Reform? What reform?

I'm no economist, although I did manage to make it through two semesters in the midst of an otherwise now-extinct liberal arts curriculum. I leave the serious dismal stuff to Barry, but Paul Krugman always makes things accessible to those who would normally not bother with economics at any remove from their own finances. Unfortunately, these days we all have more reason than ever to bother--and be bothered.

His essay shows why absolutely nothing is going to happen while those frat boys are running the show in Washington and in the board rooms, so forget about reform. Once again, real campaign finance reform is the only hope for our rescue. Nothing short of our liberation from corporate America will make a damn bit of difference, and that liberation just isn't in the cards we're being dealt.

Some cynics attribute the continuing absence of Enron indictments to the Bush family's loyalty code. But the alternative explanation is both innocent and chilling: Enron executives may have deluded and defrauded their shareholders without actually breaking the law. What Cisco did was definitely legal.

Since Enron collapsed, administration officials have insisted that no new laws are needed to reform corporate America, only enforcement of existing laws. The administration endorsed a bill imposing modest reforms in accounting only after doing everything it could to block it. And as soon as the bill was passed, the administration began issuing "guidance" to federal prosecutors that will undermine the law's intent on whistle-blower protection, document shredding and more. Officials clearly still think the old law was good enough.

But the Cisco story, like the absence of Enron indictments, demonstrates just how much self-enrichment corporate insiders can get away with while staying within the letter of the law. [Two years ago Cisco was the world's most valuable company, with a market capitalization of more than $500 billion. Its C.E.O. was among the world's best-paid executives, receiving $157 million in 2000. Today its market capitalization is $100 billion. Fortune magazine ranked the firm's management #13 in its "greedy bunch."] The handful of executives who have been arrested aren't masterminds — on the contrary, given the legal ways other executives got rich while their stockholders lost billions, the perp-walkers should be featured on a special corporate edition of "America's Dumbest Criminals."

Now the administration is sounding the all clear — we've passed a bill, we've arrested five people, it's all over.

[Among the speakers at this morning's administation-touted, Potemkin Village economic forum in Waco, Texas, was John T. Chambers, C.E.O. of Cisco Systems.]

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Published on August 13, 2002 4:00 PM.

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