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What's that nasty smell?
by Molly Ivins
Star Telegram
November 23, 2003

I suggest that the epitaph for this entire era should be: "The fish rots from the head down."

The latest round of corporate scandals -- Hollinger, the growing mutual fund mess and the foreign exchange dealers who ripped off their own companies -- provide an elegant summary of the pattern.

Hollinger International, a media company owned by Lord Conrad Black, reported a relatively measly total profit of $23 million from 1998 to 2002.

During the same period, the company paid Black and his close associates more than $200 million in salary, management fees and non-compete payments, according to published reports.

The company also featured the usual insider dealing -- including a $2.5 million investment in Hollinger board member Richard Perle's company, Trireme. That would be the same Perle who is still on the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Board, despite having had to resign as chairman earlier because of other business conflicts of interest.

So far, every business scandal starting with Enron has displayed the same features: investors ripped off, pension-holders ripped off, employees often left with nothing, and execs walking away with millions.

Corporations have become entities set up to avoid taxation. It's really quite extraordinary.

Theoretically, the corporate income tax is 35 percent, but no self-respecting corporation would actually pay that. Many of the country's most profitable corporations are so good at tax games that the government owes them.

What happens sooner or later when there is rot at the top -- what economists call "control fraud" -- is that the little fish get into the act, too. Hey, why shouldn't some of the peons play the same game at their own level? And that's when you get things like the foreign exchange traders and even some of the mutual fund rip-off artists. The rot does spread downward.

Now, being of the liberal persuasion, I believe that the way to stop corporate rip-offs and harm caused to the public by greed is through government regulation and suing the bastards.

But let's suppose for a moment here that we try The Wall Street Journal's preferred methods for fixing all this: transparency, accountability and responsibility.

And let us apply these methods to the Bush administration, which proudly bills itself as the CEO administration. It is certainly an administration of CEOs.

Transparency: We started with Dick Cheney's secret energy task force. Then George W. Bush decided that neither his father's presidential papers nor Ronald Reagan's could be made public. Then we got the USA Patriot Act. We couldn't find out who had been "detained" when, where, why or for how long, with no lawyers and no family notification. And of course secret phone taps, wiretaps, sweeps, etc., all on "suspicion."

Accountability: What does it take to get fired by this administration? Outing a CIA agent for petty political revenge? Completely contravening administration policy with jackass statements about Islam while you're the head of a sensitive Pentagon department on the subject?

Obviously, you can get fired for standing up for the environment -- or at least not lying down quickly enough for those who are busy trashing it. RIP, Christine Todd Whitman. And for standing up and saying something populist, like the Internal Revenue Service should quit going after working poor people and try nailing a few rich tax cheats, as former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill did.

Responsibility: Have you ever heard this administration admit it has made a mistake? It won't even take responsibility for dumb stuff like the "Mission Accomplished" sign, much less admit it had no idea what it was doing in Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell. Even now, administration folks keep trying to wiggle out of their own … well, I don't know whether it was lies or misinformation.

There was no nuclear weapons program, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and there were no ties between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. But there they come again, with some leaked list of questionable intelligence trying to prove what isn't true.

This country boasts a multitude of people who are real heroes. The extraordinary book Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer should not be missed.

But at the top of the corporate and economic worlds, ethical standards seem to be rotting out -- greed, self-righteousness, fatal certitude. And, of course, beware of those with no humor.

Posted: November 28, 2003


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