A Philosopher's Blog

Wells Fargo & Financial Crimes

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2016

The venerable Wells Fargo bank made the news in 2016 for financial misdeeds on a massive scale. Employees of the company, in an effort to meet the quotas set by management, had created numerous accounts without the permission of the clients. In response over 5,300 lower level employees were fired. Initially, CEO John Stumpf and former head of retail banking Carrie Tolstedt were to keep their rather sizable compensation for leading the company to a great financial “success” based on this fraud. However, backlash from the public and the shareholders has resulted in Stumpf and Carrie losing some of their financial compensation.

As would be expected, there are currently no plans for criminal charges of the sort that could result in jail time. This is consistent with how financial misdeeds by the elites are typically handled: some fines and, at worst, some forfeiture of ill-gotten gains. While I do not generally agree with Trump, he is not wrong when he points out that the system is rigged in favor of the elites and against the common people. The fact that Trump is one of the elite and has used the system quite effectively does not prove him wrong (that would be fallacious reasoning); rather he himself serves as more evidence for the rigging. Those who loath Hillary Clinton can also add their own favorite examples.

It is instructive to compare the punishment for other misdeeds to those imposed on Wells Fargo. Shoplifting is usually seem as a fairly minor crime,  but a person who shoplifts property with a combined value of less than $300 can pay a fine up to $1000 or be sentenced to up to a year in jail. Shoplifting property with a combined value over $300 is a felony and can result in a sentence between one and ten years in jail. While Wells Fargo did not seem to directly steal money (that is, it did not simply empty accounts into its own coffers), it did rob people through the use of fees and other charges that arose from the creation of these unauthorized accounts.

While there are clearly differences between the direct theft of shoplifting and the indirect robbery of imposing charges on unauthorized accounts, there seems to be little moral distinction: after all, both are means of robbing someone of their rightful property.  Because of this, there would appear to be a need to revise the penalties so that they are properly proportional.

One option is to bring the punishment for major financial misdeeds in line with the punishment for shoplifting. This would involve changing the fine for financial misdeeds from being a fraction of the profits (or damages) of the misdeeds to a multiple of the profits (perhaps three or more times greater). It could be argued that such a harsh penalty could financial ruin an elite who lacked adequate assets to pay for their misdeed; however, the exact same argument can be advanced for poor shoplifters.

Another option is to bring the punishments for shoplifting in line with the punishments for the financial elites. This would change the fine for shoplifting from likely being in excess of the value of what was stolen to a fraction of what was stolen (if that). The obvious objection to this proposal is that if shoplifters knew that their punishment would be to pay a fraction of the value they had stolen, then this punishment would have no deterrent value. Shoplifting would be, in effect, shopping at a significant discount. It is thus hardly shocking that the financial elite are generally not deterred by the present system of punishment—they come out way ahead if they do not get caught and can still do very well even if they are caught.

It could be objected that the financial elite would be deterred on the grounds that they would still be better off using legal means to profit. That way they would keep 100% of their gain rather than a fraction. The easy and obvious reply is that this deterrent value is contingent on the elite believing that the legal approach would be more profitable than the illegal approach (with due consideration to the chance of getting caught and fined). Since the punishment is often a fraction of the gain and the potential gain from misdeeds can be huge, this approach to punishment has far less deterrent value than a punishment in which the punished comes out at a loss rather than a gain.

It is also interesting to compare the punishment for identity theft and fraud with the punishment of Wells Fargo. Conviction of identity theft can result in a sentence of one to seven years. Fraud charges also have sentences that range from one to ten years and beyond. While some do emphasize that Wells Fargo was not engaged in traditional identity theft was morally similar. As an example of traditional identity theft, a thief steals a person’s identity and gets a credit card under that name to use for their own gain. What Wells Fargo did was open accounts in people’s names without their permission so that the company could profit from this misuse of their identity. As such, the company was stealing from these people and doing them the same sorts of harms inflicted by individuals engaging in identity theft.

From a moral standpoint, those involved in these actions should face the same criminal charges and potential punishments that individuals acting on their own would face. This is morally required for consistency. Obviously enough, the laws are not consistent—the misdeeds of the elite and corporations are so often punished lightly or not at all. This is nothing new—the history of law is also the history of its unfair application. The injustice of justice, one might say.  However, this approach is problematic.

Looked at from a certain moral perspective, the degree to which I am obligated to accept punishment for my misdeeds is proportional to the consistency and fairness of the system of justice. If others are able to walk away from the consequences of their misdeeds or enjoy light punishments for misdeeds that would result in harsh penalties for me, then I have little moral reason to willingly accept any punishments that might be inflicted on me. Naturally, the state has the power to inflict its punishments whether I accept them or not, but it seems important to a system of justice that the citizens accept the moral legitimacy of the punishment.

To use an analogy, imagine a professor who ran their class like the justice system is run. If an elite student cheated and got an initial grade of 100, they might be punished by having the grade docked to an 80 if caught. In contrast, the common students would be failed and sent before the academic misconduct board for such a misdeed. The common students who cheated would be right to rebel against this system and refuse to accept such punishments—though they did wrong, justice without consistency is but a mockery of real justice.

In light of this discussion, Wells Fargo is yet another shining example of the inherent injustice and inequality in the legal system. If we wish to have a just system of justice, these disparities must be addressed. These disparities also warrant moral disobedience in the face of punishment. Why should, morally, a shoplifter accept a fine that vastly exceeds what they stole when a financial elite can pay but a fraction of their theft and profit well from their misdeeds?


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 30, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Don’t worry professor. All sorts of poor, violent, repeat offenders are roaming the streets of our cities…

    Police Union frustrated by repeat offenders back on the streets

    Omaha police arrested four bank robbery suspects after a manhunt in northwest Omaha last Friday. But the Omaha Police Association said officers are frustrated; all of the suspects have been arrested before, some multiple times… The Omaha Police Association says they believe they are arresting the same people over and over again…” Read more: Police Union frustrated by repeat offenders back on the streets http://www.wowt.com/content/news/Police-union-frustrated-by-repeat-offenders-back-on-the-streets-393469741.html

    Wanted man arrested 74 times but charges have always reduced to misdemeanors or dropped: https://youtu.be/sVsva74o0Ww

    Fugitive Arrested 74 Times Captured In Nashville: https://youtu.be/VTIyKo2V9gw

    Outgoing police chief decries District’s ‘broken’ criminal justice system

    “D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier leaves her post in two weeks with high popularity and crime down over her tenure but frustrated by a system that she said allows repeat violent offenders back on the street time after time…” Continue reading: Outgoing police chief decries District’s ‘broken’ criminal justice system http://wpo.st/zdbw1

    Court records reveal new details from July 4 Metro stabbing

    “Spires threw Sutherland’s cellphone at the dying man and then walked away. But he returned and stomped on Sutherland’s body, according to one witness. Another passenger tells police that Spires kicked the dying man.

    “Witnesses say Spires robbed two other passengers before leaving the train at the NoMa-Gallaudet Station, where he was seen dropping a black bag.

    “Inside the bag, police say they found a bloody cloth and an insurance card with Spires’ name on it. Police also found the knife they believe Spires used in the attack in a trash can at the station.

    “Spires had been arrested just two days earlier in Friendship Heights on charges of robbery and assaulting a police officer…” Read more: Court records reveal new details from July 4 Metro stabbing http://wtop.com/dc/2015/07/court-records-reveal-new-details-from-july-4-metro-stabbing/

    Metro murder suspect in court https://youtu.be/Dm810qbp0Js

    • ronster12012 said, on October 1, 2016 at 12:18 am

      He was a good boy, dindu nuffin, was turning his life around, was a victim of waycism……..

  2. TJB said, on September 30, 2016 at 9:14 am

    Marc Rich was unavailable for comment.

  3. ronster12012 said, on October 1, 2016 at 12:35 am

    Your government is basically saying that you have a two tier legal system. A protected class and all the rest,
    No surprises there since Comey(and Lynch) showed that the FBI/DOJ were corrupt….

    • TJB said, on October 1, 2016 at 1:03 am

      First time in my life I started thinking the U.S. Is a banana republic.

      • ronster12012 said, on October 1, 2016 at 7:46 am

        If it is any consolation, you are not alone Many western countries have been infiltrated and hijacked by the usual suspects….

  4. david halbstein said, on October 1, 2016 at 8:37 am

    “Those who loath Hillary Clinton can also add their own favorite examples”

    Sort of the problem, isn’t it? Real justice takes a back seat to politics and greed.

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 22, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Arrests in Baltimore for illegal guns often lead to dropped charges or little jail time

    “As Baltimore police and prosecutors race to tamp down a sustained spike in violence, many of the charges against people caught with illegal guns aren’t sticking, or defendants are only jailed for a fraction of their sentence. About one-quarter of such gun cases are dropped before defendants go to trial, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis. Even when convicted of illegally possessing a firearm, prosecutors say defendants are sentenced, on average, to 16 months in jail with a substantial portion of their sentences suspended… Continue reading: Arrests in Baltimore for illegal guns often lead to dropped charges or little jail time. http://fw.to/QireWCe

    • wtp said, on October 22, 2016 at 11:56 am

      And yet this from a couple years back, harassment of a law abiding citizen travelling through Maryland WITHOUT a gun. Granted, not prosecuted because of course no crime, however the enthusiasm for gun control of law abiding citizens relative to the lack of will to enforce reasonable gun laws written to address the actual problem of criminals with guns.

      A year ago this New Year’s Eve, John Filippidis of Florida was driving south with his family on Interstate 95 when the Maryland Transportation Authority Police pulled over his black Ford Expedition and proceeded to raid it while his twins, wife and daughter looked on — separated in the back seats of different police cruisers.
      The officers were searching for Mr. Filippidis‘ Florida-licensed, palm-size Kel-Tec .38 semi-automatic handgun, which he left at home locked in his safe. (Maryland does not recognize handgun permits issued by other states.)
      When the search turned up nothing, Mr. Filippidis, 51, was allowed to go and was issued only a speeding warning.

      The incident gained national attention. Mr. Filippidis went on multiple radio programs and described in detail how scared and outraged he and his family were. He wondered: How did the police know he was licensed for concealed carry, and what right did they have to search through his personal items on the side of the busy interstate filled with holiday travelers on that 10-degree day?
      “My wife’s hysterical, shaking and crying,” Mr. Filippidis recalled in an interview with The Washington Times. “I don’t have a criminal record. I own a business. I’m a family man, and I tried to explain that to [the officer]. But he had a bad attitude, didn’t want to hear my story. He just wanted to find that gun and take me away from my family. That was his goal, but he couldn’t do it, because I didn’t have a gun, like I told him.”
      Mr. Filippidis‘ case earned the support of Second Amendment advocates and subsequent apologies from the MDTA. But an internal police review concluded his stop and search were lawful and did not violate police protocols.


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