As income disparities have continued to increase in the United States, the disparity between punishments meted out to so-called institutional players and individuals in the U.S. has also been a distinguishing disparity of the 21st Century. In the wake of the economic recession which struck the U.S. in 2008, “too big to fail” financial institutions were all but given a slap on the wrist that “undermines the public’s confidence in our institutions and in the [principle] that the law is applied equally in all cases. “
While U.S. financial institutions put the global economy and U.S. national security at risk, these ‘institutional players’ walked away from the recession with a few bruises and a renewed sense of their own fundamental importance. Edward Snowden, on the other hand, also undermined U.S. national security (according to some) by releasing confidential National Security Agency (NSA) documents to various journalists and media outlets. Snowden, however, faces up to 30 years in prison, hardly a slap on the wrist.
Although a less significant example, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent refusal to increase the fines levied against Virginia Tech following the April 16, 2007 campus shooting to a mere $27,500 represents another case of an institutional player walking away from violations of the law (i.e., the Clery Act) as well as its own policy for issuing warnings regarding threats on campus.
After the Department of Education initially imposed a $27,500 fine for the violations, Judge Ernest Canellos reduced to the fine to $5,000, citing inconsistency in penalizing similar violations of the law. Arne Duncan then refused to reimpose the original $27,500 fine after being asked by his own department.
Not only is $27,500 a drop in the bucket to a big name school like Virginia Tech, more significantly the $27,500 fine was a symbol of the U.S. government’s ability and willingness to hold institutional players fully responsible for their actions (or inactions). What Duncan’s decision has once again re-ingrained in the minds of leaders of institutions such as universities is that their actions are not subject to the same (and stricter) laws that individuals in the U.S. are subject to. In effect, then, a legal divide has also grown more visible between institutional players in the U.S. and the individual over the course of the 21st Century.
While public opinion has waxed and waned on how and when the U.S. will lose its position as the global superpower (e.g., China), the irony is that the U.S. is doing more to harm itself by creating multiple social and economic divides than almost any external factor could hope to do over the short term. The power of the U.S. does not have to recede, but it will as long as the U.S. remains divided against itself.