The Chickenshit Club

This was a very good book, telling the story of how the Department of Justice has lost its way in prosecuting white-collar crime. He begins with the story of Enron, and how the prosecutions took on and ultimately took down Arthur Anderson, one of the Big Five audit companies in America. While they were extremely culpable and even played a part in the fraud that Enron was putting on, the fact that it ultimately took down the entire company caused repercussions that are still echoing today.

Eisinger is an investigative reporter with ProPublica, and has done great work in researching and assembling the story. A large section of the book addresses why no major convictions took place following the financial crisis and Great Recession, and helped me understand better how white-collar investigations tend to work. He does call out quite a few good characters, those quixotic individuals who pursue corporate bad behavior in the name of keeping our democratic republic intact. They are truly heroic, eschewing $1M+ salaries in the private sector and working hard against large organizations with expensive lawyers designed to prevent their investigations. I’m reminded of the classic movie Tombstone, when Virgil — Wyatt Earp’s older brother — decides to become an officer of the law. He says ‘if we’re gonna have a future in this town, it’s gotta have some law and order!’ That’s how it feels reading this book; in order for capitalism to survive and avoid becoming infested with crime and unethical behavior, there has to be some fear of punishment in the case of wrongdoing. Today’s department appears unable to deliver on this need, and does cause worry about the future of the US.

Chronic underfunding, a change in legal precedent, an erosion of prosecutorial skills, a revolving door with the private sector and defense lawyers, and a lack of political will seem to have come together to weaken the ability of our justice officials to bring serious charges against an executive. As I said to my wife while reading this book — if I were a senior executive with a major firm, this book’s major lesson is that unethical and profitable behavior is my best course of action, because there will never be any prosecution of me as an individual. It’s terrible, of course, and I am horrified as a citizen, but that seems to be what the era of “big business” is bringing us. The book seems to have been finished prior to Trump’s election, but he edited the last 10–15 pages to add a further dour note about how we should expect more of the same in coming years, as nobody appointed to senior positions seems to have any interest in reining in bad actors; in fact, most big actions taken have further weakened laws to give companies more leeway, rather than taking them to task for breaching current laws. Eisinger is apolitical, as his book has devastating critiques of Obama officials as well as Bush/Trump appointees, which makes it more appealing. It makes it frustrating for Democrats, who would like to think they’re on the right side of this issue, while old-school Republicans are likely to disagree with the premise of the book (I have no idea where Trump Republicans would stand, as they’re both against government interference and want to take on the “rigged system;” shocker, there’s little coherent thought there). Overall, it is a well-researched book with notations, and balances the footnotes with storytelling. It is engaging enough to keep your interest, while giving the sense that it is fully based on facts. I’m happy to have read it, and would suggest it to anybody looking for a “what happened next” after the financial crisis.