Why Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling love George Bush.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
As the Enron trial wraps up, it is infuriating to be reminded about how Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling slipped millions in their pockets while their company crumbled around them. For me, more offensive than their criminality is their greed, and their disregard for the hardworking Americans they were playing for chumps.
What’s even worse is the knowledge that even if they go to prison, their ilk will remain among us—living fabulous lives while most Americans struggle.
The Enron execs’ defense team argued that prosecutors were trying to criminalize legitimate corporate practices. The lawyers put before the jury a parade of expert witnesses who testified that Lay’s and Skilling’s actions—while perhaps morally questionable—were nevertheless perfectly legal. According to the cutthroat ethos of contemporary corporate culture, they said, this is business as usual.
In a democratic nation, there are not two classes of citizens. This is a basic American value, and we’re losing it.
This argument is so maddening because it almost sounds true. We live in a time when top executives are expected to be greedy. Corporate bosses now earn 150 times what an average worker in their companies earns. Twenty years ago, they earned 25 times as much as their workers. Where honorable business leaders throughout American history were satisfied to become comfortably rich by working hard to make their companies profitable, this new breed believe they deserve to be super-rich.
Even if they aren’t breaking the law, these people exhibit the same brand of callous greed that drove Lay and Skilling. Like those two crooks, they don’t care about regular people. They have created an American aristocracy.
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Last week, the US Senate passed almost $70 billion in tax cuts, extending President Bush’s massive tax cut plan that passed in 2001 and 2003. According to the Tax Policy Center in Washington, people earning $1 million a year would save about $42,700 under the plan. People earning $40,000 to $50,000 a year would save about $47.
On his Web site (whitehouse.gov), President Bush issued a statement in support of the plan: “These are the basic ideas that guide my tax policy: lower income taxes for all, with the greatest help for those most in need. Everyone who pays income taxes benefits—while the highest percentage tax cuts go to the lowest income Americans. I believe this is…an economics of inclusion. It is the agenda of a government that knows its limits and shows its heart.”
No. This is the agenda of a government that intends to fatten the wallets of the super-rich. This is an agenda that will strengthen the creation of an American aristocracy, and strike at the heart of America’s democratic values.
The shameless greed and dishonesty on display at the Enron trial and in the White House this past couple of weeks should offend our sense of democracy. But sadly, that word itself is being stripped of its meaning. Democracy means a lot more than majority rules. Democracy is a value. Democratic values recognize that people ought to be equal. In a democratic nation, there are not two classes of citizens. There is no aristocracy. This is a basic American value, and we’re losing it.
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The trickle-down theorists argue that tax cuts help the economy, and in the short term that can be true. But the deficits they cause create long-term problems. And they create immediate pain for “those most in need” by destroying government’s ability to help them.
When Bush signed his massive income tax cut into law in 2002, the richest 5 percent of Americans were slated to receive $24 billion in relief. The following year, more than half a billion dollars was cut from the Army Corps of Engineers budget. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that “despite warnings that it could slow emergency response to future flood and hurricane victims, House Republicans stripped $389 million in disaster relief money from the budget.”
Two years later, when Hurricane Katrina hit, we all witnessed a complete failure of government. That, too, is part of the president’s plan. At the same time that the super-rich are being given unbridled wealth and power, the democratic institutions of government are being purposely taken apart.
Almost a decade ago, Grover Norquist, a conservative hero and an architect of the Bush plan, spelled it out: “My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years,” he said, “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Norquist is no doubt smiling about the passage of the Bush tax plan. Ken Lay (a longtime friend of the president) and Jeff Skilling, despite their present difficulties, are likely also pleased.