Skip to main content

Why are the billionaires always laughing?

Because they know the corporate media will never call bullshit on their bullshit.

Why are the billionaires laughing?

It’s easy to laugh when the corporate press treats you as a glorious success instead of the epitome of a broken social order. Billionaires laugh because they know the corporate media prefers to fawn over them rather than hold them to account.

Today, we ask you to support our nonprofit, independent journalism because we are not impressed by billionaires flying into space, their corporations despoiling our health and planet, or their vast fortunes safely concealed in tax havens across the globe. We are not laughing.

We are hard at work producing journalism for the common good. With our Fall Campaign underway, please support this mission today. We cannot do it without you.

Support Our Work -- Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Every donation—large or small—helps us bring you the news that matters.

‘Across the country, cash-hungry courts squeeze money in the form of fines and fees from the very citizens who can least afford them.’ (Photo: Kyle Green/AP)

Want Police Reform? Charge Rich People More for Speeding Tickets

Municipal coffers are being filled by fining those who can least afford it. If fees were tied to wealth, that calculus would shift

Astra Taylor

 by The Guardian

Soon after the horrific video of Minneapolis-St Paul resident Philando Castile being killed by a cop during a routine traffic stop was broadcast live over Facebook, evidence of just how “routine” the stop actually was also became public.

Castile, it turned out, had been pulled over at least 52 times in 13 years for a variety of minor infractions – a broken seat belt, an unlit license plate, tinted windows, a missing muffler – or what his mother called “driving while black”.

Across the country, cash-strapped courts squeeze money in the form of fines and fees from the very citizens who can least afford them. Over the course of those 13 years, Castile was charged over $6,500. And too often, when people can’t pay, they wind up jail – sometimes for fines associated with things as trivial as a missing trash can lid or illegally parking – which is why advocates now talk about the “criminalization of poverty” and the return of “debtors’ prisons”.

Municipal budgets are overly reliant on petty infraction penalties because affluent, mostly white citizens have been engaged in a “tax revolt” for decades, lobbying for lower rates and special treatment.

This cycle has to be broken.

Some civic-minded lawyers are successfully bringing class-action suits in various states to halt unfair practices at the municipal level, including excess fines and fees and the use of for-profit probation services, while also arguing that jailing debtors is unconstitutional. As a consequence of these efforts, Jennings, Missouri recently settled to pay nearly $5m to 2,000 citizens who were locked up for unpaid court debts.

But in addition to lawsuits to help protect the poor, the rich must start pulling their weight. We need to fine people more the richer they are – penalties should be proportionate to income, not flat-rate. After all, a $200 sanction means a hell of a lot more to a single parent making minimum wage than to an executive raking in a six- or seven-figure income. Maybe the former should pay only $20, the latter $2,000 or even $20,000.

That’s how many other countries do it. Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and France all have some form of sliding-scale fines in place for offenses ranging from traffic tickets to petty theft and assault.

Every few years, there are news stories reporting on exotic, exorbitant European speeding tickets. There was the Finnish businessman who was hit with one for €54,024 (about $60,000) last spring for driving 64mph in a 50mph zone, or the Ferrari-driving Swiss repeat offender who made headlines with a record fine of £182,000 (about $237,000). Such colossal fines are rare, but penalties calculated according to earnings are commonplace.

“This is a Nordic tradition,” a Finnish government adviser told the Wall Street Journal over a decade ago, explaining principles that have been in place since the 1920s. “We have progressive taxation and progressive punishments. So the more you earn, the more you pay.”

In the US, we still have progressive taxation, at least until Ted Cruz gets his way and institutes a flat tax. Now we need progressive punishment to match. Back in the 80s the National Institute of Justice supported pilot programs involving sliding-scale fines in Staten Island and Milwaukee. The idea didn’t catch on, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the results were promising (in Milwaukee overall revenue went down, pegged as it was to mostly low-income defendants’ ability to pay; in Staten Island, a combination of proportional fines and new collection practices led to a fewer arrest warrants related to nonpayment). But today, thanks to the effective work of the Black Lives Matter movement, the public is far more aware – and outraged – about the inequities of criminal justice system and may be more open to new approaches.

Some might object that progressive punishment would lead to police unfairly targeting the wealthy. One can imagine officers lying in wait for a juicy Porsche or Tesla to race by (which might actually be a boon to public safety, since studies have linked bad driving and increased wealth).

But such an image belittles the reality many communities of color and low-income people already face. A recent ACLU report on policing in Castile’s home of Minneapolis found that black people are 8.7 times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for low-level offenses. Or, as NYPD officer Derick Waller told NBC this spring, comparing arrest quotas to bounty hunting: “The problem is when you go hunting, when you pull any type of numbers for a police officer to perform, we are gonna go to the most vulnerable. We’re gonna go to the LGBT community, we’re gonna go to the black community.”

Progressive punishment isn’t a universal panacea and won’t fix the complex issues of mass incarceration or entrenched racism. But if combined with other smart policies – increasing income and property taxes in some places, reining in ticketing more generally, eliminating debtors’ prisons, ending for-profit policing, creating real community oversight and so on – it could be part of the solution to some of the problems recent tragedies have exposed.

Making it possible to issue bigger tickets for people at the top of the income hierarchy might shift police incentives and help end the government-led shakedown of the poor that is currently ruining – and ending – lives.

This piece was supported by Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

© 2020 The Guardian
Astra Taylor

Astra Taylor

Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker (including Zizek! and Examined Life,) and activist. She is the author of "The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age."  She also helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

New York Taxi Workers Stage Hunger Strike to Demand Medallion Debt Relief

"They are an essential industry here in New York City," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, "and we need to make sure we're doing right by them."

Julia Conley ·

'It's Not Coming Out': Bernie Sanders Stands Firm on Medicare Expansion

"It's what the American people want and, after waiting over 50 years, what they are going to get."

Julia Conley ·

'When We Organize, We Win': Ocasio-Cortez Joins India Walton at Rally in Buffalo

The two progressives joined striking hospital workers on the picket line at Mercy Hospital after the early voting rally.

Julia Conley ·

Fatal Film Set Shooting Followed Outcry by Union Crew Members Over Safety Protocols

"When union members walk off a set about safety concerns, maybe 'hiring scabs' isn’t the solution you think it is."

Julia Conley ·

New Whistleblower Sparks Calls to 'Crack Down on Facebook and All Big Tech Companies'

Hours after another ex-employee filed a formal complaint, reporting broke on internal documents that show the tech giant's failure to address concerns about content related to the 2020 U.S. election.

Jessica Corbett ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo