The combination of the back-from-the-dead passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate responsibility bill and the broadcast-ready perp walks of Adelphia's John Rigas and WorldCom's Scott Sullivan may give the public the sense that corporate reform is a done deal.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
And it's not just because of the long list of vital reforms still needed. It's because the corporate crimes we've been so sickened by are only symptoms of a much larger -- and more insidious -- crisis. In a bloodless coup, our government by, for and of the people has been replaced by the dictatorship of the corporate dollar.
Watching President Bush smile for the cameras as he signed Sarbanes-Oxley -- a bill he never supported -- I couldn't help but wonder if the twinkle in his eye was because he knew something the rest of us didn't. That for all his get-tough promises -- "No more easy money for corporate criminals, just hard time" -- this bill would actually do very little to change the level of corporate influence over our government.
It made me think of the time a friend took a family trip on a cruise ship. Her 10-year-old son kept pestering every crew member he encountered, begging for a chance to drive the massive ocean liner. The captain finally invited the family up to the bridge, whereupon the boy grabbed hold of the wheel and began vigorously turning it. My friend panicked -- until the captain leaned over and told her not to worry, that the ship was on autopilot, and that her son's antic maneuvers would have no effect.
It's the same with our leaders. They stand on the bridge making theatrical gestures they claim will steer us in a new direction while, down in the control room, the autopilot, programmed by politicians in the pocket of special interests, continues to guide the ship of state along its predetermined course.
Take the much-ballyhooed corporate reform law. Although it's being presented as a big win for the public interest, corporate lobbyists actually succeeded in fighting off a whole slew of potential reforms: stock options still don't have to be treated as a business expense, offshore tax havens are still allowed, and there's been no pension fund reform. It's no accident that despite the high-profile arrests no executives from the granddaddy of corporate scandals, the Enron collapse, have been indicted. The simple, though hard-to-believe fact is that none of their mendacious and mercenary maneuverings are clearly illegal -- and nothing in Sarbanes-Oxley changes that.
What's more, industry lobbyists were able to water down many of the provisions that actually made it into the bill, including those affecting the ability of accounting firms to offer consulting services to the companies they audit -- a major disease vector for dishonest bookkeeping. The law doesn't ban such double dipping -- it only limits it. And even those limits can be overridden by the new accounting oversight board.
A few more "victories" like this and we're going to lose the war.
It's really pretty astounding when you think of it: With all the public outrage and media focus on corporate wrongdoing, moneyed interests are still able to outgun or undermine the public interest -- as our political leaders shamelessly continue dancing to their tune.
How else to explain the brazen hypocrisy exhibited by the president after last week's ceremonial signing of the new bill? Less than eight hours after warning corporate crooks "you will be exposed," he furtively issued an interpretation of the law undercutting a provision designed to make it easier for employees to -- you got it -- expose corporate crooks.
When the president's action was harshly criticized by the provision's bipartisan co-sponsors, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer puffed out his chest and sniffed: "Welcome to the statutes. That's why statutes are often complicated, and that's why somebody created lawyers." In other words: "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."
If these guys are this audacious now, I shudder to think what will be going on a few months down the line, when the media's notoriously short attention has moved on to Iraq or Ben and J.Lo or Ben and J.Lo's invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, you can bet that corporate America -- with its Energizer Bunny lobbyists and wide-open checkbooks -- will still be working overtime to ensure the perpetuation of the status quo.
Over the last 10 years, corporations have doled out over $1.08 billion in campaign contributions. And this down payment on preferential public policy has extended across party lines, with $636 million going to Republicans and $449 million to Democrats.
Yet Al Gore, in his New York Times j'accuse, still had the gall to lay the blame for the current threat to "the future of democratic capitalism" squarely at the feet of Republicans "bankrolled by a new generation of special interests." What utter claptrap.
What makes the ongoing corporate crime wave not just a business scandal but a political one, is precisely the fact that there is simply no consistent institutional opposition to the corporate takeover of our politics -- certainly not from the Democratic Party. It was, after all, Tom Daschle who blocked the stock option amendment proposed by John McCain. And all but two Democratic senators have accepted campaign contributions from WorldCom, Enron or Arthur Andersen.
No group is able to match the relentless lobbying and contributing by corporate heavy hitters. And until we have such a countervailing force -- one that will storm the control room on the S.S. America and shut off the autopilot -- we are doomed to live in a less and less democratic society.