Just when I think that I'm too old and jaded to feel like an angry young man, something comes along to slake my weary indignity juices and rejuvenate my timeworn bile ducts -- something so blatantly egregious that it quickly and powerfully reminds me of what used to make me angry in the first place. So, thank the gods of outrage for the stunning collapse of the Houston-based Enron Corp., once the seventh-biggest company in the nation and now the largest bankruptcy case in our history.
No, it's not the crumbling of some huge enterprise that gives my hackles their much-needed exercise. (Until this past month, Enron was the world's top buyer and seller of natural gas and the largest electricity marketer in the United States. It had 21,000 employees, 3,500 subdivisions around the world and a total market capitalization value of more than $80 billion.) Rather, it's the stench coming from the wreck, the malodorous vapor rising from corporate ground zero and drifting across the country's heartland, from Texas to Washington, D.C., that reinvigorates my sense of insult. Why am I so angry?
To begin with, not only did Enron's directors and top executives dump $1.1 billion worth of stock over the past year, all the while knowing that the company was in danger of collapse, but they also blithely awarded themselves millions more in bonuses in the months before the end. And when Enron's stock plummeted from around $90 a share to less then $1, they watched silently as thousands of their employees (and other shareholders) saw their life savings vaporize and their retirement nest eggs disappear. Unlike Enron's top dogs, the rank-and-file workers were locked into rules that prohibited them from divesting their holdings, even as the company's worth descended into oblivion.
Yet, Kenneth Lay, Enron's chief, was not completely mute as his debt-burdened speculation empire was dissolving. (Enron was a company that didn't have a lot of real assets. Essentially it was a broker -- buying, selling and reinvesting in commodities and energy contracts, gambling on future prices and market conditions, and trading in complex derivatives.) He did have time to call two of President Bush's cabinet members, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, to advise them of the company's incipient demise and beg for some government intervention.
And of course, Lay was able to get right through to the top of the Bush administration -- his company having donated $113,800 to Bush's presidential campaign. In fact, since the time Bush decided to run for governor of Texas, Enron executives, including Lay, have contributed a total of $623,000 to Dubya's political war chests.
Lay is no stranger to Washington's halls of power, either. Last year he met no less than six times with Vice President Dick Cheney or his aides when a White House task force led by Cheney convened business executives and other interests (but no environmentalists) to fashion the country's energy policy. (One can only hope that Lay's insights don't lead to a similarly bankrupt policy. One proposal from that task force seeks to roll back a key provision of the Clean Air Act -- a law that helps keep factory pollution down by requiring new controls when old plants are upgraded.)
Fortunately, the horrific stink from Enron's smoldering corpse is too foul to be ignored. Not only have side-swiped shareholders filed a civil suit in Houston against 29 Enron executives, but there also are numerous government investigations, including probes by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Labor Department, Justice Department, and no fewer than eight Congressional committees and subcommittees.
For those who have lost their savings, I can only imagine the profound sorrow -- and anger -- in watching hard-earned retirement accounts go down the drain while those who were entrusted with the money enriched themselves mightily.
But to those who are watching from the sidelines and have ceased to decry the incestuous relationship between big business and politics; who have slackened in pointing out the inconsistency between laws that protect the rich and rules that injure the poor; who have allowed the nation's current battle against international terrorism to blunt their criticism of ongoing crimes at home; the Enron case should be a loud wake-up call to renew a deep sense of righteous indignation and demands for justice. Like me, you may not be young anymore, but you can still get angry.