In pursuit of temperance

Posted: Jul 23, 2002 12:00 AM
Democratic senators on the investigating committee looking into Enron had a happy time at the expense of a former Enron executive, Secretary of the Army Thomas White, who had a solid refresher course on combat duty. He didn't risk his life, but he certainly risked his reputation, ending the bloody encounter by saying that he was "ashamed" of what had happened to Enron.

But the prosecution was not there to grant absolutions. Senators Bryan Dorgan, Barbara Boxer and Max Cleland are clearly returning to their bases only to pick up extra fuel and ammunition for another sortie.

A moment in the exchange that proved entrancing to the television news had one senator saying to the Army secretary, "How much money did you make working for Enron?" Answer: "I don't know, exactly."

Q: Well, are you worth 10 million dollars?

A: I haven't counted.

Q: Twenty million?

A: I would have to add it up.

Then Senator Cleland of Georgia, who was decorated for military service in Vietnam, let drop a blockbuster bomb. "In combat, officers eat last. In the economic turmoil, the economic warfare that they faced, Enron officers ate first."

Cleland was addressing a man who graduated from West Point, served 23 years in the U.S. Army, was awarded a Silver Star for heroic conduct under fire, then went to the private sector with Enron, and is now back in the public sector with the Bush administration. His defense had been simply that he worked in a division of Enron removed from any division that could have engaged in the attempted manipulation of energy prices. That, yes, he had made money, the equivalent, in business, of the tender earned by politicians who engage in heroism under television lights.

In his Army career, White was never accused of self-pity, but in the atmosphere of the committee room he did think it justified to remark that he too had been affected by the collapse of Enron. He was left holding 665,000 stock options in January that were worthless.

Sights need to be sharpened on the matter of temperance, which is what it comes down to. Alan Greenspan -- "Parson" Greenspan, The Wall Street Journal dubbed him the day after the Fed boss announced that "infectious greed" had been the cause of our problems -- left studious listeners wondering what were the new rules that should govern the appetites of men and women engaged in business. We are all waiting to hear described, and taught how to cope with, the second layer of wealth malefaction.

The first targets are easy; they are those who fraudulently conceal or misrepresent the truth. They should spend time in jail, and if current law doesn't provide for the appropriate return of properties acquired by dishonesty, this is the right season to enact such laws so that ex post facto limitations don't continue to get in the way. The public doesn't get the right kind of satisfaction when dealing with an executive who realizes $50 million by cheating the investors, is sent to jail for three years, and comes out owning $50 million plus interest. Less lawyers' fees, to be sure.

In the '70s, when there was political wrangling over welfare cheating, Irving Kristol came out with an aphorism worth contemplating. If federal money is there to be had, people will have it. If you have to pretend that you'd otherwise be hungry, you pretend you'd otherwise be hungry. If you have to pretend you'd otherwise have no place to sleep, you pretend that otherwise you would have no place to sleep -- never mind that dear old Mom has been feeding and sheltering you.

If the law permits reprehensible behavior, people will engage in reprehensible behavior, unless other sanctions come in. Aristotle said that true virtue is placed "at an equal distance between the opposite vices." He told us that self-indulgence was infantile, childish. Children "live at the beck and call of appetite, and it is in them that the desire for what is pleasant is strongest."

Tens of millions of dollars are a source of great pleasure, and inhibitions to self-gratification are not dominant in the Playboy age. What has correctly enraged the public is the wantonness of some who engage in industry. How, in the absence of positive law, are they to be checked? There is the factor of indecency, an aversion to which (the quote is Charles Darwin) "is so valuable an aid to chastity, a modern virtue, appertaining exclusively to civilized life."

For all that the senators closeted with Mr. White were engaging from time to time in demagogic raillery, they were certainly appealing to the factor of decency.