Forgotten in all the excitement of the damning revelations of internal Enron memos describing the energy company's dastardly techniques for market manipulation is the apparent stupidity, if not complicity, of the Bush administration that made Enron's chicanery possible.
Too rough, am I? Just go back a year, when rolling blackouts were helping to wreck California's massive economy while the Bush-Cheney team stood insufferably aloof, blaming the victim. Exonerating Enron and other energy traders, President Bush refused to impose wholesale federal price caps to end the gouging. Couldn't do that, the Bush administration said, because that would intrude on the supremely rational free market. But now we know that the Invisible Hand was actually the grasping tentacle of Enron, and probably other Texas-based energy hustlers, whose antics must have poor Adam Smith spinning in his grave.
A year ago, Dick Cheney said the Bush administration viewed wholesale price caps as "a mistake" because "there isn't anything that can be done short-term to produce more kilowatts this summer." Yet, at the same time, Enron was grabbing electricity from California and selling it in Oregon at an obscene profit. Federal price controls would have prevented Enron from playing one state against another. If Cheney didn't know that, he must not have learned anything from his own enormously lucrative days in the Texas energy racket.
And could Bush himself not have guessed that his Texas buddies were gaming the market? After all, his vaunted business experience was also in Texas--and in the energy industry. But let's assume he saw no evil when he was on the inside of the energy biz; wouldn't it have behooved him to have done some due diligence research on his top campaign donor? Could it be that he wasn't too eager to find out that his political career was hugely indebted to money siphoned from Enron's apparently ill-gotten gains?
Surely Army Secretary Thomas E. White could have tipped off his commander in chief to what was brewing, since he had been recruited by the administration from his position as head of Enron Energy Services--a subsidiary of the collapsed energy giant--which was deeply involved in ripping off California consumers.
Or maybe Poppy Bush could have warned his son, since as president he had signed into law the 1992 Energy Policy Act, which opened the way for electricity to become a tradable commodity, and an appointee of his, Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairwoman Wendy L. Gramm, had sealed the deal by exempting electricity trading from the regulatory oversight afforded other commodities. (Gramm, wife of a Texas senator, herself moved on quickly to join Enron's board of directors, even serving as a member of the board's ill-fated audit committee.)
In any case, during its first year, the younger Bush's administration catered to every whim of Enron chief and Bush family sponsor Kenneth Lay. After six meetings with Lay and other Enron executives, Cheney came up with an energy plan that did nothing for California but used the state's woes as justification for nuclear power and further deregulation, accompanied by the planned rape of pristine wilderness areas.
Out West, California officials were spending billions of taxpayer dollars to secure power to keep vital services functioning, while inside Enron a memo admitted that the company "may have contributed" to a Stage 2 power emergency, pushing the state to the brink of widespread blackout. If some wacko damages a transformer in a hospital to cause a power outage, it's jail time. But these Enron characters deliberately denied Californians energy needed to sustain life while Bush blithely covered for them.
Another memo detailed the company's so-called Death Star strategy: jamming transmission lines in order to collect payments for fixing problems they created.
When the mob does things like this, we call it blackmail and extortion. Now that a glossy corporate giant cozy with the president has done such things, what does the Justice Department propose we call them?
A year ago, California Gov. Gray Davis told Bush: "We are literally in a war with energy companies that are price-gouging us; many of those companies are in Texas. You didn't create this problem, but you are the only one who can solve it. And with all due respect, Californians want to know whether you're going to be on their side."
The president wasn't.
Robert Scheer writes a syndicated column.