Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron, under cross-examination in federal court on Monday, explaining why he hadn't cut back on his personal expenses when Enron began to crumble:
"We could have reduced some living costs, but as I said earlier, we had realized the American dream. We were living a very expensive lifestyle."
I normally read the press coverage of the Ken Lay/Jeff Skilling trial out of a sense of responsibility -- I've been following the debacle since the Wall Street Journal first started exposing Andrew Fastow's fraudulent "special purpose vehicles" and I desperately want to know how the story will end. I don't expect penetrating insights into the American character. But there, in one testy nutshell, Mr. Lay summed up the essence of contemporary American society. As he uttered those words, he partially explained why millions of immigrants were marching on the streets that very moment. Love it or leave it, the United States is the land of opportunity, where everyone has the right to a monster SUV, a vacation home in Aspen, and, should gas prices rise too fast, a direct handout from the feds.
I was immediately reminded of an editorial in today's New York Times lambasting the prospective stupidity of selling more Treasury bonds to China to pay for the $10 billion necessary to afford giving a $100 rebate to every American. The editorial noted that deepening our indebtedness to China would not strengthen our diplomatic hand as we struggle to deal with the destructive implications of China's economic growth on the world environment. But in passing, the editors noted, "The United States can't, and shouldn't, try to curb China's economic progress, or the appetite of Chinese consumers for the good things in life."
Heck, no! How could we possibly dare to dissuade the Chinese from pursuing the American dream, from living that "very expensive lifestyle"? It's a little late in the game, after all, to try and convince anyone, anywhere, that the "good things in life" don't automatically equate to a private jet in every garage and regular shopping sprees on the Champs-Elysées.
And even if Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling do get convicted of fraud, even if they are exposed, once and for all, as the epitome of everything that is wrong with an out-of-control business culture, that much won't change. The rest of the world wants Ken Lay's dream, and we're all going to pay for it.