Corporate Crime

Corporate crime has also changed over the years in response to shifts in the larger economy. In the nineteenth century, when the U.S. economy was undergoing a period of rapid industrialization and needed a large pool of cheap labor, many examples of corporate violence—such as the use of thugs to attack labor unions—were legal. But in the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, political protests and the need to modernize the economy forced political leaders to outlaw some of the worst abuses—such as child labor—and offer various kinds of protection to workers, consumers, women, minorities, and the environment. These changes, however, increased the direct cost of doing business, and political pressure from corporations has forced many countries to adopt more business-friendly policies. As a result, regulatory spending and staffing have not kept up with the expansion of the overall economy.

Quantifying the cost of corporate crime is difficult, but there is little doubt that the costs are enormous. Ralph Estes, who has compiled the best available summary of these costs, estimates that corporate crime cost the U.S. economy about 2.6 trillion dollars (in 1994 dollars). This total includes discrimination against women and minorities (165 billion dollars); workplace injuries and accident (141.6 billion dollars); deaths from workplace cancer (274.7 billion dollars); price-fixing monopolies and deceptive advertising (1.1 trillion dollars); cost of unsafe vehicles (135.8 billion dollars); cigarettes (53.9 billion dollars); other product injuries (18.4 billion dollars); environmental costs (307.8 billion dollars); defense contract overcharges (25.8 billion dollars); income tax fraud (2.9 billion dollars); violations of federal regulations (39.1 billion dollars); bribery, extortion, and kickbacks (14.6 billion dollars); and miscellaneous costs (82.5 billion dollars). These mind-boggling numbers actually leave out a number of other serious and costly crimes, such as money laundering, redlining, capital flight, insurance fraud, illegal attempts to destroy unions, and securities fraud.

Many of these corporate crimes directly contribute to the violence on America’s streets. The ease which with money can be laundered has greatly increased the power of the global drug cartels, and their power helps to make the drug trade an intractable problem. But because easy money laundering also benefits “legitimate” businesses, the government has seen fit to ignore the laws against it and to cut the funding and staff of those agencies responsible for monitoring and eliminating it. In addition, women and people of color cannot obtain reasonably priced credit, insurance, and mortgages or rent homes in safer neighborhoods because of racial biases, poor regulation, and illegal lending practices by major financial institutions and real estate agents. Tax fraud by multinational corporations and wealthy business elites bilks government agencies out of tens of billions of dollars in revenue, making it harder to invest in social services and schools that might break the cycle of poverty and racism. Bond fraud by major financial institutions significantly increases the costs local governments must pay to borrow money, reducing the money they have for other social services.

The Politics of Crime

The disparate treatment of different types of crime is largely a matter of money. In 1996, 2.65 billion dollars was spent by candidates and political parties on federal elections, triple the amount spent in 1976, and this year’s elections promise to be much more expensive. Much of this money came from business interests; businesses contributed 240 million dollars in the 1996 elections, while labor contributed one-ninth as much, or thirty-five million dollars. Today, lobbyists, most of whom represent the interests of the rich and powerful, spend anywhere from five to ten billion dollars to influence federal, state, and local officials. The poor, by contrast, have nothing to spend to influence the political process.

The growing economic importance of what might be called the prison-industrial complex has also influenced the politics of crime. Today, major corporations now profit from violence at home. The incarceration of poor people of color in unbelievably brutal prisons now produces huge profits for major defense contractors, which supply police departments with high-tech weapons and equipment. Wall Street firms collect lucrative fees for issuing bonds for new prisons, and wealthy investors collect tax-free interest on the bonds, which can triple the cost of building a one-hundred-thousand-dollar cell. Phone companies and health maintenance organizations aggressively bid on lucrative contracts to provide inmates and prisons with services. Contractors have grown rich on the prison construction boom. Private companies that run prisons will soon have more than one billion dollars in revenues a year.

Public spending for law enforcement also provides employment for 1.7 million people, and many soldiers work on the Pentagon’s one-billion-dollar-a-year war against drugs. In the private sector, there are 1.5 million private securities guards and 960,000 people find employment in the 124 billion-dollar-a-year legal services industry. Not surprisingly, this prison-industrial complex staunchly supports law-and-order politicians. Police officers, prison guards, soldiers, and other workers now profiting from crime have long records of support for conservative politicians and now constitute a powerful voting block of several million voters. By contrast, the policy of arresting poor people for minor drug offenses while ignoring corporate criminals has decimated the political power of many communities and reduced the number of minorities who are eligible to vote. By the mid-1990s, it was estimated that about 80 percent of all black males under the age of 35 had been arrested and that some 5 million Americans had lost the right to vote because of their criminal record.

But the power of money and special interests does not tell us everything. Over the last three decades, conservatives have deftly exploited the fear of crime to build political support for larger conservative agendas. They weaken their liberal political opponents by accusing them of being soft on crime, and they have used odious stereotypes to weaken public support for social programs, civil liberties, and racial justice. As part of this law-and-order crusade, the “deserving poor” have been transformed into crack-crazed unwed teens, gang bangers, and “children with guns.” Latinos and immigrants, blamed for the nations’ economic problems, are cast as minions of foreign organized-crime groups. Liberal defenders of civil liberties and more humane approaches to substance abuse are turned into dangerous secular humanists.

The larger economic changes that encouraged street crime also changed the makeup of the electorate, creating a larger political base for the right. The shift of capital out of the cities into the segregated suburbs created a large pool of increasingly conservative white voters.

Likewise, more conservative regions of the economy—notably the South, Southwest, and Southern California—benefitted heavily from the military-industrial complex, producing a staunch base of support for military adventurism and antiradical politicians. Not surprisingly, these voters have played a crucial role in the careers of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and many other law-and-order politicians.

The growing importance of these voters also pushed the Democrats to the right. Today, it is difficult to distinguish the record of the Clinton Democrats from their Republican rivals on issues pertaining to crime. Clinton has proudly trumpeted his record of supporting the death penalty, reducing federal aid to the cities, cutting welfare programs, and reducing staffing at government regulatory agencies. Despite his popularity with blacks, he has staunchly defended federal law enforcement policies that directly discriminate against blacks, such as the sentences for crack cocaine.

Ending these disastrous policies will take time. The politics of fear remains a potent weapon in an era where thirty-second television ads dominate the democratic process, and the two major parties have given up all pretense of being anything other than corporate vassals.

Still, the recent declines in street crime—coupled with a backlash against police brutality and the death penalty—have allowed reformers to open up the debate over violence and crime in America. By explaining how modern political economy is a toxic byproduct of a global economy dominated by large multinational corporations and financial institutions, it may be possible to create alliances between a number of different groups (organized labor, environmentalists, civil rights activists, feminists, nongovernmental organizations in the developing world) who could push for a new anticrime policy as part of a much larger political agenda. Defining the problem of crime as a problem of abusive corporate power and analyzing its devastating effects on local communities may also give the left an opportunity to expand the debate over crime into a political critique of global capitalism. Ultimately, a progressive campaign against the real causes of crime not only offers the best hope of reducing crime in America, it also offers the left a chance to show that its longstanding focus on social and economic justice remains the best way to create a more just approach to crime.

2000, Volume 52, Issue 07 (December)
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