Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The "Mafia" Has Gone Legit

HBO's John Oliver hit another one out of the park this past Sunday with a brilliant rant on municipal fines and the predatory private companies that are now profiting on the backs of our poorest citizens (video embedded below). Watching it, I was reminded of some passages in Gus Russo's book, The Outfit, about the history of organized crime in Chicago, in which he makes a strong comparison between "the underworld" and "the upperworld" and how most of the great American "legitimate" fortunes were made either by using extortionist tactics similar to those of the mafia or through actual organized crime connections.

Russo cites a quote from robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, then one of America's richest men, who confessed that: "You don't suppose it is possible to run a railroad in accordance with the statutes, do you?" He also cites the example of John Factor, brother of cosmetics baron Max Factor, who began his business career with a huge, multimillion dollar white collar scam in his native Great Britain, then fled to America an became involved in the Chicago mob in the 1930s. Factor not only avoided extradition thanks to mob influence, at one point with mob help he actually faked his own kidnapping in order to send a business rival to prison for 20 years. Eventually, he ended up running a Las Vegas casino for The Outfit. Late in his life, Factor tried to obscure his criminal background with many philanthropic efforts, and actually broke down in tears when asked by a reporter about his various unpunished crimes. "How many good deeds does a man have to do to erase his past?" he reportedly sobbed. Old Joe Kennedy was probably wondering the same thing right after his son was assassinated.

The point to all of this is that in this age of the war on terrorism, the mafia doesn't make many headlines anymore. That's partly because the FBI and Department of Justice did such an effective job during the 1980s and 1990s of smashing traditional organized crime, particularly the legendary "five families" in New York. But it is also in part because the primary activities the mob made its money on (gambling, loansharking) are now legitimate businesses in the form of widespread casinos and payday lending operations, and because labor unions have been so effectively neutered that they are no longer the cash cow they once were.

As Oliver points out below, incredibly another common mob practice has not only been legalized but is now being perpetrated by private companies on behalf of municipal governments. The video features the victims of legal shakedowns, indigent minor offenders who often ended up paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars in "late fees" because of their initial inability to pay their fines. Difference being that these shakedowns are backed by the threat of imprisonment rather than the target having an arm or leg broken. In fact, Oliver doesn't explicitly make the connection but it is likely that the people shown in his video were not only being shaken down by these private "probation companies" but were also ensnared by legal loan sharks--taking out car title or payday loans in a futile effort to keep paying the ever escalating "vig" on their tiny original fines (last year, Oliver also attacked the payday loan industry--see second embedded video below).

Oliver ends the video with a brilliant point that the "right" to "pursue happiness" should also include the right to fuck up every once in awhile with getting fucked by your own government, or privately hired goons acting on behalf of your government. Of course, rich people already enjoy that right. Robert Durst has been in the news a lot lately, but to me the most astonishing aspect of his case was his acquittal on murder charges after he killed and dismembered his neighbor. Only someone with the millions to afford to buy the best legal defense possible could ever hope that a "self defense" defense could possibly be successful in such a situation.

This is all happening because of a phenomenon I cited in my last post: namely voters in this country idiotically paying the closest attention to the one election that has the LEAST importance to their daily lives and which their vote has become utterly meaningless (for president), and paying the LEAST attention to the elections that not only have the most effect on their daily lives but in which a relatively small number of them could in most cases actually change the outcome (for state and local officials). Now all we have to do is convince them to turn off American Idol (how is that POS show still drawing high ratings after 14 excruciating years?) and get them involved politically in their own communities. Yeah, right...good luck with that.

Bonus: Why does it take an Englishman to so deftly point out what is going wrong in America (Part 2)


  1. All good points Mr. Hicks. It's a little more complicated than the solution you suggest, though that would help.

    To begin with those who are still working to get by (all us "working poor", formerly "middle class") have gotten our hats handed to us by the corporatists who "own" the federal government - and by that i mean our wages have been frozen, pensions shifted to IRA's that depend on the wobbly Stock Market, our savings has been used up trying to maintain as long as we can, and many of us are bankrupt due to the crushing financial burden of "health care" for ourselves or a loved one. Local politics can't do anything about that - they're more likely to disallow my vegetable garden or some such, raise school taxes (which no one can afford anymore), or change the day the trash and recyclables get picked up (and thrown in the ocean, apparently). As a result, many of us work part-time at two or three jobs or resort to a 'breaking bad' mentality and dabble in other sources of income - just to keep up with the bills and put food on the table.

    Pardon us for not having any faith in government, for being less than idealistic regarding human greed, hubris and 'intelligence.' At this point we're just marking time until it gets so bad that the entire edifice of civilization crumbles due to food and water scarcity that's happening everywhere as a result of irreversible climate change. In case you haven't noticed the jet stream is broken, the "gulf stream" is slowing down (which will bring catastrophic problems), Fukushima is killing the Pacific Ocean (and can't be "fixed"), methane is dissociating off the coasts in the northern hemisphere (and just recently spiked to a previously unheard of level) bringing with it daily explosions of homes, clouds of death wafting through the atmosphere, and (together with the hydrogen sulfide that accompanies it) fires of all kinds (like scrap metal bursting into flames, landfills creating problems, flash fires like of trash IN trash trucks, and people collapsing and dying whether walking, fishing, driving or taking a bath - even in prison, inmates are dropping dead in their cells and in college dormitories young students are falling over dead at an unprecedented rate). Just the other day 2000 birds fell from the sky like stones, and the Fish and Game Commission suggested it was from avian cholera. Oh, right - they all died WHILE FLYING at exactly the same time from a disease that makes them so weak they wouldn't even get off the ground and struck them all dead at once. Yeah, right. Planes of all kinds are having trouble staying in the air and when landing due to the atmospheric changes we're witnessing. All the trees and vegetation are having a hard time staying alive due to the increasing concentration of ozone and other gases that kill them at their roots, hollow them out, and make them susceptible to disease and insects that they'd normally be able to fight off.

    We're in such dire straits now that politics is useless. If you were certain that you only had say 10 years to live (that's being optimistic, we really don't know, but the indications are that it's getting exponentially worse by the year), would you waste your time with mundane and glacially incremental steps to fix the levers of government? [Sorry about that last inaccurate metaphor, glaciers actually melt FASTER now than politics makes changes for the better).


    1. Tom--funny you would use the 10 years to live analogy given that right now I'm living my life in 4 month increments--from CT Scan to CT scan. I'll be very lucky to remain cancer free for the next 10 years, and even if I do I'll then be entering my senior years physically diminished from the disease at a time when things will likely be unravelling at an accelerated rate.

      I guess for me what it boils down to is that as collapse accelerates the people who are physically closest to you are those who will become the most important people in your life, and may actually at some point determine just how long you keep on living. Despite all of the very serious ills you've pointed out, it doesn't hurt for people to get involved in their local communities--and it may pay huge dividends later on. When the collapse comes, I'd rather have a reputation as the good neighbor who tried to help make things even a tiny bit better.

  2. The rot spreads...

    Florida Top-Two Proponents File Text of Proposed Constitutional Amendment

    Florida proponents of a top-two system have filed a proposed initiative constitutional amendment with the Secretary of State. This link contains the form of the petition and the wording of the proposal. The proponents include attorney Glenn Burhans, Jr., of Tallahassee, and Andrew Jones. Thanks to Richard Moroney for the link.

  3. I wonder how much time Mr Oliver has left?
    Casting a light on the mafia, as was, never did anyone any good.

  4. Thank you for pointing me to Oliver, Bill. Indefatigably spot on and hilarious.
    As for the Mafia taking him out, ha, ha, and ha. They don't give a shit about a Brit and they have been superceded. Dollars beat bullets any day.