June 22, 2004

Taking lives, and taking lives' work

I'm a long time reader, but I think this is the first time I've emailed you. I really appreciate what you do. I wanted to comment on your May 18 statement: "in March Jamie Olis, a mid-level executive at natural gas firm Dynegy, was found guilty of accounting fraud in a scheme to please Wall Street by hyping earnings and sentenced to 24 years in prison. The guy would have been a lot better off to have gunned down someone on the street instead, or even tried to grow psychedelic mushrooms".

While I do feel that such a sentence at least appears silly, and I don't know how much money was involved, there is one thing to think about: how many lives' worth of work was he trying to steal? I'm not saying that means he should get more jail time than murder (I think it should be a minimum life sentence for Murder One), but theft on the magnitude of millions of dollars is on the same scale, in many ways, as murder. Enron, for instance -- if the average person makes 2 million (constant as of 2000) dollars in their lifetime, and I steal 200 million dollars, I just stole 100 people's life's work. When considered that way, I would put it on the same scale as murder. -- David Allen, Texas

According to news accounts, the judge in the case settled on an estimate of harm to investors of $105 million from the accounting misrepresentations that Olis helped devise. Perhaps relevant, the scheme did not siphon money into Olis's own pocket, but was aimed at benefiting his employer. For more, see Susan Warren, Wall Street Journal, May 20, reprinted at WSJ Career Journal site; Tom Kirkendall, May 20 -- W.O.

Posted by Walter Olson at June 22, 2004 12:08 AM

I dissent. IMHO, a mugger who threatens an old lady with a knife and takes $0.10 from her pocketbook deserves a far more severe sentence than any non-violent criminal, no matter how much they steal. How could it possibly be otherwise in a society that values human life more than property?

Posted by: DBL at June 22, 2004 08:31 AM

In a system of unlimited resources, of course, I would agree with you (human life is more valuable than property).


This is th real world, where resources are limited. Every year, literally millions of people for lack of resources. Money is our representation of resources.

When a child starves to death in Africa, that could have ben prevented with a very little bit of money. When a poor person loses a limb that could have been saved with a very expensive medical procedure, that is a loss based entirely on lack of resources.

To say that human life is infinitely more valuable than property feels good and may perhaps be a good objective, but in the real world, it is fantasy.

Posted by: David Allen, Texas at June 22, 2004 10:21 AM

If punishment was commensurate with the money loss, all politicians would hang.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis at June 22, 2004 01:41 PM

Not ALL of them, Walter - there would probably be one or two left somewhere.

Posted by: David Allen, Texas at June 22, 2004 03:52 PM

To DBL: You think that "threatening" someone, in this case you mentioned an old lady, is a worse crime than stealing "no matter how much they steal." Threatening someone does no physical harm to the person. Stealing millions of dollars is certainly more harmful and deserves a far more severe sentence than "threatening." Your post insinuates that you think that "threatening" is a "violent" crime. I would agree that killing or even critically harming someone with a knife is a "violent" crime that should rank up there with stealing millions, but "threatening" can hardly be called a "violent" crime.

Posted by: Will Mattison at June 22, 2004 04:07 PM