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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Inequality

JPMorgan Chase Tower

Exciting news from Wall Street: Our wealth markets are booming!

For the 15th month in a row, everything from the Dow Jones Average to gold prices to bank stocks are rocketing to new records, showering us with wealth from above. Oh ... wait. Maybe you're one of the majority of workaday Americans who don't own stocks or gold, so maybe you're not celebrating Wall Street's big boom. But just chill, because conventional corporate wisdom assures us that the wealthy will invest their good fortunes in enterprises that someday, somewhere will create jobs and eventually will produce trickle-down gains for everyone.

Excuse me for rudeness, but let's take a peek at how those who're reaping today's big-buck bonanza are actually investing that wealth. Surprise — they're largely putting the increase into schemes that further benefit them ... not you!

Consider Wall Streeters themselves. While workers, Main Street businesses, poverty groups, et al. have been knocked down during the past several months, the big banks have been making money like ... well, like bankers. Just since this January, their stock prices have zoomed up by 28 percent. So, how are these moneyed elites spending this windfall? Not by making job-creating investments, but by simply giving the money to their own shareholders, including their own top executives — nearly all of whom are already among the richest people on Earth.

The main way they do this is through a sleight of hand called a "stock buyback." The honchos simply cash out the bulk of that 28 percent increase in the value of the banks' stock price, using that money to repurchase their banks' own stock from lesser shareholders. Hocus-pocus, this manipulation artificially pumps up the value of the stock these insider shareholders already own — making each of them even richer than rich, although they've done absolutely nothing to earn this increased wealth.

It's not a small scam. JPMorgan Chase is now sinking $30 billion into buying its own stock. Wells Fargo is shifting $18 billion into the scheme, and Bank of America is throwing $25 billion into its buyback. Hello — Wall Street bankers are the biggest robbers in America.

Most people believe the American economy is being rigged by and for big bankers, CEOs, and other superrich elites, because ... well, because it is!

With their hired armies of lawmakers, lobbyists, lawyers and the like, they fix the economic rules so ever more of society's money and power flow uphill, from us to them. Take corporate CEOs. While 2020 was somewhere between a downer and devastating for most people, the CEO class made out like bandits. Indeed, last year, the three top paid corporate honchos in America pocketed personal paychecks of $211 million, $414 million, and $1.1 billion.

Are they geniuses, superproducers or what? What. All three of their corporations ended 2020 with big financial losses and declining value, so how can such mediocrity produce such lavish rewards? Simple — rig the pay machine.

Today's corporate system of setting compensation for top executives is a flimflam disguised as a model of management rectitude. On its face, the system ties the chief's pay to the success of the business. "Pay for performance," it's called — the CEO does well if the company does well. Good theory!

But their trick is in narrowly defining "doing well" to exclude doing good — i.e., treating workers, consumers, the environment, et al. fairly. Thus, rewarding the Big Boss is rooted in nothing more substantial or productive than the sterile ethics of monetary selfishness.

Even implementing that shriveled ethical standard is a scam at most major corporations, because the standard of financial performance that the chief must meet to quality for a huge payday is set by each corporation's board of directors. Guess who they are? Commonly, board members are the CEO's hand-picked brothers-in-law, golfing buddies, and corporate cronies. So, they set the bar for winning multimillion-dollar executive paychecks so low that a sack of concrete could jump over it.

Well, insist these flimflammers, it's the corporate shareholders who are the ultimate stopgap against CEO greed. These "owners" can just vote "no" on any executive pay they consider excessive. Nice try, but even "shareholder democracy" is rigged — corporate rules decree that votes by shareholders are merely "advisory," meaning top executives can simply ignore them, grab the money and run. The system is fixed ... and we need to break it!

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com

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The Fourth of July is an occasion for the reading of the Declaration of Independence. But a better project might be the reading of the Constitution, a document that many Americans revere without fully understanding.

Among this group are many police officers, even though they take an oath to uphold it and are greatly affected by it in the course of their duties. One provision that sometimes gets short shrift is the Eighth Amendment, which says, "Excessive bail shall not be required."

That provision rests on the longstanding right of criminal defendants to be granted bail except when no amount would ensure their appearance in court — notably in capital cases. But for others, the right to be released before trial is implicit in the amendment. Denying bail, after all, has exactly the same effect as imposing excessive bail.

Some states, recognizing this fundamental liberty, have enacted laws ending the use of cash bail. The reason is that requiring a money payment leaves huge numbers of defendants languishing in jail not because they have been proven guilty or are deemed dangerous but because they are poor. The vast majority of them will show up in court without it, and judges can require electronic monitoring to make sure they do.

But bail reform has coincided with a spike in violent crime across the country, and some cops have said this is no coincidence. New York Police Commissioner Dermot Shea decried his state's changes as a "challenge to public safety." When Illinois enacted a law this year abolishing cash bail, the head of the Chicago police union said it had "just handed the keys to the criminals."

The evidence for the charge is skimpy. Violent crime surged last year even in places that didn't reform bail laws, which suggests something else — such as the pandemic or the economic shutdown or both — was the real cause. And overall crime in the United States fell in the first half of 2020, according to the FBI — which is not what you would expect if hordes of unrepentant criminals were streaming out of the jails.

The opponents of bail reform miss some major points. Bail isn't supposed to guarantee that no one accused of a crime will commit crimes while awaiting trial. It's inherent in bail that some defendants will do exactly that. The only way to prevent it is to lock them all up before the government has proven they did anything wrong.

"This traditional right to freedom before conviction permits the unhampered preparation of a defense, and serves to prevent the infliction of punishment prior to conviction," the Supreme Court said in 1951. "Unless this right to bail before trial is preserved, the presumption of innocence, secured only after centuries of struggle, would lose its meaning."

Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx understands this even if her detractors don't. In a videoconference Wednesday sponsored by the Illinois Justice Project, she noted that some people think defendants should be locked up even before being convicted.

"They missed the step in the middle, where we haven't actually gotten to a trial yet," she said pointedly. But "the presumption of innocence maintains with the accused until there's a finding of guilt."

The logic of those who oppose eliminating cash bail is that dangerous suspects shouldn't go free. But the only sure way to determine which ones are dangerous is to put them on trial. Besides, requiring monetary bonds doesn't keep the more dangerous defendants behind bars. It keeps the poorer ones behind bars.

Cash bail is a form of punishment that may actually generate more crime rather than less. Defendants who can't raise the money may lose jobs, homes, and custody of their children. Dooming these people to poverty and dislocation is not a formula for putting them on the straight and narrow.

In Illinois, as in many other states, judges may deny bond to defendants whom they find would pose a risk to public safety if set free. Getting rid of money bail doesn't prevent judges from simply denying bail to this select group. The right to bail is not unlimited.

But selling freedom only to those who can afford it is not a formula for fairness or safety. Our system of criminal law and justice rests on the presumption of innocence. The critics of bail reform prefer a presumption of guilt.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.