Subject: Excerpt: Matt Taibbi on "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap"
Over the course of the last twenty years or so, America has
been falling deeper and deeper into a bizarre statistical mystery.
Take in the following three pieces of information, and see if
you can make them fit together.
First, violent crime has been dropping precipitously for nearly
two decades. At its peak in 1991, according to FBI data, there
were 758 violent crimes per 100,000 people. By 2010 that
number had plunged to 425 crimes per 100,000, a drop of
more than 44 percent.
The decrease covered all varieties of serious crime, from
murder to assault to rape to armed robbery. The graphs
depicting the decline show a long, steady downswing, one that
doesn’t jump from year to year but consistently slumps from
year to year.
Second: although poverty rates largely declined during the
1990s, offering at least one possible explanation for the drop in
violent crime, poverty rates rose sharply during the 2000s. At
the start of that decade, poverty levels hovered just above
10 percent. By 2008 they were up to 13.2 percent. By 2009 the
number was 14.3 percent. By 2010, 15.3 percent.
All this squares with what most people who lived in Middle
America knew, and know, instinctively. Despite what we’re
being told about a post-2008 recovery, despite what the rising
stock market seems to indicate, the economy is mostly worse,
real incomes are mostly declining, and money is mostly
But throughout all this time, violent crime has gone down. It
continues to decline today. Counter intuitively, more poverty has not created more crime.
The third piece of information that makes no sense is that
during this same period of time, the prison population in
America has exploded. In 1991 there were about one million
Americans behind bars. By 2012 the number was over
2.2 million, a more than 100 percent increase.
Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the
history of human civilization. There are more people in the
United States either on parole or in jail today (around 6 million total) than there ever were at any time in Stalin’s gulags. For what it’s worth, there are also more black men in jail right now than there were in slavery at its peak.
See if this syllogism works, then.
Poverty goes up;
Crime goes down;
Prison population doubles.
It doesn’t fit, unless some sort of alternative explanation comes
into play. Maybe all those new nonviolent prisoners fit into
some new national policy imperative. Maybe they all broke
some new set of unwritten societal rules. But what?
While on a visit to San Diego to do research for this book, I
heard a crazy story. The subject was the city’s P100 program, under which anyone who applied for welfare could have his or her home searched preemptively by the state. Ostensibly, authorities
were looking for evidence that the applicant had a secret job or
a boyfriend who could pay bills, or was just generally lying
about something in order to cheat the taxpayer out of that
miserable few hundred bucks a month.
One Vietnamese woman, a refugee and a rape victim who
had only recently come to America, applied for welfare in San
Diego. An inspector came to her door, barged in, and began
rifling through her belongings. At one point, he reached into her
underwear drawer and began sifting around. Sneering, he used
the tip of the pencil eraser to pull out a pair of sexy panties and
looked at her accusingly. If she didn’t have a boyfriend, what
did she need these for?
That image, of a welfare inspector sneeringly holding up
panties with a pencil end, expresses all sorts of things at once.
The main thing is contempt. The implication is that someone
broke enough to ask the taxpayer for a handout shouldn’t have
sex, much less sexy panties.
The other thing here is an idea that being that poor means
you should naturally give up any ideas you might have about
privacy or dignity. The welfare applicant is less of a person for
being financially dependent (and a generally unwelcome
immigrant from a poor country to boot), so she naturally has
No matter how offensive the image is, it has a weird logic
that’s irresistible to many if not most Americans. Even if we
don’t agree with it, we all get it.
And that’s the interesting part, the part where we all get it.
More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who
is entitled to what rights, and who is not. It’s not as simple as
saying everyone is the same under the law anymore. We all
know there’s another layer to it now.
As a very young man, I studied the Russian language in
Leningrad, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. One of the
first things I noticed about that dysfunctional wreck of a lunatic
country was that it had two sets of laws, one written and one
unwritten. The written laws were meaningless, unless you
violated one of the unwritten laws, at which point they became
So, for instance, possessing dollars or any kind of hard
currency was technically forbidden, yet I never met a Soviet
citizen who didn’t have them. The state just happened to be
very selective about enforcing its anticommerce laws. So the
teenage farsovshik (black market trader) who sold rabbit hats in
exchange for blue jeans outside my dorm could be arrested for
having three dollars in his pocket, but a city official could openly
walk down Nevsky Avenue with a brand-new Savile Row suit
on his back, and nothing would happen.
Everyone understood this hypocrisy implicitly, almost at a
cellular level, far beneath thought. For a Russian in Soviet
times, navigating every moment of citizenship involved
countless silent calculations of this type. But the instant people
were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten
rules out loud, it was like the whole country woke up from a
dream, and the system fell apart in a matter of months. That
happened before my eyes in 1990 and 1991, and I never forgot
Now I feel like I’m living that process in reverse, watching my
own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets
once woke up from one. People are beginning to become
disturbingly comfortable with a kind of official hypocrisy.
Bizarrely, for instance, we’ve become numb to the idea that
rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.
CREDIT LINE: Excerpted from THE DIVIDE: American Injustice in
the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi. Copyright © 2014