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Michigan Ross Professor Challenges White-Collar Crime Enforcement

Professor Will Thomas

In a recent MSNBC News op-ed, Will Thomas, assistant professor of business law at the Ross School of Business, explores the flaws in white-collar crime enforcement. Thomas challenges the representation of white-collar crime through the lens of former President Donald Trump’s recent civil fraud case, particularly the perception that business misconduct crimes such as bribery, money laundering, insider trading, tax fraud, etc., are less harmful or victimless. 

Since the term ‘white-collar crime’ was coined by U.S. sociologist Edwin Sutherland in the late 1930s, there has been a common misconception that business-related crime, both civil and criminal, is somehow victimless or less harmful than other crimes. Thomas argues that white-collar crimes, similar to the allegations against former President Trump, are harmful from an economic impact perspective. For example, Thomas Cites a 2010 FBI report that found white-collar crimes had an economic impact of more than $600 billion.

Outside of direct economic impact, Thomas identifies the consequences white-collar crime has on our trust in everyday business interactions.

You buy a cup of coffee in the morning and trust that it’s not tainted; that your credit card company will honor the charge; that your bank will transfer payment next week; etc. If we couldn’t rely on these basic transactions, costs would skyrocket and systems would crumble.

Thomas posits that a major challenge in addressing white-collar crime is visibility. Firstly, the process of uncovering business-related crimes is often convoluted, and it takes years to uncover. Secondly, the victims of white-collar crime are non-traditional.

We aren’t hard-wired, it turns out, to feel sorry for big banks and tax agencies. But even if you don’t feel bad for these companies when they are defrauded, remember that they invariably pass the costs of fraud onto customers in the form of higher costs, and onto employees in the form of layoffs.

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