Enron: Bad apple or poisoned orchard

Will Ken Lay be found guilty? Objection, your honor, that question is irrelevant!

Published February 10, 2006 6:51PM (EST)

Two things I learned while following the Houston Chronicle's coverage of the Enron trial yesterday. First, the judge called a five-minute break at one point so that a defense attorney could scrub off his cologne -- apparently one of the jurors was gagging on the scent. Second, reports that the judge is becoming increasingly impatient with another defense attorney turns out not necessarily to be a good thing for the prosecution. One of the lawyers blogging the trial for the Chronicle observed that really crafty defense lawyers sometimes purposefully try to get the judge angry with them, because then over time the jury might start taking pity on the poor beleaguered attorney.

As you might surmise, it was a slow news day at the Enron trial yesterday. But it was while mulling over these little info-nuggets and at the same time pondering the role of Monsanto in the fight over genetically modified organisms that I came to a little more clarity as to the true significance of the Enron saga.

Naturally, media attention directed at Enron right now is focused on a very narrow question -- are Lay and Skilling guilty of intent to commit fraud? Once we get a yes or a no on that, then the whole sorry mess is theoretically wrapped up neatly with a bow, and we can move on to the next corporate scandal. But the truth is that their guilt or innocence doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things. The real story of Enron is the story of a company that flourished in an age of deregulation, that had such mighty power that it could get laws changed to allow it to act with less and less restraint, and that with that freedom came complete and utter irresponsibility.

Imagine if, say, a Merck or a Monsanto were run as recklessly as an Enron. The potential public health or environmental disasters that could be spawned by cutting-edge pharmaceutical or biotech firms is a cyberpunk nightmare. Modern multinational corporations have far too much power to be allowed to A) police themselves, and B) influence the crafting of laws that affect their business. They need to be reined in, and they need to be isolated from the political process, not in charge of it. Of course, the complete opposite has been happening in the global economy. Corporate influence and power is at an all-time global high.

The conservative response to Enron's misadventures is to call the company a "bad apple." This betrays a willful ignorance as to how a company that was routinely lauded by Wall Street as the best-run corporation in the world could go so off the rails. If Enron was a bad apple, it was because legislators had so thoroughly mismanaged the orchard that there was no chance of a healthy harvest.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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