January 28, 2002
Enron: Under-Regulated or Over-Subsidized?
New revelations concerning wrongdoings at Enron seem to surface every day, and the scandal took a tragic turn last week with the suicide of a top Enron executive. In Washington, Congress has been scrambling to assemble hearings that will make various members look properly outraged and committed to reform. The popular media and some politicians want to portray Enron as a reckless company whose problems stemmed from a lack of federal oversight. Already legislation has been introduced to force all publicly traded companies to submit to federal audits.
In truth, however, the problem was not the lack of government involvement with Enron, but rather the close relationship between Enron and government. Enron in fact was deeply involved with the federal government throughout the 1990s, both through its lobbying efforts and as a recipient of large amounts of corporate welfare.
Enron provides a perfect example of the dangers of corporate subsidies. The company was (and is) one of the biggest beneficiaries of Export-Import Bank subsidies. The Ex-Im bank, a program that Congress continues to fund with your tax dollars, essentially makes risky loans to foreign governments and businesses for projects involving American companies. The Bank, which purports to help developing nations, really acts as a naked subsidy for certain politically-favored American corporations- especially corporations like Enron that lobbied hard and gave huge amounts of cash to both political parties. Its reward was more that $600 million in cash via six different Ex-Im financed projects.
One such project, a power plant in India, played a big part in Enron's demise. The company had trouble selling the power to local officials, adding to its huge $618 million loss for the third quarter of 2001. Former president Clinton worked hard to secure the India deal for Enron in the mid-90s; not surprisingly, his 1996 campaign received $100,000 from the company. Yet the media makes no mention of this favoritism. Clinton may claim he was "protecting" tax dollars, but those tax dollars should never have been sent to India in the first place.
Enron similarly benefitted from another federal boondoggle, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. OPIC operates much like the Ex-Im Bank, providing taxpayer-funded loan guarantees for overseas projects, often in countries with shaky governments and economies. An OPIC spokesman claims the organization paid more than one billion dollars for 12 projects involving Enron, dollars that now may never be repaid. Once again, corporate welfare benefits certain interests at the expense of taxpayers.
The point is that Enron was intimately involved with the federal government. While most in Washington are busy devising ways to "save" investors with more government, we should be viewing the Enron mess as an argument for less government. It is precisely because government is so big and so thoroughly involved in every aspect of business that Enron felt the need to seek influence through campaign money. It is precisely because corporate welfare is so extensive that Enron cozied up to Congress and the Clinton administration. It's a game every big corporation plays in our heavily regulated economy, because they must when the government, rather than the marketplace, distributes the spoils.
This does not mean Enron is to be excused. There seems to be little question that executives at Enron deceived employees and investors, and any fraudulent conduct should of course be fully prosecuted. Yet we should not allow criminal fraud in one company, which constitutionally is a matter for state law, to justify the imposition of burdensome new accounting and stock regulations. We certainly should not allow the Enron collapse to be characterized as a failure of capitalism or free markets, because the opposite is true. The Enron collapse provides an example of how government does so much to prevent the market from working properly in the first place.