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When the lights went out on Enron

December 7, 2001 | Page 3

THE SPECTACULAR collapse of the giant energy company Enron last month was a fitting conclusion to the hype and lies about the 1990s "miracle" economy.

With federal investigators looking into a multibillion-dollar accounting scandal, Enron, the seventh-largest corporation in the U.S. last year, declared bankruptcy at the beginning of December. No one knows what the full impact will be on the economy.

So much for one of the great "success stories" of the 1990s--an unknown, medium-scale natural gas producer transformed into the toast of Wall Street.

Enron became a corporate giant by exploiting deregulation--the dismantling of government restrictions, supposedly to allow the free market to work its magic. What deregulation really did was line the bosses' pockets.

As consumer rights advocate Doug Heller explained, Enron specialized in taking over a system run by the government--like electricity transmission--and raking in profits "out of nothing, simply by adding cost to the product en route."

California's disastrous 1996 deregulation law was a classic example. The state's utility companies were required to sell power plants and buy electricity on the open market--from middlemen like Enron that jacked up prices to staggering highs.

The scam depended on political connections. In particular, Enron CEO Ken Lay was a big booster of fellow Texan George W. Bush. When his boy took over the White House, Lay got veto power over administration energy policy.

But the company's success also depended on sophisticated accounting practices--otherwise known as fraud. To keep its profit statements looking good, Enron hid billions upon billions in debt. Wall Street investors and even financial auditors tolerated the company's incomprehensible records as long as the profits kept rolling in.

But when the scale of the swindle began to emerge recently, Enron's stock price plummeted. Lay and his boardroom buddies got their money out in time and remain multimillionaires. But Enron workers got the shaft--their retirement plans are locked up in now worthless company stock.

Government investigators may indict a few executives for wrongdoing. But as Salon magazine columnist Andrew Leonard said, the free-marketeers will keep claiming that Enron was a bad apple and its meltdown was "exceptional."

"Come on," Leonard wrote. "What could possibly be more business as usual than high-ranking executives cashing out at the top of the market, as Lay did, while employees are left holding the bag?"

Enron's collapse shows that the only thing "miraculous" about the "miracle" economy was the obscene wealth of the bosses.

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