Scuttling Reform 

"Is there anybody in this business who is not a crook?"

The financial industry has always been anathema to populists. "Bankers all have hearts like caraway seeds" is one of the mildest populist pronouncements on the breed, and the pugnacious populist William Brann used to denounce life insurance companies as "vampire bats." So I thought it was just me when reading the financial pages caused me to wonder, "Is there anybody in this business who is not a crook?"

I don't think it's just me.

"Republicans led by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and the accounting industry's trade group are working to kill a Democratic measure that would impose new rules on auditors, companies, and investment banks in the wake of Enron's collapse," reports The New York Times. That would be the same Phil Gramm who got $101,350 in contributions from Enron and $927,055 from the financial industry while chairman of the banking committee. (By way of contrast, the late Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, a populist, accepted no contributions from the financial industry while serving as chair of the House banking committee.)

Gramm's wife served on the board of Enron, but a spokeswoman for Gramm announced the reform bill has nothing to do with Enron and is therefore not a conflict of interest. The entire purpose of the bill, by Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, is to prevent precisely the abuses that led to the collapse of Enron.

This cheerful effort to scuttle mild financial reforms comes amid regular updates on Enron's frauds and felonies rigging the market during the California "energy crisis," playing games with Global Crossing to disguise loans and other financial facts, etc. Try these exercises in financial fakery:

n "Using prearranged but undisclosed plans, executives may sell stock without being accused of insider trading. Now regulators, worried about the use of fake plans, may force advance disclosure of them." (The New York Times)

n "House Republicans are blocking an effort by Democrats to force a vote on a measure that would prevent companies from avoiding income taxes by reincorporating in Bermuda and other offshore tax havens." (The New York Times)

n And The Wall Street Journal is reporting abuses by the big currency traders, derivatives companies, and the usual run of scoundrels and cheats.

One is reminded of poor Bob Dole in the 1996 campaign, crying, "Where is the outrage? Where is the outrage?" I suppose a lot of it got used up as right-wing demagogues whipped dittoheads into a froth of fury over Whitewater, the longest-running nonscandal in history. What a tragic waste of perfectly good anger. Another source of rampant apathy is the ubiquitous feeling that there's absolutely nothing we can do about any of these advanced financial shenanigans.

No point in getting outraged if there's nothing you can do. And besides, it's all very complicated. Most of us couldn't explain how derivatives work to save our souls, or how currency trading works, or how Enron gouged California. But we do understand buying politicians.

The financial industry is so greed-driven it doesn't have the sense God gave a duck. It's always pushing for something ruinous to itself and everybody else, like savings-and-loan deregulation or doing away with Glass-Steagall, so now insurance companies, securities firms, and banks can marry each other. Naturally, they'll be "too big to fail" when they go under, so the taxpayers will have to bail them out.

Paul Krugman, the economics writer, recently inquired, "Wouldn't it be nice, just once, to see the Bush administration oppose the interests of a privileged elite?" He was referring to the administration's foot-dragging on accounting reforms and Bush's own declaration that he sides with the CEOs on not treating their stock options as a business expense. That's one of those cute little tax advantages the rich buy for themselves with their campaign contributions. Don't forget that George W. Bush's biggest campaign donor was Ken Lay of Enron.

Edwin Sherwood once wrote me the following about Wright Patman, a great populist: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Instead of applying this rule to distant dictators, Patman applied it to wealthy and powerful Americans. Wealth too often opposes the public good in principle and practice. Do we look to Exxon for our national conscience?"

Molly Ivins writes for Creators Syndicate and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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