A letter from Ralph

by Bill Monson

I got a letter from Ralph Nader the other day. You remember Ralph--consumer advocate, Presidential candidate, public gadfly. Well, in this letter -- actually a mass-mailed missive -- he's finally found an issue that the public might respond to. Corporate corruption and our government's cooperation with it.

He uses Enron as his main target and, being the kind of liberal that Larry, Louie and Tim are always growling about, he naturally targets Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft as heavies. However, the real problem here goes back to even before Bush the First was President -- to Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of deregulation.

Ronny never met a CEO he didn't like; and he figured they and the nabobs of Wall Street could run their companies better without a lot of government interference.

Well, they could have -- if they'd have been honest.

But expecting corporate execs to be honest is a little like expecting cobras to be cuddly. It reminds me of that old story about the frog and the scorpion.

The scorpion wants to cross a creek and asks a frog for a ride. ''No way,'' says the frog. ''You'll sting me.'' ''That's silly,'' says the scorpion. ''If I sting you, you'll die and I'll drown.''

So the frog gives the scorpion a ride; and halfway across the creek, the scorpion stings the frog. As they both sink to their deaths, the frog says, ''Why did you do it?''

''It's my nature,'' says the scorpion.

End of story.

Well, CEOs and CFOs are the scorpions of capitalism. It's their nature to sting their stockholders, employees and the public in the name of serving their corporate interests. Cook the books? Why not? Lie? If it serves to improve the stock price, sure. Manipulate energy costs into an energy crisis and rolling blackouts? Caveat emptor!

Ralph senses a national mood swing. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll discovered that 63 percent of Americans believe government regulation of big business corporations is ''necessary to protect the public.'' That's up ten percent since a 1998 poll. Only 30 percent said government regulations do ''more harm than good,'' which is down ten percent. However, 53 percent said the best way to deal with the problem is better enforcement of existing laws and only 30 percent said new laws were needed. Ralph has his work cut out for him.

Americans generally don't have much faith in large corporations. The poll showed that three out of four have ''some'' or ''very little'' confidence in them. But they don't have much more faith in politicians to call those corporations to account. What's interesting is that the poll shows a swing from believing Bush and the Republicans will do a better job to believing Daschle and the Democrats will do better. That's an augury for the November elections that has the White House scurrying for stiffer penalties on wrong-doers rather than new legislation. And D and the D's are naturally using the situation to push for stricter laws.

The problem, folks, is that much of what's occurred at Enron and the others is not really against the law!

Welcome to the fruits of deregulation. Sure, your auditor can also advise you on how to beat its audit. No, you don't have to count executives' stock options against the cost of doing business. Sure, insider loans are legal. Just don't tell Martha Stewart your stock is going down the toilet.

Why do we never learn? Back in January, before all this hit the headlines, I read a book as old as I am: Frederick Lewis Allen's The Lords Of Creation. It's about U.S. business from1895 to 1935 and explains how those old robber barons eventually maneuvered America into the Depression.

And you know what? Some of the tricks they used are still being used. The book is an illuminating insight into the nature of corporate scorpions. If you can find a copy, read it. See why I'm not optimistic about Congress or the SEC doing anything about changing the way we do business in this country.

Sorry, Ralph, this is one guy who won't be signing your petition to Tom Daschle to investigate corporate and government officials responsible for the Enron fiasco and create new regulations to ''prevent such disasters in the future.'' To me, it's a waste of ink.

Frogs will continue to give scorpions a free ride.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website July 17, 2002

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