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Enron: From Texas With Love

Rein in this country's corrupt plutocracy

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The well-documented crimes of predatory capitalists -- actual and de facto slavery, child labor, sweat shops, armies of thugs and strikebreakers, unimaginable environmental destruction with its legacy of death and disease -- are such a constant theme in the modern history of the West that they've become a political cliche, a litany that identifies anyone who invokes them as a retro-radical. Part of the indifference that greeted Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential campaign was the electorate's contempt for what it regards as decrepit rhetoric. In the era of mass communications, capitalists monopolize public discourse -- they own the media -- and successfully caricature their critics as hippies, anarchists and dinosaurs. The muckraking novels of Upton Sinclair or Frank Norris are not much read anymore; we have no Teddy Roosevelt to brandish his big stick at ruthless tycoons. Swollen corporations rule more or less unchallenged. When a big one falls as Enron fell, it's like a missing tooth in the blinding corporate smile that mesmerizes America. For a moment, anyone who cares to look can see all the infection and corruption in the hungry mouth that threatens to swallow us whole. Expect a brief glimpse, before the Big Smile is repaired by the best oral surgeons money can buy. But what we see, and the way we respond to what we see, is more critical to America's survival than the fate of a million Islamic terrorists.

"The Enron scandal told us things about ourselves that we probably should have known, but had managed not to see," wrote economist Paul Krugman in The New York Times. "I predict that in the years ahead Enron, not September 11, will come to be seen as the greater turning point in US society."

The White House, praying for a softer spin, saw its efforts to downplay Enron meet fierce resistance, even from establishment journalists. The Times' editorial page, prone to understatement, called Enron "the most spectacular corporate demise ever."

"This is a cultural event, a systemic collapse, an outrage so breathtaking that we poor scribblers have no category for it," added Richard Cohen of The Washington Post.

What's left of the responsible press and the progressive minority knows that Enron, an economic tragedy, is potentially a political godsend. Corporations as large as Enron belong to the Pay and Play Club, an elite beyond taxes and regulations, beyond legislatures, beyond literal or figurative accountability, almost beyond prosecution. For one of these giants to fall, it takes a phenomenal convergence of incompetence, misfortune, arrogance and greed. It provides the rarest of opportunities to show the American public, long oblivious to economic nuance, that greed without conscience or restraint is not the engine of prosperity but -- as every religion teaches -- a congested Highway to Hell.

This is a precious chance, maybe our last chance to make an edifying spectacle of a corrupt plutocracy. It can only be wasted by diehard Democrats clamoring for revenge and partisan advantage. Enron has implications that dwarf party politics, the dreary, vicious, infantile tug-of-war that reached a nadir of nastiness in the 90s, the burlesque that all but the most moronic voters tune out reflexively.

It's true that Republicans received 75 percent of Enron's dirty money and that George W. Bush was its chosen darling, the focus of its highest hopes and the chief beneficiary of its tainted largesse. Retiring Sen. Phil Gramm and House majority whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republicans the Democrats hate as much anyone in Congress, are in the Enron muck up to their shoulder holsters. Yes, this is a felony-rich scandal that makes Whitewater look like amateur night at the Lions Club. But it has to be enough to know all that and enjoy it in privacy, to imagine the squirming and the sweaty late-night meetings as a White House packed with Enron cronies strives to wash its hands of Kenneth Lay.

The truth is that Democrats took all the money they could get from Enron, too, and would have been overjoyed to steal the lion's share. The Clinton administration was more than friendly to the free-spending Texans; Sen. Joe Lieberman, who ran for vice president on Al Gore's ticket, took money from Enron and more from Arthur Andersen, its egregiously compromised accountants. A notably pompous liberal Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, was first in line -- to the tune of $329,000 -- at the feeding trough filled so generously by Arthur Andersen and the accounting lobby.

When Enron rang the dinner bell, everyone with a knife and fork came running. The finger-pointing gets complicated, even comical when 74 senators and 188 congressmen have been dining at the same thieves' expense.

In a sane media environment, sleeping with Ken Lay might be more embarrassing to a president than foreplay with Monica Lewinsky. But Enron will never be the ruin of George W. Bush, locked so comfortably into his bizarre new role as warlord of the free world. The Bushmen didn't break any laws to help their friends in Houston. If they tried to make a few laws, shape a few policies on Enron's behalf, that's a quid pro quo everyone in Washington understands. (Though Dick Cheney may live to regret those preposterous claims of executive privilege for his energy huddles. Smoking gun or no, an aging vice president with a damaged ticker makes the perfect scapegoat if someone has to take a fall for this administration.)

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