YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Enron: A Scandal So Good That It Hurts

January 18, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

"This just keeps getting better and better," Liisa sputters. By that, my wife means worse and worse. Which is what we're all thinking, isn't it?

Before dawn, we are up and tearing into the newspapers at my household. This is terrific, heart-racing stuff.

"Look, Enron paid no income taxes four out of five years!"

"Forget Enron, Andersen is being paid by the Justice Department to reorganize the FBI!"

"Get this: Enron had 881 offshore subsidiaries!"

"Wow, a professor who became a New York Times editorial columnist was paid $50,000 as an Enron advisor!"

We're trying not to talk over each other. I'm scribbling notes all over the paper and Liisa is warning me not to make the story illegible. We subscribe to four newspapers. Suddenly it's not enough.

This is the juiciest scandal of our lifetime.

Why? Because this is not about personal indiscretion, not about sleazy partisan politics, not about runaway foreign policy, not about "gotcha."

This rotten barrel of apples is all encompassing. Down at the bottom, in the really contaminated slime, Enron/Andersen/et al. is about what we have allowed our nation to become.

It's about us. It's about winning at any price--not just winning but trouncing--about seeing what you can get away with. It's about greed and the glorification of greed. It's also the football player who deliberately tries to injure his opponent. It's about parents who beat each other up at their kids' sports matches. It's about the hand-to-hand combat of getting your children into the best colleges so they will be the dog that eats instead of the dog that gets eaten. It's about the ugly edge that has crept into our language, so that words such as "intimidation" become virtuous and "honor" a quaint laughingstock. It's about the blue-ribbon professor-cum-economics columnist who acknowledges taking $50,000 from Enron for serving on "a panel that had no function that I was aware of."

Awhile back, we lost sight of the principle that hard work, diligence and some luck made the man.

Inexplicably, we veered from the root ideal of civil in civilization. We took what we could and called it ours. We created the lottery for the instant chance at more. We demanded that every business "grow" rather than serve--which sounds a lot less benign than it became, as we watched ourselves transformed into jackals feeding from our own wounds. We watched as our political system was co-opted for pennies by wheeler-dealers who hollowed out the laws with fancy regulations and hidden legislative favors until our vaunted democracy became the instrument of our own oppression.

We saw simple and honest things devalued. Like the passbook savings account. And employee loyalty--or loyalty of any kind, for that matter.

You could wish you were high-minded in this age, but weren't you looking for 25% gains on your retirement holdings too? It didn't matter if a company made something, only if it made something happen. It mattered less whether a deed was right than whether you were "in" or "out."

Where is the smoking gun?

It's in our hands.

Yes, George W. Bush is culpable: This freight train crashed on his watch. These were his back-slapping buddies. These are the people he entrusted with government. This is the way-of-life philosophy he championed.

Let's not forget that just a few weeks ago he denounced Democrats for stalling on a multimillion-dollar, retroactive tax break for Enron and other giant companies.

Let's remember that his top economics advisor, a former Enron retainer, views the collapse of the company as "a triumph for capitalism." Let's not overlook that his Treasury secretary sees Enron as evidence of the "genius of capitalism." Let's not overlook that his choice to run the GOP has decided to stay on the payroll of a law firm retained by Enron and reserves the right to moonlight as a strategic advisor for the company.

But Bush didn't create the scandal. It's been in the works for years. He's no more guilty than the people who voted for him, or for those many millions who were suckered into this vision of a cutthroat America where values--that shopworn word--mean nothing at all when measured against the bottom line.

Perhaps all boats float on a rising tide. But reach down. Tastes like sewer water now, doesn't it?

I can hardly wait for tomorrow's papers. This is a terrific time. Maybe, finally, at long bloody last, things will get bad enough to make them right.

Los Angeles Times Articles