Audit Notes: too big to prosecute, the techno-utopian backlash

Attorney General Holder admits Wall Street gigantism deters Justice charges

Lanny Breuer all but admitted it, but his former boss Eric Holder went all the way yesterday, telling Congress the Justice Department can’t prosecute Wall Street banks because they’re too big to fail. The Hill:

“I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy,” he said. “And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large”…

“The concern that you have raised is one that I, frankly, share,” he said, adding that ultimately the best deterrent would be if they could bring charges against individuals instead of companies.

He started off well, at least. Then it was back to the same old baloney:

However, he also added that all of the bad behavior on Wall Street leading up to the crisis may not necessarily have been criminal and that his criminal team has been “as aggressive as they could be.”

Holder is backing himself into the old fraud-without-fraudsters corner. He implies that he would have criminally prosecuted banks had they not been too big to fail, but he can’t find any individuals who actually worked at the banks to prosecute.

Regardless, in a sane political system, Holder’s admission would be a turning point in breaking up the TBTF banks, who are so threatening that the Attorney General deems them unchargeable.

Needless to say, it won’t be.

— In techno-utopia backlash news, Colin McGinn shreds the futurist and Google guy Ray Kurzweil in The New York Review of Books.

Kurzweil is the guy who has helped popularize the notion of the Singularity, a notion essentially posits that sentient computers will overtake humanity in the next three decades. You can tell from his book title alone that this is a guy with some kind of ego: How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.

McGinn punctures it, noting that Kurzweil’s thesis that the mind is just a pattern recognition machine is fallacious:

When I am thinking about London while in Miami I am not recognizing any presented stimulus as London—since I am not perceiving London with my senses. There is no perceptual recognition going on at all in thinking about an absent object. So pattern recognition cannot be the essential nature of thought. This point seems totally obvious and quite devastating, yet Kurzweil has nothing to say about it, not even acknowledging the problem…

Then there are such mental phenomena as emotion, imagination, reasoning, willing, intending, calculating, silently talking to oneself, feeling pain and pleasure, itches, and moods—the full panoply of the mind. In what useful sense do all these count as “pattern recognition”? Certainly they are nothing like the perceptual cases on which Kurzweil focuses. He makes no attempt to explain how these very various mental phenomena fit his supposedly general theory of mind—and they clearly do not. So he has not shown us how to “create a mind,” or come anywhere near to doing so. Thus the hype of the title explodes very early and with a feeble fizzle. Why write a book with such an ambitious title and then deliver so little?

— Meantime, in Bookforum, Evgeny Morozov just destroys former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s new book Citizenville, in which he shows he has drunk too much Silicon Valley Kool-aid (emphasis mine):

Margaret Thatcher would surely approve of Newsom’s message. So would David Cameron. In fact, many of Newsom’s proposals simply rehash Cameron’s idea of “the Big Society,” whereby instead of relying on the government to fix potholes in their neighborhoods, citizens are expected to do everything themselves, for the government has been starved to death and can’t do those things anyway. But since Newsom serves all these ideas under the spicy sauce of social media and technological progress, the underlying libertarianism of his program is far less visible. Citizens, rejoice: Thanks to your smartphones, you can earn points—“innobucks”—for fixing those potholes (“Innobucks is like Angry Birds, but for democracy”). And, if Progress permits, soon you’ll be able to manufacture the tools for road repairs right inside your bedroom—just leave your 3-D printer on.

Fake Jeff Jarvis himself couldn’t make that up.

This vulgar and myopic utilitarianism—concerned only with short-term efficiency—is most visible in Newsom’s exhortation to enliven the political process by making it resemble computer games. Newsom is impressed with online games such as FarmVille, in which players manage virtual farms and earn digital cash. For him, it’s the right model for getting people to care about local politics. “Instead of taking care of a fictional farm, why can’t we create a game in which you take care of your actual neighborhood or your town?” he wonders…

“Gamification”—as this ugly trend is known—simply extends the logic of the market into realms that were previously the prerogative of ethics and morality. In this scheme, good behavior is no longer framed through the language of citizen duty; it’s framed through the language of monetary incentives.

As I said on Twitter the other day, why can’t all books be reviewed by Evgeny Morozov? He’s got a new book out, by the way.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,