Michael Clayton and Big Dirty Money (with Jennifer Taub)
Why do white collar criminals so rarely go to prison, like they do in the movies?
THE FILM Michael Clayton concerns a fixer at a ruthless New York law firm who recovers his conscience. That firm, Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen, represents U-North, a Monsanto-ish agricultural conglomerate, which manufactures a toxic-to-humans weed killer. When the eponymous Clayton finds out that the U-North general counsel, Karen Crowder, was involved in the murder of a Kenner, Bach attorney who went off the rails, he decides to nail these homicidal scumbags.
In the climactic scene—WHICH I’M ABOUT TO SPOIL, so if you haven’t seen Michael Clayton, please skip to the end of this piece—Clayton, wearing a wire, gets Crowder to make him an offer to pay for his silence. Set in the hallway outside the ballroom of some monstrous hotel, the scene is terrific, featuring George Clooney and Tilda Swinton at the peak of their powers, reading some A+ dialogue by writer/director Tony Gilroy:
Do you have a number?
Ten. Ten is the number.
Ten what? Ten million? Where do you think I’m going to get ten million dollars?
You know what’s great about this? Did you read it? All the way to the end? Did you see who signed it? Let’s go into that ballroom and ask [U-North CEO] Don Jeffries if he wants to pass the hat for a worthy cause.
There is some back-and-forth. Clooney looks like a stone-cold killer. Swinton looks like she’s on the brink of tears.
Ten million dollars. Bank of my choosing. Offshore. Immediately.
Ten million dollars. Your account. The moment this meeting is over.
Then Jeffries, the U-North CEO who is basically Evil Incarnate, appears from the ballroom.
Karen! Everyone’s waiting!
I’m coming, Don. [to Clayton] You have a deal.
You’re so fucked.
What do you mean?
Take a wild guess.
Then some plainclothes police show up. Jeffries, the fat-cat CEO, assumes they are there to remove the interloping Clayton, whom he has never seen before. Instead, they begin to make the arrests of him and Karen Crowder, who has fallen to the floor, in the throes of a full-on panic attack. “Who are you?” Jeffries asks. To which Clayton replies:
I’m Shiva, the God of Death.
I have watched this scene approximately 50 times this week.1 It’s so enormously satisfying. But while Michael Clayton is presented as a true-to-life film—there are no wizards casting spells, no scientists turning into green steroidal lummoxes, no tuxedo’d secret agents parkouring about the rooftops of some distant European capital—it is, practically, about as realistic as WandaVision.
In real life, the corporate counsel at an earth-raping, cancer-spreading agricultural conglomerate would not suffer from panic attacks. She’d be more like Helen in Ozark, unrattleable.
In real life, a whistleblower like Michael Clayton would be the one getting arrested—and then sued into oblivion for breaking his NDA. For a bracing dose of reality, look at what’s happened to Michael Cohen, the Trumpland version of Michael Clayton, since his indictment. He’s done more in the service of good since then than the actively evil Roger Stone or patently seditious Mike Flynn, but that didn’t stop him from going to the hoosegow or those two from walking.
Most importantly, in real life, U-North would not be held accountable. At most, the corporation would have to cough up some dough to make its problem go away. Certainly the CEO would never be charged, would never go to jail, no matter how many kids died from ingesting his weed killer, no matter how many off-his-meds attorneys he quietly had snuffed. What’s the death toll up to for the drug-dealing Sackler family? I must have missed the story about when they all got arrested.
In short, the climax of Michael Clayton has as much basis in reality as the climax of Avengers: Endgame. We enjoy both, true, because in both, good triumphs over evil. We like to think this is what always happens—that good always prevails. But too often, it does not.
The legal scholar and advocate Jennifer Taub, this week’s podcast guest, wrote Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime, in part to answer a question she was asked when her book about the 2008 financial crisis, Other People’s Houses, came out: why did none of the culprits of that economic atrocity go to prison? This is a fantastic book that goes into the history of white collar crime, defines it, and suggests solutions for how to better combat it. The paperback edition, I’m told, drops in June. I highly recommend it.
One of the many interesting points Taub makes during our discussion concerns public opinion about white collar crime. We can all remember a time, she says, when we didn’t have to wear masks, because it’s so recent. We can remember a time, pre-Trump, when the government functioned properly (as it now does under Joe Biden). We cannot remember a time when white collar criminals got busted routinely and went to prison. The popular perception, based in reality, is that these scofflaws get away with it. That the very rich and powerful are above the law.
In Wednesday’s address, President Biden touched on this, when talking about how to finance his ambitious plans:
A recent study shows that 55 of the nation’s biggest corporations paid zero in federal income tax last year. No federal taxes on more than $40 billion in profits. A lot of companies evade taxes through tax havens from Switzerland to Bermuda to the Cayman Islands. And they benefit from tax loopholes and deductions that allow for offshoring jobs and shifting profits overseas. That’s not right.
We’re going to reform corporate taxes so they pay their fair share—and help pay for the public investments their businesses will benefit from. And, we’re going to reward work, not wealth…
We’re going to get rid of the loopholes that allow Americans who make more than $1 million a year pay a lower rate on their capital gains than working Americans pay on their work. This will only affect three tenths of 1% of all Americans. And the IRS will crack down on millionaires and billionaires who cheat on their taxes. That’s estimated to be billions of dollars.
To which I say, bring it. To the corrupt and the criminal, the cheats and the frauds, let We the People be Shiva, the God of Death.
Description: Greg Olear is joined by Jennifer Taub, author of Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime. They discuss tax fraud, shady lawyers, police reform, Biden’s 100 days, and the stuff on the shelves in their respective offices. Plus: spoken word artist Rich Ferguson, and a second spot from our Jersey sponsor, the Bank of the Badda Bing.
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Photo credit: 1/ Tilda Swinton and George Clooney in Michael Clayton. 2/ A still shot from the recording of the podcast, where Jen Taub shows her book. (When you listen, it will become clear why I’m posting this, even though my face is so bleached out it looks like a full moon.)
It’s streaming on HBO MAX.