EDITORIAL: Criminals in three-piece suits

Jesse Heath, guest columnist

In response to being questioned about Congress’ investigation of Enron, President Bush stated, “[Congress] needs to stay focused on the American people. We’re in a war” (AP 1/23/02). Thus humping public distress over perceived threats, Bush attempted to downplay the Enron scandal. Perhaps Bush learned from his dad the tried and true saying: “war is the health of the state.” In any case, by focusing on corporate crime, Congress is hardly ignoring the public. What it is actually done may be another story, but we’ll see.Every election year members from each wing of the ruling Republicrat party stand up and promise to “get tough on crime.” However, the crime that they intend to fight is very narrow in definition and scope. The politicos are most likely referring to the type of crime that the FBI releases yearly statistics on. For example, the FBI reports that burglary and robbery combined cost the U.S. around $4 billion a year. But neither the politicians nor the FBI ever focus on corporate crime, which costs the country $200 billion a year. Furthermore, there are more deaths and injuries resulting from workplace hazards and occupational diseases every year than those caused by street crime. And that even excludes deaths and injuries from environmental hazards and dangerous products.

Enron is a perfect example of a corporation screwing over the workers, and this time even shareholders, who made their success possible. The cause of Enron’s “plight” was “managing” its financial statements so that they would match Wall Street’s predictions and please shareholders. This practice has been common in the corporate world ever since General Electric CEO Jack Welch invented it. It is not a decision made at the top of the company pyramid.

Aside from lying, Enron also got outside help in order to prevent its collapse, which had been imminent due to its lying. For example, Enron paid no taxes 4 of the past 5 years, and in addition received hundreds of millions in refunds. Bush’s economic stimulus bill would have given the company $250 million if it hadn’t gone bankrupt. Bush also allowed Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay to choose who would lead the regulatory commission that oversaw Enron and Lay crafted the administration’s energy plan with Vice-President Cheney. Apparently, these are all forms of the “market economics” and “corporate self-governance” that Bush espouses. I guess what I least understand is how these goons need to break the rules of a game that inherently favors them over the other participants.

Our political system, for all its flaws, is very free. There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits laws that punish criminals in three-piece suits less than those on the street. Unfortunately, there is something that requires corporations to be held as accountable as individual citizens. The results of those who are policed, taxed, and held accountable for their own survival versus those protected and guaranteed well-being are left undetermined. If history and current events are any guide, those with more economic power will manipulate such a decentralized system to their own ends. Under an economic system ruled by centralized and authoritarian entities, we cannot expect any other results than those like Enron.