But about two years before an unarmed 18-year-old named Michael Brown was shot and killed on the streets of Ferguson by a white police officer, my Wall Street beat started leading me inexorably in the direction of the US’s growing urban disaster. The two stories are intertwined.
I’d spent years chronicling the ingenious crimes of scale that characterised the financial crisis era. These ranged from the mass frauds of the US sub-prime mortgage meltdown to the fraud-and bribery-induced bankruptcy of Jefferson County, Alabama to multitrillion-dollar market manipulation cases like the Libor scandal, so well known to British readers (but less well known to American ones).
The punchline to all these stories in the US was and is always the same. No matter how great the crime or how much money was stolen, none of the Wall Street principals is ever indicted or, for that matter, punished at all.
Even in the most abject and horrific cases – such as the scandal surrounding HSBC, which admitted to laundering more than $800m for central and South American drug cartels – no individual ever has to do a day in jail or pay so much as a cent in fines.
What punishments there are in the US for these firms – usually some version of a “We really, really promise never to do it again” deferred prosecution agreement, accompanied by superficially large fines – are always paid by the shareholder, not the actual wrongdoer.
When covering these tales, I often asked law enforcement officials to explain their thinking. Why no criminal cases? The answers I received were so grotesque as to be almost funny. “Well, they’re not crime crimes,” was an answer one prosecutor fed me, with a straight face.
When I asked another why no one went to jail in the HSBC narco-laundering case, given that our prisons were teeming with people who’d sold small quantities of drugs, he answered, again totally deadpan: “Have you been to a jail? Those places are dangerous!”
There is no way to talk about how preposterous all of this is without first answering one basic question: who does go to jail in the US?
The simplified answer is that the poorer and less white you are, the easier it is to end up in jail. If you live in the wrong neighbourhood and you’re broke, on the dole, or, worse, undocumented, your chances of seeing the back of a squad car are better than fair every time you walk outside.
Taibbi’s book is The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.