Corporate America's exposure as potential financially corrupt entities began in earnest with Enron. Investors, employees, and the public learned that executive management operated with relative impunity as it cooked the books, so to speak. Most Americans sympathize with the Enron employees who lost their retirement funds, but the Enron treachery reaches much further than its own company personnel. Many money managers, including many mutual-fund allocations, were vested in Enron to satisfy diversification strategies that called for investment in energy stocks. Thousands of independent investors also lost huge sums because of the greed and deception perpetrated by a handful of executives at Enron Corporation, along with their equally culpable accounting partners, Arthur Anderson.
Congress called for an investigation and held hearings, which C-SPAN televised, to see what it could learn about the Enron treachery. This was an exercise in futility from the beginning for two reasons. First, the perpetrators merely invoked their Fifth Amendment rights to not incriminate themselves, so they were excused from the proceedings, and second, it was apparent that the panel of congressmen holding the hearings was inadequate to deal with the complexities of the information facing it. The perpetrators who did agree to speak easily maneuvered around the panel, avoiding any meaningful dialogue, and leaving many questions not only unanswered but still needing to be asked. The panel lacked the financial sophistication needed to truly extract, synthesize, and disseminate the information necessary to understand the situation, let alone to create and implement policy to avoid such conduct in the future.
Meanwhile, other corporations have fallen from grace, and surely more will follow. Deceptive accounting, inappropriately high payouts to executive management, insider trading and manipulation of stock values for personal gain, raiding pension funds for purposes other than retirement allocations - the list goes on. But the treachery is yet to be punished in any meaningful way. Enron employees are broke, while a select few executives are enjoying monumental wealth. It isn't just a question of where is the justice, but what is the justice?
The truth is, the government engages in precisely the same treachery that corporations do, but because it is taxpayers' money, and in seemingly unlimited supply, the consequences are not immediately apparent. No matter how inefficient or corrupt government is, tax dollars continue to flow into its coffers, with no accountability whatsoever. And whose fault is this? Make no mistake: It is yours and mine.
It is important to remember that members of the current administration have been well-documented for their involvement in creating energy policy that favored Enron and other energy-related companies over the interests of the public and taxpayers. Several of these same members are also under fire for deceitful accounting practices when they were running corporations instead of countries, including Vice President Dick Cheney. According to the Wall Street Journal (July 11, page A4), the conservative legal watchdog group Judicial Watch has filed suit against Halliburton Company on behalf of shareholders "alleging the company used fraudulent accounting practices when Mr. Cheney headed the company. Judicial Watch, of Washington, D.C., says the oil-field-services concern overstated revenues by a total of $445 million from 1999 through the end of 2001."
Halliburton released a statement disavowing the allegations "the groups claims are 'untrue, unsupported and unfounded.'"
President Bush is the focus of a renewed effort to investigate not only Halliburton but Harken Energy Company. (You will recall that George W. was not timely in his SEC-disclosure filing when he sold of his shares of Harken Energy in 1990. To add to the controversy, when asked what the holdup had been, he was again slow in responding.) This is not to imply that this is a Republican modus operandi, because Bill Clinton's activities are also implicated relative to energy policy during his administration.
The disconcerting reality is that if our own administrative leadership engaged in the very practices that are undermining the financial structural core of our economy, then how can we realistically expect change, let alone retribution? In fact, we can't.
The question then becomes: What are we going to do about it? By "we," I mean the American people. In the end, it is our collective voice that creates any needed change. This does not mean that we all get together first and figure things out, build consensus, then march out and vote politicians in or out of office according to our established values or principles. It means that with purpose and determination, we individually make up our minds about what we each believe is right, and we individually make it a priority to go to the polls and vote for the candidates that best reflect our position on matters. It happens entirely on an individual basis - each person committing internally to no longer tolerate unacceptable standards or conduct by our elected officials. Each person's individual effort inevitably results in a larger, collective response precisely because we are each doing our individual part by casting our single, precious vote. That is traditionally how America has worked.
Americans are remarkable in their ability to self-govern. We are able to express passion about one issue over another, but also comprehend the entire spectrum of governance. Mostly Americans are sensible and compassionate, which, unfortunately, also allows us to be complacent and disengaged. If the process loses meaning for us, then we tend to ignore it, rather than reinvent it to restore its meaning.
This may explain why many voters have removed themselves from the political process. Sadly, many of us have not been doing our individual part. Nationwide, this year's primaries had the lowest voter turnout ever. We are ignoring our civic obligation for many reasons, but none really explains or excuses our individual abdication. If we have no confidence in the slate of candidates, then it is our individual responsibility to find individuals whom we can trust to represent us. Undeniably it is a sacrifice, but Americans have always made sacrifices to continue to be great and free. Viable change necessarily begins within each citizen. We finally decide that we've had enough disappointment, misrepresentation, unacceptable conduct, and marginalizing of the American public. We are the quintessential special interest group that our elected officials should be serving. This is a political non-negotiable. First each of us must envision and define what we need and want in elected representation. What are our expectations of federal government, the states, and our municipalities? Consider that we pay for every single solitary governmental program that exists with our tax dollars. Are we getting our money's worth? Is the service worth what we pay for it? Why should we evaluate our governmental products and services any differently than our consumer products and services? In some ways, we actually have more control because we have elected officials who are directly accountable to each of us individually, as well as collectively. If we truly approached politics with this perspective, we would have a very different result. It is possible. We can implement such a vision with the power of our vote. When you consider what the impact would be if everybody made it their personal business to learn about the candidates and cast an informed vote, it staggers the mind. The political machine would tilt. The campaign strategists absolutely count on all those who don't vote to not go to the polls. They literally plan for it. The smaller the voter turnout, the easier it is to win a campaign - and the cheaper! They can specifically target voters who they know will vote, an easy task because the auditor keeps a record of such information for every election. The candidates are coached on the issues, tailoring their message for this small percentage of voters, hopefully persuading voters at the polls. It is extraordinarily manipulative, and it works. But it only works because of the large number of people who don't vote. If every citizen decided to vote in all the elections, candidates would have to appeal to more diverse groups of citizens by dealing with much broader issues at every level. It would force the candidates to engage and educate a much larger constituency about who they are and why they merit our vote. Candidates would be compelled to learn more about the issues, which in turn would hopefully cause genuine concern and earnest problem-solving to occur. And that is just the beginning.
It is a complete myth that a single vote doesn't count, but certainly a myth that most politicians want us to believe. The truth is that every single, solitary vote counts because it contributes to what evolves as the collective voice of the American people. It is the most empowering civic tool available to all who bother to use it.