Smash-and-Grab Looters are Exploiting Opportunity, Just Like Congress’ Stock Traders

by James Neggie

“My dad was a… petty thief.  Never could hold down a job, so, he just robbed.  Convenience stores, shops, small-time stuff.  One time, he sat me down, he told me something I never forgot.  He said, ‘Everyone steals.  That’s how it works. You think people out there are getting exactly what they deserve?  No. They’re getting paid over or under, but someone in the chain always gets bamboozled.’ I steal, Son, but I don’t get caught.  That’s my contract with society. Now if you can *catch* me stealing, then I’ll go to jail, but if you can’t, then I’ve earned the money.”

Mr. Robot, 2015

“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” 

Balzac (as cited by Mario Puzo in The Godfather)

This holiday season, habitual cable news viewers couldn’t escape the corporate media’s steady supply of consternation, pearl-clutching, handwringing, and in some cases outright hysteria, about the wave of organized smash-and-grab robberies befalling high-end retailers this holiday season. Pundits on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News were of course quick to offer explanations from their partisan grab bags: unregulated big tech allowing the robbers to coordinate online, liberal D.A.s refusing to prosecute crime or impose bail, the erosion of the cohesive civil society, or the grisly endgame of the war on Christmas. Much of the hue and cry raised boil down to one overarching concern: if designer scarves and Louis Vuitton handbags aren’t safe from masked hordes of marauding looters then what is?

Nancy Pelosi, under pressure to denounce the robberies, called them “absolutely outrageous” and a product of an “attitude of lawlessness” that “springs from I don’t know where.” She went on to assert that “we cannot have that lawlessness become the norm.” 

Hmm. Where could such an “attitude of lawlessness” have come from? Well Madame Speaker, perhaps it has come from the very top.

As has been recently reported, some 52 members of Congress have failed to properly report their financial trades as mandated by the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012, also known as the STOCK Act. When Pelosi was asked whether it was ethical for members of Congress to buy and trade individual stocks, she defended the practice by stating “We’re a free-market economy … they should be able to participate in that.” 

Very well.  But there is more than one way of “participating” in the free market.  One way is using privileged inside information you gain from public service to garner an unfair advantage against competing investors, and another is to smash open plate glass windows and grab merchandise.

When observers pointed out to defenders of the neoliberal status quo over the past three decades that wealth imbalance has created an unfair playing field in which small players can’t compete, they were simply dismissed for failing to see the “big picture.” For these Masters of the Universe, the global capitalist stage was some sort of primordial savanna where strong and fit firms could vanquish and feast upon the weak, and in turn create better services and lower prices for all consumers.  But when masked marauders employ tactical logic straight out of a real-life savanna (property belongs to those who take it), they are aghast.

In language that neoliberal defenders of capitalist enterprise will be familiar with, the perpetrators of the flash mob, smash-and-grab robberies are all independent economic entities acting in their own self-interest. So, what’s the problem? Every one of these smash-and grab looters can be considered their own personal corporation. As such, they are effectively CEOs. Well then, these CEOs have a fiduciary responsibility to their various stakeholders (themselves, family, landlords, creditors, and student loan servicers) to seek out, create, and exploit opportunities presented to them.

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Now, the owners and shareholders of the retailers in question might object to the “aggressiveness” of these CEOs.  They are certainly guilty of running afoul of various “regulations” etc. – and please, just for a moment here let us interrogate why it is that when rich people break a law they are said to merely have “run afoul of regulations,” and when a poor person does, they have broken the law? Of course, the answer is that regulatory violations are usually met with a fine or extremely brief custodial sentence, while crimes could require lengthy imprisonment.

Insider trading isn’t simply “breaking a regulation,” it’s committing a crime.  But if members of Congress are caught, the worst consequence they can expect is a $200 fine. Struggling hand-to-mouth Uber drivers are fined more if they run a red-light in Manhattan. 

In general, white-collar criminals have never, and will never, see the inside of a jail cell. The masked marauders of this past holiday season, on the other hand, were all risking their freedom. But their economic circumstances are so dire that stealing a $7,000 handbag that can be resold online seemed to them a risk worth taking. Such is the aftermath of so eroding the economic prospects of people in their prime earning years.

In reality, we should be applauding their entrepreneurial initiative. Their elan.  Their acquisitional pluck! These smash-and-grabbers aren’t looking for a handout. They aren’t waiting for the government to mail them each a Hermès scarf – they are going out and creating opportunities for themselves.  

Incidentally, wasn’t it “opportunities” that politicians and pundits promised working people corporate interests would provide them given free rein? Perhaps the flash mob robbers were simply tired of waiting for the balancing arm of the free market to raise their boats.

Those who carried out the recent spate of smash-and-grab robberies had a few advantages: their numbers, their desperation, and a pandemic which allowed them to be masked and disguised without attracting scrutiny. They leveraged these advantages to their own benefit. In return, they create lower prices for consumers of high-end designer merchandise by selling their aggressively acquired goods on eBay. They create demand for private security companies and security guards while also providing work for plate glass window manufacturers and installers.  

Job creation and lower prices?  It looks like the next generation of American entrepreneurs have arrived.

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Photos: Ashraf Ghani, Concord Police Dept.

Is Bubbles From ‘The Wire’ More Socially Responsible Than a Hedge Fund Manager?

by James Neggie

“McNulty: I’ve gotta ask you: if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away… why’d you even let him in the game?

Kid: What?

McNulty: Well, if every time, Snot Boogie stole the money, why’d you let him play?

Kid: Got to. It’s America, Man

Opening scene of The Wire, HBO, 2002

Every couple of years or so, I make it a point to rewatch one of my all-time favorite series, HBO’s masterpiece inner-city drama The Wire. A few months ago, I was studying the exploits of one of the most memorable characters of the show, Reginald Cousins, a.k.a. “Bubbles.”

Suffice to say that Bubbles is an endearing drug addict with a heart of gold who has an exceptionally poignant arc over the course of the series as he traverses from addiction to recovery. 

However, early in the series, before he achieves sobriety, Bubbles is sort of a wandering Taoist in West Baltimore seeking out ways to score cash or drugs (which for him are of interchangeable value) to feed his habit. He either happens upon, devises, or improvises several different schemes, scams, and ploys designed to yield him cash or drugs. 

He sneaks up on a rooftop where drug dealers are operating below him and with a fishhook surreptitiously lifts bags of heroin from a stash in an old tire; he scavenges scrap metal and discarded cell phones (with active minutes remaining) which he is able to resell; he takes advantage of an unattended ambulance while the crew is on a call to raid their store of syringes, needles, and liquid morphine.

This past binge was my fifth time watching the series when the thought struck me: Bubbles is a street-level, rapacious late-stage capitalist looking to turn circumstances to his advantage at a moment’s notice, heedless of any damage he may be wreaking on the social fabric around him. In fact, Bubbles has at least as much (and quite probably more) conscientiousness and ethical responsibility than real life capitalist speculators and financial operatives.

Let’s examine his scheme of passing counterfeit money to buy drugs from the Barksdale drug crew in Season One. Bubbles and his young apprentice Johnny make black and white photocopies of several $10 bills. Bubbles then goes about soiling the bills with dirt and coffee. After he puts together three fake $10 bills, he asks Johnny for “the real” (meaning the one $10 bill they had left between them). They were using a real bill on the outside to cover up the fakes. 

Including assets of real value along with others to cover and mask the worthlessness of other elements. . .Does this sound familiar? Sounds quite a bit like the mortgage-backed securities of the 2006-2008 era, doesn’t it? 

You remember those don’t you, the ones that nearly collapsed the entire world financial system? They famously featured some few AAA, AA, and A rated mortgages that were bundled with BBB and BB rated mortgages (which by the end of the subprime fiasco were as worthless as Bubbles’ counterfeit) and sold to unwitting pension funds as safe investments. Of course, Wall Street’s perpetrators were ultimately not held culpable for any of that mischief, whereas the consequences for Bubbles, and particularly his young protégé, are considerably more dire. 

Young Johnny is caught and beaten so severely that he is left relying on a colostomy bag. If only divine providence had visited that sort of retribution upon the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis.

In the penultimate season of the series, Bubbles partners with another young protégé from the streets, Jerrod, and the two operate a shopping cart mobile convenience store /peddling business he dubs “Bubbles Depot.” 

Personally, I see similarities between Bubbles growing his cart enterprise to Jeff Bezos and Amazon. The variable that comes into play in both cases is a reliant, time-pressed consumer base. 

Bubble’s business grows exponentially when he happens upon a rogue police-sanctioned open air drug market dubbed “Hamsterdam” featuring drug crews that cannot leave their location for fear of losing their spot to a rival crew, and thus are essentially stuck operating in place 24/7. They need T-shirts, socks, toilet paper, food, water and other supplies that they can’t go out and shop for. 

So, Bubbles has a captive clientele that needs him to bring the necessities of life directly to their front stoop. Similarly, even before the pandemic, the working poor in this country were well beyond the 40-hour work week and had ventured in some cases into the 70 or 80-plus hour a week range. As a result, they have little choice but to rely on the convenience offered by Mr. Bezos and Amazon. 

Although they might be cognizant of its deleterious effects on their wages, working conditions, and the health of manufacturing and retail industries, they are pressed by absolute need for convenience and lower prices. Just like the drug crews stuck within Hamsterdam need Bubbles, so too do America’s working poor need Bezos.

Bubbles is definitely more socially responsible and ethical in his worldview than Mr. Bezos in one vital way: he pays his taxes. After being arrested for shoplifting, he is told by the series lead McNulty that he is going to have to “pay taxes on this,” meaning that he is going to work off his debt to society by acting as a paid police informant. When his young friend Johnny tries to talk Bubbles out of it, he insists that everyone needs to pay their taxes. This is a life lesson and outlook that is most sorely needed by the 1%. 

In fact, I really must apologize to the fictional character of Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins for my unfair comparison of him to the rapacious capitalists currently wreaking havoc on our non-fictional reality. Bubbles’ victims are largely drug dealers, slumlords whose scrap metal he loots, city budgets that bear the brunt of pilfered medical supplies, and chain retail establishments whose goods he shoplifts. He never engages in any activity that particularly hurts working and struggling individuals. Certainly, he never holds employees to such a rigid time frame that they stroke out or can’t find time to urinate as they struggle to keep up with a pace designed to optimize profits.  

Bubbles’ excuse for his crimes is that he is addicted to cocaine and heroin. Our current capitalist operatives are likewise addicted; they are addicted to marshaling and leveraging their resources to accrue money that they haven’t worked to earn. 

By the end of The Wire, Bubbles has overcome his addictions and found redemption. But for Bezos, Musk, Gates, et al, it doesn’t seem as if anything short of pitchforks and torches followed up by several years of Cultural Revolution-style struggle sessions are going to lead them to similarly change their ways.

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