There is always someone questioning the status quo. This week it was my friend Alonzo Powdama, who believes that we make a mistake by referring to many criminal activities as white-collar crimes.

"I suppose you'd say Michael Milken committed a white-collar crime?" he asked me.

"He must have," I said. "He did it in his office overlooking Beverly Hills."

"But it was the crime of the century. People lost millions of dollars investing in his junk bonds. Many were widows and orphans," Alonzo said.

"They were greedy widows and orphans. They were always going for a higher interest rate, and then when they lost their money they cried crocodile tears."

"Why isn't stealing other people's money through an investment bank, an S&L or a regular bank the same as holding them up on the street?" Alonzo wanted to know.

I replied, "The difference is in the quality of the criminal. Most stickup men are sloppy and do not observe the dress code. They carry weapons and resort to violence. White-collar robbers are pillars of the community. They hold up their victims with calculators and computers. You can't put white-collar and blue-collar criminals on the same volleyball court."

"What about this one?" Alonzo asked. "The defense companies, including some of the largest aviation manufacturers, have been caught cheating the government on their contracts. Some did such shoddy work that it could cost the lives of the pilots flying the planes. Is that a white-collar crime or first-degree murder?"

I replied, "We would have to designate it as white-collar. When you judge crimes committed by multi-billion-dollar executives you can't treat them as thugs. These people are involved in shortchanging the government, unlike the street criminal, who has no idea of right or wrong."

Alonzo was agitated. "I'm for abolishing the use of the term 'white-collar crime' because if you embezzle people's pensions, which they worked for all their lives, it's rape."

"That's ridiculous. The reason that the legal system uses white-collar crime as a designation is that it helps the judge know where to send the wrongdoers. You can't send a white-collar criminal to a low-class prison."

"Why not?" Alonzo asked.

"Because you want the punishment to fit the crime. You have to distinguish between the sleazeballs who sell dope on the street and MBAs who launder their money in skyscrapers 40 stories above the ground. White-collar criminals are different from you and me, Alonzo, and must be shown respect."

"What makes them different?" he wanted to know.

"They have better lawyers. The worst thing you could do to prevent white-collar felonies is to single out business criminals for serious punishment. If you take their tennis courts away from them at Allenwood, they'll go back to crime as soon as they come out."

Alonzo was not convinced. "What I don't like is that white-collar criminals get to plea-bargain. We had a bank in Washington, D.C., where a lot of Hispanic people put their savings. It turned out to be a phony bank and was not insured by the U.S. government. The people who started the bank stole the Hispanic people blind. Why should that be termed a white-collar crime?"

"Because," I said, "except for taking people's life's savings, no one really got hurt."