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.