OPINION
Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Appliances on the blink

The feeling is current among us that the tacit principles of cheating, abusing, fixing are inherent fixtures of economic reality

Like most of you, I possess a variety of appliances and gadgets. Great is my satisfaction with them. Some are almost as old as I am. A vintage microwave oven and an oldish computer are vestiges of the pre-modern electronic era. When they go on the blink, rather than junk them, I have them fixed if at all possible. Can you feel fondness for a dishwasher, a fax, an electric shaver or a record player? Yes, you can. I'm the proof.

Imagine my dismay on finding that the firms Philips, LG, Panasonic, Toshiba and Samsung had been found guilty of collusion, that is, of "fixing the market for cathode ray tubes" - a component that, while I am not exactly sure what it does, must be in several of my pet gadgets. Executives of these firms, it seems, were getting together now and then in top hotels and working out what prices they would charge for these tubes, to make them more expensive than they would be otherwise, and to carve up the pie of quotas and markets.

This had been going on for at least a decade. These practices having being ratted on by a "repentant" executive (no doubt as a plea bargain, under the shadow of some other offense) and the European Commission has jointly imposed a fine of 1.47 billion euros on the firms. A lot of money. But is it a lot for them?

The feeling is current among us that such crime forms part of everyday life, that the tacit principles of cheating, abusing, fixing (always with white gloves on, because violent crime, like prison, is a thing for the lower classes) are inherent fixtures of economic reality. Everyone does it; only a few get caught. Indeed, the foundation of the system is a game of chance, justice being a sort of roulette wheel. And if the ball stops on your number?

The swindler, if detected by the law, merely reaches into his pocket and pays up. Seldom does he really pay for his crime

A fine, a plea bargain - in short, a deal. So, too, with the illegal financing of a political party, a generous tip being pocketed by the intermediary, percentages skimmed off by mayors and councilors. Public money used for private expenses, large sums channeled into accounts in Switzerland or the Caribbean. These are the underpinnings of a system that is routinely and emphatically denied in public, yet anchor the status quo in a stable state.

On top of these underpinnings is the body social, increasingly split between strong and weak. The swindler, if detected by the law, merely reaches into his pocket and pays up. Seldom does he really pay for his crime: he coughs up the small change of a fine, an eventuality for which he has long been piling up reserves. We see no corrupt or incautious bankers in prison, in spite of the huge harm they have done to millions of citizens; nor barely any crooked politician, of any party, in jail either.

On the other hand, the petty criminal, or the man who, having lost his job, cannot pay the bank, or the municipal taxes that grow and grow, will have to answer with everything he has, and will be dispossessed, humiliated and brought to trial with amazing speed - amazing, that is, to those accustomed to watching how legal processes against the powerful can be dragged out for years by high-priced legal counsel, generally until the statute of limitations that applies to their crimes has run out.

The political and legal appliances we have invented to supply our society with justice are clearly on the blink.

In Greece - the ancient cradle of civilization, etc. etc. - some of the people who have done most to cause the country's bankruptcy and are all-too obviously immune to punishment by the law, have lately been finding homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails placed in their way. This is not good news. In fact, it isn't even news at all. It was predictable, to be expected. Are we to lose all hope?

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