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NONFICTION

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

By Matt Taibbi

Spiegel & Grau

412 pages, $27

By Jeff Miers

News Book Reviewer

For a country founded on the idea that rights are inalienable and inherent from birth,” Matt Taibbi writes in “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap,” “we’ve developed a high tolerance for conditional rights and conditional citizenship. And the one condition, it turns out, is money. If you have a lot of it, the legal road you get to travel is well-lit and beautifully maintained. If you don’t, it’s a dark alley and most Americans would be shocked to find out what’s at the end of it.”

It’s a statement that might seem to be overstating the obvious, on the surface at least. But through painstaking reporting – something that sets Taibbi apart from much of his peer pack – “The Divide” paints a portrait of an America at odds with what it purports to be its foundational beliefs.

Taibbi follows the path of several microcosmic case histories here, and the big payoff is delivered when these histories converge, revealing not just a society ruled by the 1 percent, but one where the very rule of law is allowed to be manipulated by the haves, while that same rule of law is applied indiscriminately to the have-nots.

In Taibbi’s view, the fact that illegalities fueled by corporate greed go unpunished while an institutionalized and aggressive abuse of the poor is accepted is not mere coincidence.

Taibbi’s starts “The Divide” with Wall Street, namely, the 2008 financial meltdown. The principal perpetrators of that collapse have by and large walked away from it sans prosecution.

The author cites as ground zero for what would become a national disgrace a 1999 memo written by Eric Holder, an official from Bill Clinton’s White House, which laid out the effects of what it called “collateral consequences.” By this, Holder meant the potential fallout from prosecution of “too big to fail” companies on the economy – specifically, “officers, directors, employees, and shareholders” from those corporations. The idea was simply this – it might not be worth it to prosecute these people, so let’s just slap them with massive financial penalties and civil sanctions instead.

In plain English, this reads, “No one will do any time for blanket financial indiscretions, despite the broader effect those indiscretions might have.” The fallout from the Wall Street scandal and subsequent collapse bears this notion out. These major financial indiscretions have largely gone unpunished.

Meanwhile, as Taibbi so thoroughly points out, the “little guy” is getting systematically screwed. Case studies conducted in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Riverside areas of Brooklyn, as well as Gainesville, Ga., reveal a complex web of immigration laws and what amounts to vigilant police harassment that has created a world where immigrants are afraid to go to work, lest they be pulled over and arrested for driving without the licences they are denied eligibility for, and low income African-Americans are afraid to linger outside of their buildings for fear of being swept up in routine police dragnets, tossed in vans and detained for hours, if not days.

These microcosmic examinations align to back up Taibbi’s macrocosmic thesis – that the massive gap in income has now produced an institutionalized disparity in the manner in which laws are applied.

Lest anyone cry foul, hiding behind the supposition that Taibbi is merely a liberal out to bash the right wing, where most of the money seems to reside, it should be noted that Taibbi shares his disgust in a bipartisan nature. He’s quick to point out that George W. Bush was tougher on corporate financial crime than Barack Obama has been, and that Obama’s record on deportation of immigrants over minor infractions is aggressive to the point of atrocity. (“Obama has broken all the deportation records,” Taibbi quotes Los Angeles attorney Victor Nieblas. “One million people (deported) in just a few years. Incredible.”)

In his work for Rolling Stone – the magazine he recently left in order to work on a new publication concentrating on financial corruption for First Look Media – Taibbi came across as a sober version of Hunter S. Thompson, and his writing was scathing, often profane, and occasionally eager to offend. That’s not the case with “The Divide,” which is a painstakingly reported tome that assembles facts and lets those facts speak for themselves.

Taibbi convincingly argues that there are now two Americas – one “well-lit and beautifully maintained,” the other a destitute “dark alley” littered with the detritus of bureaucratic fine print. He does so in an attitude that is not triumphant, but rather, tinged by moral outrage and peppered with disgust.

Implicit in all of this is the suggestion that, as the divide grows ever wider, a significant proportion of Americans remain oblivious to their reality, distracted by hot button issues – guns, same-sex marriage, the supposed socialism-run-amok that is ObamaCare. In a disturbing irony, it is often the poor who end up the most staunch defenders of the very institutionalized arrangement designed to keep them poor.

Taibbi is not here this time around to offer us hope. “The Divide” is less of a wake-up call then it is a painstakingly detailed rendering of a ship that has already sailed.

Jeff Miers is The News’ pop music critic.