Concerned about potential taint from the metastasizing Enron scandal, George W. Bush met with reporters recently to distance himself from Enron's chairman, Ken Lay (nicknamed "Kenny Boy" by W. before the scandal). It is testament to how indelible that taint may become that Bush found it necessary to lie about his friend. He claimed that Lay supported Ann Richards in 1994 when Bush ran for governor of Texas and that he only got to know him later. In fact, Lay was a leading contributor to Papa Bush's re-election run in 1992, and by his own account was "very close to George W." Enron's PAC and executives pumped $146,500 into W.'s 1994 race (while Richards received all of $12,500 from Enron sources). Bush "was in bed with Enron before he ever held a political office," reports Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
W. has good reasons for trying to minimize his relationship with Lay and Enron in the dying days of his father's presidency. After Clinton's 1992 victory, Enron pushed hard to exempt its energy futures contracts from regulatory oversight before the new Administration took office. The lame-duck chairwoman of Bush's Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Wendy Gramm, wife of Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm, brought the exemption to a final vote on January 14, 1993, six days before Clinton took office. Enron, a leading contributor to Phil Gramm's campaign coffers, then named Wendy Gramm to its board of directors, where she pocketed about $1 million in payments and stock benefits over the next nine years. She served on the company's audit committee and helpfully turned a blind eye to the shady private partnerships Enron set up off the books to hide debt and mislead investors. In 2000, as the Supreme Court was naming Bush President, Senator Phil Gramm slipped a bill exempting energy trading from regulation into Clinton's omnibus appropriations act, avoiding hearings, floor debate and notice. Enron was all set to operate in the dark.
What is the Enron saga about? Enron's bankruptcy, the largest in history, exposes the decay of corporate accountability in the new Gilded Age. No-account accountants, see-no-evil stock analysts, subservient "independent" board members, gelded regulators, purchased politicians--every supposed check on executive plunder and piracy has been shredded. Enron transformed itself from a gas pipeline company to an unregulated financial investment house willing and able to buy and sell anything--energy futures, weather changes, bandwidth, state legislatures, regulators, senators, even Presidents.
It is Enron's rise that lays bare the hypocrisy of modern conservatives--call them Enron conservatives. Enron conservatives fly the flag of free markets but actually use political and financial clout to free themselves from accountability, rig the market and then use their position to ravage consumers, investors and employees. These are not the small-is-beautiful compassionate conservatives George Bush advertised in the election campaign, or the tory conservatives who protect flag, family and honor. Enron conservatives make the rules to benefit themselves. "They have clout and the ability to get the rules written their way," said Stephen Naeve, chief financial officer for Houston Industries, Inc. about Enron in 1997. "They play with sharp elbows."
Ken Lay learned about regulation while working at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). After he created Enron, he lavished millions on lobbyists and campaign contributions to free Enron from regulation and to push energy deregulation. His lobbyist stable has included James Baker, Bush I's Secretary of State; Jack Quinn and Mack McLarty of the Clinton White House; and Marc Racicot, current head of the Republican Party.
Enron's lobbyists played a large role in California deregulation--setting the state up for a hit. Most experts believe that Enron, controlling about a quarter of wholesale trading in electricity with no regulatory oversight, was central to the market gaming that led to last year's "energy crisis," which cost Californians about $50 billion. For six months Pat Wood, Enron's handpicked head of FERC, refused to impose price controls. The White House, led by economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, a former Enron consultant, ridiculed the very notion. In those six months, Public Citizen reports, Enron posted increased revenues of nearly $70 billion. When the price controls were finally enacted, the "crisis" disappeared. Spencer Abraham, Bush's clueless Energy Secretary, now informs us that this is a triumph of deregulation.
Enron conservatives prefer plunder to production. Enron's twenty-nine top executives cashed in a staggering $1.1 billion in stock in the three years before the firm went belly up. Small investors got soaked, and faithful employees got stiffed. In August, after Lay and CEO Jeffrey Skilling had cashed in more than $160 million in Enron stock, Skilling abruptly resigned. Lay personally e-mailed his employees to assure them that "our growth has never been more certain." Enron then maneuvered to ban its employees from selling the Enron stock in their retirement accounts as its value plummeted, leaving thousands stripped of their life savings.
Enron conservatives aren't limited to the Houston boardrooms. Enron conservatives in the Administration pushed through the $15 billion airlines bailout that included zero for workers. Enron conservatives in the House passed the "stimulus" package that featured tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy while scorning unemployment insurance and healthcare assistance for those losing their jobs. Enron itself was slated to receive $254 million from retroactive repeal of the minimum corporate tax. Enron conservatives in Congress passed the President's tax cut, which showered almost half its benefits on the wealthiest 1 percent. And they even repealed the estate tax, insuring that Lay and his fellow executives could pass along their ill-gotten gains intact to their heirs.
Enron conservatives aren't all Republicans. Enron's deregulation plans, and its contributions, were popular with the Clinton White House. Enron gave $10,000 to the New Democrat Network, the money wing of the Democratic Party. With his employer, Citigroup, owed at least $750 million by Enron, Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin didn't hesitate to call Treasury to suggest it intervene to forestall the downgrading of Enron's credit rating.
But the leading Enron conservative is W. himself. After all, Bush made his own fortune with inside connections while other investors in his company were getting soaked. Lay and Enron were Bush's leading supporters, contributing $113,800 directly to his campaign and another $888,265 to the Republican National Committee, an arm of the campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Bush repaid Lay and other "Pioneers"--those who raised $100,000 or more for his campaign--with his shameful tax plan. He continues to push for a stimulus plan that benefits corporations over workers. He is pressing Congress to pass the Enron energy plan, which features massive subsidies to energy companies and further deregulation. And while the White House has begrudgingly admitted to six meetings between Enron representatives and the Cheney energy task force, it continues to stonewall efforts by the General Accounting Office to find out who met with Cheney to draw up the plan.
Public Citizen reports that Enron set up a staggering 2,832 subsidiaries, with almost a third located in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens. On taking office, the Bush Administration announced that it was abandoning Clinton efforts for a multilateral crackdown on these havens, saying, in Treasury Secretary O'Neill's words, that the Administration will not "interfere with the internal tax policy decisions of sovereign nations."
The Administration crows that there is no smoking gun vis-à-vis Enron. We'll see. But the real scandal is not what was done illegally but what was done under cover of law. Enron conservatives don't violate the rules; they change the rules to suit themselves.
As Bush was distancing himself from his old friend Kenny Boy, one of the President's first regulatory acts in office went into final effect: the repeal of the Clinton rules that allowed the government to deny contracts to companies that are repeat violators of workplace safety, labor, environmental and other federal laws. Enron conservatives don't see why corporate lawlessness should get in the way of federal largesse. After all, in this Administration Enron's rise and fall are seen, in the words of Treasury Secretary O'Neill, as a "triumph of capitalism."
President Bush is using his popularity in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks to push through some deeply partisan legislation.
At a time when the economy needs vast and purposeful help from the federal government, America faces a peculiar handicap: Neither political party really believes in liberal economic intervention or knows how to do it. Democrats are still not over their infatuation with Hooverite fiscal austerity--embracing budget surpluses, bemoaning deficit spending. Other than serving their wealthy friends, Republicans work at dismantling government's ability to steer and stimulate the private economy. Both parties are enthralled by the most conservative advisers, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (now at Citigroup), who counsel caution. Democratic Senate majority leader Tom Daschle expressed doubts about any stimulus program, fearful that next year's budget might go into deficit.
This reluctance to act boldly will have to change very quickly. The economy was already in contraction before September 11. It needs hundreds of billions in new federal spending--yes, deficit spending--to counteract the great shrinkage under way in consumption and business investment. No one knows the severity of what's unfolding, but false optimism will make things much worse. Acting too fast and spending too much have economic risks, but none compare to what can unfold if Washington is too timid.
Back to basics. As John Maynard Keynes and American originals like Marriner Eccles, FDR's Fed chairman, taught, when the economic engine starts to seize up, government is the only force capable of jump-starting it--pulling idle capital into real investment while bolstering the incomes and confidence households need to buy things. It does this by borrowing the money from private sources--running large federal deficits financed by Treasury bonds--and spending the money in ways that generate waves of collateral economic activity. Deficit spending is not an unfortunate side effect. It is the necessary cure. America is especially vulnerable now to a deepening contraction because Washington is flush while companies as well as households, particularly those in the bottom half, are mired in debt. An aggressive government stimulus program is essential to regenerate the wherewithal--and the motivation--for business and families to renew their spending. If we are truly at war, the government must also do this in ways that renew social trust and a sense of equity. Patriotism cannot endure if the reigning ethos continues to be "winner takes all."
The $15 billion bailout for the airlines is a disgraceful start. Washington couldn't avoid aiding these terribly mismanaged companies, but it demanded nothing in return for the taxpayers or the workers being laid off by the tens of thousands. When Congress bailed out Chrysler twenty years ago, Lee Iacocca volunteered to work for $1 a year, labor got a seat on the board and the government took warrants in exchange for its cash infusion, later redeemed in full. This time hapless Democratic Party leaders refuse even to demand that the CEOs stop ripping up union contracts. The insurance industry is next in line for a handout, and there will be others. If more bailouts follow the same pattern, America's newfound unity will swiftly curdle into bitter resentments.
The agenda must be of sufficient scale to make a difference--and pump out money quickly. Top-end tax cuts, the Republican answer to all questions, are particularly inappropriate; companies and capitalists aren't likely to invest when consumers are cutting back. Particularly laughable is the reflexive Republican call for a capital gains tax cut, as if investors need an incentive to sell stocks.
The government's $40 billion emergency appropriation for reconstruction and the military is only a hesitant start. Washington should immediately ship $40 billion or $60 billion (or more) in revenue sharing to state governments that are being forced by balanced budget requirements to cut spending or raise taxes. And rather than cut domestic spending to pay for the huge bundle just approved for the Pentagon, Congress should fully fund domestic programs--particularly those in education, nutrition, housing and health. Congress should also act immediately to aid those workers being laid off through no fault of their own. A sensible program would extend unemployment insurance to thirty-six weeks and raise the average benefit to $300 a week. Special provisions are needed for short-term, contract and part-time workers, who would otherwise not be eligible for assistance. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that a decent unemployment insurance program might cost $30 billion a year.
On a grander scale, America has huge unfilled public investment needs that can easily cost more than $1 trillion over the next five years. The money can buy things people and society want and need:
§ Education. School boards have a backlog of thousands of desperately needed school construction and repair proposals. A $40 billion school fund could generate construction jobs and contracts across the country in a matter of weeks.
§ Health. One essential defense against terrorist attack with biological or chemical weapons is to rebuild our decayed public health infrastructure--laboratories, public hospitals and clinics, and properly staffed public health departments with modern computer and communications systems.
§ Transportation. To counter highway congestion and the nightmare of air travel, the country needs to develop alternatives like high-speed trains. This takes planning and time, but many projects are ready to go. For example, MAGLEV Inc., a Pittsburgh consortium, has been seeking federal funds to demonstrate a high-speed train that could get to Philadelphia in ninety minutes.
In addition, Congress can swiftly get money into the hands of those most likely to spend it. The next tax rebate can be targeted to low-wage workers who got nothing from the Bush tax cut; it would pump about $10 billion into the economy. The government could require all contractors to boost pay to a living-wage level. Aggressive new wage standards should be part of the government's quid pro quo for corporate bailouts. Indebted families need "stretched out" payment terms so they can keep spending.
After decades of conservative government, the list of needs and possibilities is long. Alert citizens must understand that it's time for Washington to act boldly, on a scale commensurate with the challenge. They must awaken Washington politicians from the stupor that suffocates imagination.
The facts about Bush's tax cuts are being kept from the public.
Resident Bush's budget brandishes the camouflaged conservatism that is the hallmark of this disingenuous Administration. It advertises a 4 percent increase in discretionary spending that's in reality virtually a freeze, after taking into account inflation and population growth. Since spending on the military is going up, the amount actually committed to domestic programs is cut by 4.7 percent in real per capita terms. Bush boasts an 11 percent increase in education funding, but much of that simply counts money committed in last year's budget. And the increase is offset by deep cuts in expenditures for job training and displaced workers, even as the economy slows.
Much of the budget is fraudulent, knowingly so. Spending must be squelched to afford Bush's tax cut while paying down the debt. But the President isn't serious about cutting popular programs. So he calls for deep cuts in farm programs, which he knows Republican senators will block. He ends subsidies to US shipbuilders, which he knows Senate majority leader Trent Lott will reverse. Otherwise, the largest losers are environmental, renewable energy and energy conservation programs. Bush's answer to the energy crisis is to drill on every jot of federal land that might hold oil. His prescription for those concerned about global warming is presumably a little more arsenic in their water. The real military budget remains a mystery, awaiting the Defense Secretary's "strategic review." Yet, even the defense marker used in the current budget returns the military to its cold war average.
Democrats and moderate Republicans are boasting that they've already abandoned the Bush budget and are falsely declaring victory because they knocked a quarter off his tax cut. Congress will surely add money to education, restore funds to children's health and disability programs, and protect farmers (read, agribusiness). And it is likely to double the funds Bush earmarks for a prescription drug benefit in Medicare. We will witness a furious debate over these numbers, with Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate facing off against the remorseless Tom DeLay and his conservative majority in the House.
Lost in this scrapping is any mention of the real opportunities facing the nation. Years of economic growth have generated potential government surpluses--$5.6 trillion at the most recent estimate. Now, with the economy slowing, we have the chance to invest in making the country better and help jump-start the economy at the same time. Bush's most disingenuous claim is that his budget "takes care of our needs." In reality, it merely assumes that all needs are met and projects a continued decline in federal domestic discretionary programs to their lowest levels as a percentage of GDP in history.
Instead, we could truly address the disgraceful truth that in this rich nation one in six children is raised in poverty and deprived of the healthy, fair start vital to equal opportunity. Now we have the resources to rebuild an aging and overburdened infrastructure--witnessed daily in the power blackouts, collapsing sewers and aged water systems, overburdened airports, deferred toxic waste cleanups. Now we can redress the growing shortage of affordable housing and insure that every American has access to healthcare. We could even meet the international standard for foreign assistance and lead the world in providing real debt relief for the poor nations and in launching a humane response to the AIDS pandemic. All these are within reach--but are ruled out by a bipartisan consensus that more than half the surplus ($3 trillion over ten years) must be used for debt reduction in the name of "saving" Social Security and Medicare. Bush would consume the rest of the projected surplus (if not more) with his tax cuts, about 40 percent of which will go to the millionaires in the richest 1 percent of the nation. Democrats seem ready to declare victory if they can trim Bush's ten-year tax cut by 25 percent and spend the savings primarily on a prescription drug benefit.
We are about to witness a debate about priorities in Washington. But none of the alternatives debated will address our challenges or our opportunities. If progressives in the Democratic Party are to serve any function, it's time for them to find their voice.
The election results reveal what may be an "emerging progressive majority."
It won't be a revolution, but progressives see support for much of their agenda.
In this gilded-age election, big money is speaking louder than ever. And
voters and large contributors to both parties agree that when money
talks, politicians listen.
Ralph Nader, America's indomitable public citizen, is the one great man
in this presidential election.