Misdirection, Anti-Magic and Enron

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Misdirection is the most elegant move in the magician’s repertoire, precisely because it is so simple and does not require great dexterity. As the magician raises his arm, pulling his sleeve back to bare vhis wrist and pivot his fingers, your eyes follow and slide away from what’s being done by his other hand, his feet or his lovely assistant. I once wrote a play with a character named the anti-magician whose perverse aim is to give away tricks, not easy given an audience’s desire to be fooled.

For the climactic anti-trick, the professional magician we hired as an adviser refused to let us reveal an actual secret. So we had to misdirect our audience away from the real source of the levitation to a false giveaway. But I digress.

It seems we have this to thank Enron for: they have given away the secret of a great trick of the past twenty years. I mean the fake debate over government versus private enterprise, or public versus private sector.

Credit where credit is due. Ronald Reagan was the great performer of this trick and its masterly misdirection move. He went everywhere saying, “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.” Free enterprise was the solution. “Get government off the backs of the American people,” he’d say.

Which meant off the backs of corporations. “It’s time someone said it,” he’d bravely venture, and propose ending corporate tax. People may have known he ran a big government with huge deficits, loading far more onto American backs. Yet his earnestness of delivery misdirected attention away from what he did. George W. Bush is a Reagan apprentice; during his debates with Al Gore, he called his foe a believer in government, while he trusted the people.

The reason Enron has managed to become the anti-magician and expose the trick is that it comes from the other side of the equation — from business, not government.

Despite general cynicism, it’s hard for ordinary people to call a homey, amiable guy such as Ronald Reagan or George Bush a liar. But when corporations that are supposedly being “liberated” from government turn around and embrace it with all their hearts and money, it’s easier to see the claim of conflict as a fraud. Enron spread a lot of money — not just to the President, but at every level.

Even a senator who attacked “cash and carry” government this week got some. It’s this gluttonous purchase of officials, governments and policies that distinguishes Enron from the savings-and-loan scandals a decade ago, which in many ways were more sordid. Enron reveals more about how its society works.

Once you see that the conflict between government and free enterprise, public and private, is a myth, you are freed up to ask what Enron was after. Because the company was not spending money on nothing.

Politicians take money to get re-elected. The Enrons, it turns out, have much more at stake. They were dependent on the public realm far beyond any artist or poet who gets slagged for being on the dole. Enron executives produced almost nothing, except scams for enriching themselves. You think they could make that work on their own?

They needed governments desperately:

  • for tax relief and rulings;
  • to grant access to Alaskan oil fields;
  • to eliminate environmental or accounting laws;
  • to protect them from foreign or domestic competitors and challenges by angry customers (Bush’s great passion is for “tort reform”);
  • to place their own people in cabinet or regulatory posts.

The list is endless.

Enron was in the business of government far more than energy or any usable good. You may recall that, in his leadership race with John McCain, George Bush opposed campaign-finance reform because, he said, his party needed the money. But turn that around. The Enrons need to give it, as much or more.

It was a brilliant misdirection that concealed a true intimacy. These companies got the rest of us arguing in favour of government when they weren’t really against it. We don’t have to decide if we’re pro or anti, any more than they do. Our trick is to find a way to force governments to serve other than corporate needs.

Just think of the news this past week:

  • In Ontario, electricity users are paying more under a newly privatized system; Highway 407 was sold at a rip-off price and future tolls are uncontrolled.
  • There are “strong financial links” between drug firms and doctors who draw up guidelines for treatments.
  • Scientists are getting big money to sign articles endorsing new drugs that were ghostwritten!
  • The United Kingdom Royal Society wants genetically modified foods studied before any widespread sale.

What am I maundering about? There’s hardly an area of our lives that doesn’t involve the public interest, yet we have been so defensive for so long. At least that’s how I feel. We’ve striven to preserve just the odd little bit of public space in the face of that demanding private sector. Meanwhile, that sector had the balls to demand that governments do something!

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