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Book Review: “Greed is Good- Maximization and Elite Deviance in America” by Mathew Robinson and Daniel Robinson

ecause of human beings have a natural tendency to wanting more than they already have, the lines of ethical action become more blurry over time as individuals aim to achieve their American Dream.

By Amaury Abreu

Greed is Good, I have read many books with interesting titles but this one made me feel a weird feeling of discomfort. The book written by Mathew Robinson and Daniel Murphy explores the concept of how American Society has been fed the idea of “maximization” which means the endless pursuit of profit within a capitalist society. The book is focused on theory of corporate criminality from the context of anomie/strain theory. 

Corporate crime happens when an organization or individual breaks the law in pursuit of profit. Those organizations and individuals in elite societies create more harm for the general population when they commit corporate crimes because their deviance has a more extensive impact in different communities. 

In the exposure of their ideas the authors discuss how common corporate crime is and the costs that we pay as a society for these crimes. If I were to highlight the message the book aims to provide readers would be the phrase “in essence, corporations act as psychopaths”. 

At some points within the text the authors provide ideas of how these elite crimes could decrease by implementing more tougher sanctions on corporate crimes. One impactful quote in the book for me was about how the FBI had to pullback from investigating white-collar crimes because they did not have enough in their budget to pursue these types of elite deviance.

Prosecutors who actually get to work on cases of elite deviance end up doing deals with the alleged criminals where many times the charges are dropped and only fines have to be paid by the institutions. Is greed good? Certainly no and yet we live in a society where greed is encouraged and widely practiced leading businesses and employees to act contrary to the benefit of the community at large.

In their exploration of the topic of elite deviance in the first parts of the book the authors discussed their argument on how the American Dream promotes criminality because, according to them, the American Dream means the endless pursuit of wealth, no matter how much one may have in terms of financial means (Robinson and Murphy, 2009). The authors explain that maximization, the idea of a constant utilization to achieve goals both legitimate (legal) and illegitimate (illegal) to achieve the goals of the American Dream, creates a space where individuals abide and violate the law at the same time (Robinson and Murphy, 2009). 

Because of human beings have a natural tendency to wanting more than they already have, the lines of ethical action become more blurry over time as individuals aim to achieve their American Dream.

Within the law there are excuses and justifications that allow individuals to defend themselves in the court. White Collar crime seems to feel like its own form of justification or excuse, the authors quoted an editorial in the Multinational Monitor “ Does corporate crime pay? Increasingly, not only does it pay; it’s not even prosecuted”.(Robinson and Murphy, 2009)

In the middle chapters the authors explain the concepts of Strain and Anomie Theories to back up their claim in how the theories help us understand in detail why these elite crimes happen and the consequences behind them. Anomie according to the book means “state of normalness”. Structural strain in the book is defined as stress to institutional norms (Robinson and Murphy, 2009). In this chapter the authors discuss how those with less opportunity to achieve their goals in a legitimate way will lean to break the law. The authors seem to be in support of Karl Marx conflict theory that the law benefits corporations and elites and harms those with less means to defend themselves in the court of law. 

 In the following chapter the authors explore contextual aspects of anomie and strain theories providing examples of how white collar crime has been receiving less attention by the authorities thus creating more opportunities for elite deviance to happen without any repercussion. The authors then follow suit by sharing the different aspects of maximization in the context of elite property crime and elite violent crimes with the intent to show how their approach to anomie/strain theory explain these types of behaviors and providing more understanding of why their approach to explaining elite crimes is accurate. 

The authors did not provide a background on how corporations started to become liable for their criminal activities, leaving a gap in understanding the historical context of their observations which lead me to seek more context of how corporations started to become more liable over time “Corporations in the United States did not initially have criminal liability, because they lacked mind and body, and therefore could not be imprisoned.26 Over time, corporate criminal liability developed, and courts started to hold corporations liable for criminal activity” (Machado de Souza, Renato. “White-Collar Crime and Corruption: Liability of Legal Entities in the United States and Brazil.” ILSA Journal of International & Comparative Law 26).

In their exposition, the authors used various methods to back up their claims of the origin of elite deviance and how it can be explained. They used definitions to explain their theory along with examples of white collar crimes committed. The authors quoted other researchers and their work, for example, they provided Merton’s model of Anomic Strain that is used to explain social theories and social structures.

 Within the book there were multiple tables with examples of financial losses because of fraud, they explored the differences between white collar crime and non-white collar crime and chemicals used in cigarettes with the goal to show how bad they are and yet how much cigarette companies aim to make a profit out of the health issues provoked by tobacco products to mention some (Robinson and Murphy, 2009). The book hints at the idea that while we as a society seem to agree on what criminal behavior looks like, we fail to have a clear social construct of what crime is when it comes to elite deviance, a concept that is explained in the theory of the social construction of crime. 

The text provides a wide range of examples and how they fit their theory of elite deviance. The examples are specific and convincing which help them make their case of how the system of our society needs to change to one where the wellness of all is included in the goals of for profit businesses. The authors explore different aspects of elite deviance and provide evidence of the effects elite deviance has in our society. One of the notions that the book recognizes is that elite deviance is hard to measure because there is not much data on this type of crime making it difficult asses the exact costs and impacts that it has for communities (Robinson and Murphy, 2009). 

One of the strong aspects of the book is that it provides solutions along with their explanation of elite deviance helping the reader understand what type of society we should strive for in their view which helps the reader understand the ethical compass of the authors even when using a scientific approach to the topics explored. The authors seem to be from a positivist criminal theory background as they provide ways at the end of the book to avoid crime instead of reacting to it and while I enjoyed their ideas, I think there are some flaws to them or at least could use more perspective. 

I felt like the book leaned towards the idea of not having a capitalistic society, I do not think the book tried to suggest a communist-like society or even socialist type of society but the authors did not seem to support the idea of capitalism at all, the book also seems to fail in addressing white privilege when it comes to corporate crimes. The examples provided do not address how many individuals in elite positions within corporations tend to be white men. Another aspect that the authors also do not explore is how wealth is concentrated in specific locations of the world and how this lack of wealth distribution to more locations in our society are causing an increase of violent and property crimes as individuals try to find ways to make a “living”. 

The authors fail to acknowledge that the problem with capitalism is that the structure of  how businesses operate are to mainly benefit owners and not employees. The question is then: How do we benefit employees as much as the owners? The problem can be explained in the following way “inequality at work does not emerge from the ether… but rather is developed within the routines, policies, and practices that organizations employ to recruit, evaluate, hire, and retain employees” (p. 230)”( Treleaven, Christina, and Sylvia Fuller. “BB See: Transparency Legislation and Public Discussions of Wage Inequality.”). 

I suggest an already existing alternative to help the issue of pay gap and other forms of inequities. My suggestion lies in the idea that all employees of businesses should be automatically owners of the businesses they work for and have a certain amount of shares and a vote in how the business operates. For example, cooperative legal business structures already exist in different parts of the world. “The International Co-Operative Alliance defines a cooperative, or co-op, as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically controlled enterprise.”( (What is a co-op? – definition of a cooperative business 2022). This model is unique in that all the members of the cooperative, no matter how many shares of the company they own, only have one vote. Having one vote instead of majority vote based on the amount of shares you own, levels the playing field of business decision making and creates a more democratic process leading to more employee satisfaction. In this model businesses would operate for the benefit of all because “all” are owners and all have individual votes, helping with the balance of power and hopefully leading to more ethical decision making within the institutions that have adopted this model. 

Basically, businesses should have a democratic aspect to themselves but the sad reality is that it is not the case. The authors should have interviewed business owners that share their views on how capitalism needs a reboot, this would have make their arguments even stronger by providing with support from the business sector. The authors did mention in some cases positive aspects of capitalism but they were very few.

I think the authors did a great job providing extensive context to their theory with clear examples and powerful quotes that made their book persuasive and full of evidence that show why we need a different model. When organizations change their model from one that aims to maximize profit and focus on maximizing the quality of life of both “owners” and “customers” we will see a world that is not lead by greed but instead by cooperation and support of our fellow where instead of looking to find ways to oppress, we find ways to liberate and support all involved. 

 

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