Enron: What took so long?
December 6, 2001
AUSTIN -- Hail and farewell, o Enron! What a flameout. The
Establishment media, sucking its collective thumb with unwonted solemnity,
is treating us to meditations on two themes: "How the mighty have fallen,"
and, "Who would have thunk it?" Pardon me while I snort, in lieu of ruder
noises, and offer two themes of my own: "What took so long?" and, "Anyone
with an ounce of common sense."
If you want to know what this story is about, pretend Bill
Clinton is still president. Pretend Clinton's long-time, all-time biggest
campaign contributor, a guy for whom Clinton has carried water for over the
years, a guy with unparalleled "access," a shaper of policy, a man with a
veto on regulatory appointments affecting his business, with connections at
every level of the administration, a political fixer beyond the wildest
dreams of James Riady -- imagine that this guy's worldwide empire has
tumbled into bankruptcy in just three months amid cascading reports of lies,
monumental accounting errors, evasions, iffy financial statements, insider
deals, a board of directors rife with conflicts of interest, top executives
bailing out with millions while regular employees see their life savings
shrink to nothing -- imagine all this back in the day of Bill Clinton.
Holy moley, we'd have four congressional investigations, three
special prosecutors, two impeachment inquiries and a partridge in a pear
tree by now. The Republicans would all be drumming their heels on the floor
in full tantrum.
But this is not President Clinton, it is President Bush -- so of
course different standards must apply. The fact that Ken Lay, Enron's
chairman, has been Bush's chief money man and key backer since he first went
into politics is mentioned only in passing. The media don't want to be
impolite. They have been credulously swallowing Enron's p.r. and overlooking
the obvious for years.
The main problem with Enron is that it has never produced much
of anything in the way of either goods or services; it has not added a
single widget to the world widget supply. Enron is in the business of
"financializing," making markets, trading in wholesale electricity, water,
data storage, fiber-optics, just about anything. One Enron executive told
The New York Times the company's achievement was to create "a regulatory
black hole" to suit its "core management philosophy, which was to be the
first mover into a market and to make money in the initial chaos and lack of
Enron started as a gas pipeline company that went into trading
natural gas, and even then the company's critics claimed Enron was making
profits by stoking volatility in gas prices. The same charge showed up again
in spades with the newly deregulated electricity markets. Enron had lobbied
for utility deregulation relentlessly, formidably and very expensively at
both the state and national levels. The company seemed to spend more time
influencing government than doing business. Like Long Term Capital
Management, the hedge fund that went awry, it seemed to have only a
parasitic relationship to actual economic activity. The problem with
deregulating utilities is the reason they were regulated in the first
place -- monopoly power and the threat of market manipulation are a set-up
for unholy price-gouging. How many times do we have to re-learn that lesson?
Just a few spiffy eye-openers on Enron's connections:
-- Lay and Enron together donated $2 million to George W. Bush.
In 2000, a company memo that was an open strong-arm recommended employees
give campaign checks for Bush to the political action committee: low-level
managers were urged to contribute $500 and senior executives at least
$5,000. Another $1 million was given to mostly Republican congressional
candidates. It gave more money last cycle than any other energy company.
-- Lawrence B. Lindsey, Bush's top economic adviser, got $50,000
from Enron in 2000 for consulting, presumably giving the company the same
excellent economic advice now proving so healthy for the nation's economy.
-- Karl Rove, Bush's top political strategist, sold between
$100,000 and $250,000 worth of Enron stock earlier this year, after being
criticized for conflict of interest.
-- The California Legislature passed a contempt motion against
Enron for failure to respond to a June 11 subpoena. The legislature is
investigating whether power generating companies willfully manipulated
electricity supply in order to drive up prices last year.
-- Lay was the only energy executive to meet alone with Vice
President Dick Cheney while Cheney was drawing up a new national energy
policy in secret.
-- Enron influenced public policy time and again while Bush was
governor here, including the infamous "grandfathered plants" deal. In 1997,
Lay asked Bush to contact every member of the Texas delegation to explain
how "export credit agencies of the United States are critical to U.S.
developers like Enron, pursuing international projects in developing
countries." These agencies provide political risk coverage and financial
support to U.S. companies abroad. It's called corporate welfare.
-- In Texas, Enron was a major player during the utilities
deregulation debate, for which Bush lobbied actively, and, of course, in
"tort reform," making it harder to sue corporations for the damage they do.
To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other
Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web
page at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
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