Before going to church, I watched Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill say this on Fox News Sunday: "Part of the genius of capitalism" is that "people get to make good decisions or bad decisions. And they get to pay the consequences or to enjoy the fruits of their decisions."
O'Neill was doing the Sunday morning news circuit to talk about Enron, the huge energy company that just went bankrupt, destroying both the jobs and lifesavings of thousands of Enron employees, yet enriching the corporation's top executives.
O'Neill got it wrong. In fact, the emerging Enron scandal teaches a different lesson from O'Neill's - the people on the top of the American economy get rich no matter whether they make good or bad decisions, while workers and consumers are the ones who suffer from all the bad ones. In the Enron case, the company executives overestimated the company's value, ran it into the ground, lied to their employees about the company's stability, encouraged Enron's workers to invest their pension funds in company stock, and then imposed rules against selling that stock while, all at the same time, arranging an executive bailout for themselves worth $1 billion. Enron CEO Ken Lay quietly sold his company stock before the collapse for $101 million.
Of course, such influence is being downplayed because, it is argued, Bush and Cheney already agreed with the oil company's view of America's energy future. What a surprise. A big political topic in Washington is a couple of urgent phone calls made from Ken Lay to O'Neill at Treasury and Donald Evans at the Commerce Department, perhaps hoping for some last-minute administration help for old friend Enron. The Bush administration points to the fact that no help was offered, another testimony to its belief in capitalism's survival of the fittest.
But again, this episode demonstrates the survival of the richest, with all the ordinary employees losing their livelihoods and lifesavings. No one seems to worry about the fact that Ken Lay's calls got through instantly to Cabinet secretaries. The relationship between money and access is a given nobody in Washington even questions anymore. Democrats will be careful about criticizing too strongly since Enron was so bipartisan in its buying of influence - 3/4 of the Senate and 1/2 of the House benefited from Enron cash. I want to tell you that faith-based organizations and advocacy groups fighting child poverty don't get their calls though nearly so easily.
My good friend Scott Harshbarger of Common Cause will speak eloquently about how the Enron scandal dramatically demonstrates the need for campaign finance reform. And my favorite media broadcaster, Bill Moyers, will explain how events like this reveal how the very nature of democracy is being threatened in America.
But I want to get back to where I was headed before listening to O'Neill's Sunday morning homily. And I wonder if he and his administration's friends at Enron made it to church or synagogue this weekend. If they made it, what did they hear about their business and political dealings?
Let me be blunt. The behavior of Enron executives is a direct violation of biblical ethics; the teachings of both Christian and Jewish faiths would excoriate the greed, selfishness, and cheating of Enron's corporate leaders, and condemn, in the harshest terms, their callous and cruel mistreatment of employees. Read your Bibles. The strongest media critics of Enron call it putting self-interest above the public interest; biblical ethics would just call it a sin.
I don't know what the church- or synagogue-going habits of Enron's top executives are, but if they do attend services, I wonder if they will hear a religious word about the practices of arranging huge personal bonuses and escape hatches while destroying the lives of people who work for you. It's time for the pulpit to speak - to bring the Word of God to bear on the moral issues of the American economy. The Bible speaks of such things from beginning to end, so why not our pastors and preachers? O'Neill should have to hear about all this in church, after doing the Sunday morning news shows.