The Hightower Lowdown
Linda Lay is a poor little rich girl; the WTO bites its own creators; Enron got what it paid for.
The Lays' Sob Story
I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or throw up.
The televised tearjerker titled "Ken Lay, What a Guy!" starred Linda Lay, the wife of Enron CEO Ken, in an Emmy Award-winning performance. Like the wives of prominent politicians who get caught with their pants down, Linda was thrust in front of the cameras to shed wifely tears and testify to the inner goodness of her husband, who's been caught with his hands in the pants pockets of Enron investors and employees, bringing them and their company down.
Only it wasn't his doing, wailed Linda on NBC's Today show, explaining that Ken is a "moral human being who would do absolutely nothing wrong." Well Linda, all those employees who lost their jobs and life savings because of executive-suite finagling on Ken's watch might have a different perspective on your man's morality.
Oh, but Linda cried to the TV interviewer, it's not about those people ... it's about us! When asked directly how she felt about the employees' losses, she snapped back: "We've lost everything." In Shakespearean tones she moaned, "It's gone. There's nothing left."
Well, not exactly nothing. For example, her sob-story TV performance was broadcast from the Lay's $7 million penthouse towering above an exclusive Houston enclave, so don't look for them at the homeless shelter. Indeed, while pleading poverty, she was seated in a room outfitted with oriental rugs, wood paneling, imported marble, and exquisite furnishings. That room cost more than your and my houses combined. Her idea of "nothing" is that she and Ken are having to sell three of their four vacation properties in Aspen -- two of which are priced at $6 million each.
Then there's all the money Ken socked away in his gravy years -- $200 million in the last three years alone. Do you think a big wad of that might be in one of those secret offshore accounts that the Enron executives set up for themselves?
I think I'm going to throw up.
A Game of Global Gotcha
Well, well, well -- the WTO has bitten its own backers right on the butt.
The World Trade Organization, the secretive and autocratic tribunal in Geneva, was the brainchild of a handful of giant U.S. corporations. They wanted a world governing body that would advance the global corporate agenda, literally giving the WTO veto power over national and even local laws worldwide. Global corporate interests wanted to be able to challenge any law anywhere that gets in the way of their profiteering.
They got their wish. But, whoops, what they hadn't figured when ramming this totalitarian beast through a lame-duck session of Congress in 1994 was that foreign corporations might sic the WTO on some of the sweetheart, special-interest laws that Congress has passed for U.S. corporations. And this is exactly what has happened. European corporations complained to the WTO about a U.S. law that allows giant American firms to hide profits in offshore subsidiaries, thus avoiding taxes.
Indeed, such outfits as Boeing, GE, General Motors, Microsoft -- and of course, Enron -- are big users of this loophole, evading more than $4 billion a year in taxes they owe. The WTO, in secret session, has now ruled that this U.S. tax-haven law is a subsidy that violates WTO rules, so the law must be rescinded. Or, if Congress prefers, the corporate subsidy can be kept and we taxpayers can compensate for it by forking over billions of dollars in penalties to the European companies.
So what we regular Americans have here is a triple whammy. One, Congress passes a stupid law allowing corporations to avoid paying taxes. Two, Congress sets up the anti-democratic WTO, which allows corporations to overturn our own laws. Three, when the WTO overturns our stupid tax-haven law, the corporations lobby to force us taxpayers to cover their WTO penalties. It's a game of global corporate gotcha.
Enron Got 'No Favors'
It's hard to write satire in America, because our daily news feed is filled with so much absurdity that ridicule is rendered redundant.
Take the official political reaction to the Enron scandal, which is that while Enron honchos had to use forklifts to deliver all the campaign cash they gave to assorted politicians, they got nothing -- absolutely nothing -- in return for their money. How do you satirize that?
Got nothing? Let's itemize: One, Enron execs got six private meetings with Vice-President Dick Cheney to help write the Bush energy bill -- which just happens to include 17 special interest provisions that would benefit Enron. Two, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's first formal action was to scuttle a Clinton initiative to shut down offshore tax havens that let corporations skip out on paying their taxes -- with 881 of these offshore accounts, Enron had more than any other of the corporate tax dodgers. Three, Bush let Enron handpick the head of the agency that regulates its business. Four, George's infamous "stimulus" package contains a $287 million tax rebate for Enron. Five, Cheney personally intervened to try to make India pay more than $2 billion to Enron for a power-plant scam that Enron was running there. All of this is nothing?
Enron always got what it paid for.
Jim Hightower's latest book, If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, is available in a fully revised and updated paperback edition.