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Raining Zeros in a Season of Scandal

August 22, 2002|ARIANNA HUFFINGTON | Arianna Huffington writes a syndicated column.

I'm tracking a new phenomenon called "scandal fatigue.'' It sets in when the corporate crime rate gets too high and the numbers being bandied about become too boggling to get your mind around. For instance, I was plenty angry when WorldCom announced that it had misstated its earnings by $3.7 billion. Then it looked through the books again and realized the amount was actually $7 billion.

Was I supposed to be twice as ticked off? Or were there just too many zeros to grasp? The reason our eyes start to glaze over at a certain point is that we lack what T.S. Eliot called "an objective correlative"--a way of relating to something as abstract and conceptual as a 7 followed by nine zeros.

How can we get our outrage meters set to the proper scale? Here's one way: The total amount of sweetheart insider loans doled out to John Rigas (Adelphia), Bernie Ebbers (WorldCom), Stephen Hilbert (Conseco), Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco) and Kenneth Lay (Enron), $3.9 billion.

With $3.9 billion, you could help Habitat for Humanity build 83,691 homes for America's homeless; send 35,583 poor but deserving students to Harvard Business School; buy 390 million tickets to see "Austin Powers in Goldmember''; loan United Airlines the $1.8 billion it says it needs to avoid bankruptcy, twice (or you could just flush the money down the toilet--the results would be the same); fund the greatly increased annual budget of the Securities and Exchange Commission for five years.

Or consider this: According to Fortune magazine, the total amount of money raked in by corporate executives selling company stock even while their companies crashed and burned was roughly $66 billion. With that, you could fund the annual budget of the FBI for 16 years; give 74 times what the United States currently gives in foreign aid to all of sub-Saharan Africa; cover the entire $25 billion that the U.S. has spent fighting the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, with enough left over to give Afghans more than two times their average yearly income; pay President Bush's $400,000 salary for 165,000 years (although, if he's anything like his dad, you'll only be on the hook until 2004); pay the New York sales tax on former Tyco CEO Kozlowski's artwork--plus buy a wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Or try this on for size: The total loss in market value of WorldCom, Tyco, Qwest, Enron and Global Crossing: $427 billion. With $427 billion, you could fund the United Nations for the next 263 years and still have $164 billion left over for famine relief and peacekeeping missions; get Argentina back on its feet by paying off it external debt three times over; pay the combined salaries of every player in baseball for 237 years. Although I don't know why you would. They'd still disappoint you and go on strike.

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