A Fine Whine

Enron Envy

Where’s my bribe?

In recent days we’ve been reading stories of not just politicians but also writers and pundits paid huge sums by Enron in a brazen, blatant attempt to distort their judgments and disrupt their truth-telling roles. As I have read of these payments, my fists have clenched in righteous anger, I have pounded the table in fury and cried out, How come Enron never bribed me!

Not one cent from Enron, never even expenses to a “conference” in Nice or Steamboat or similar hardship location. Set aside my obvious professional jealousy that when Enron schemed to buy writers’ influence its thoughts turned to Bill Kristol ($100,000) and Paul Krugman ($50,000) rather than yours truly. Set aside whether such disbursements accomplished anything. (Kristol would have favored most Enron positions in any case, and Krugman has been harshly critical of the company despite cashing its check.) What really frosts me is that I’ve been at the forefront of writing about the very issues on which Enron sought to purchase influence.

I penned perhaps the first major national story on the movement to deregulate electric utilities—”The Future of Electric Power” in the July 1993 Atlantic Monthly.How long ago was that? Pre-Web! The piece predates the Atlantic Monthly online archive. You’re going to have to go to a library to read it.

The Atlantic piece describes all the regulatory issues that would take center stage in California by 2000, plus the trend toward Enron-like entities; it ends by rolling the drums for the idea that electricity deregulation will lead to widespread benefits. Which I still think is true. Remember, phone and airline deregulation both began badly, characterized by confusion and price hikes. Now phones are cheaper and more plentiful than anyone ever dreamed, while airline prices remain amazingly low in real-dollar terms and service has expanded so much that typical working families have replaced the business elite as the majority of air passengers. Give utility deregulation time to sort itself out, and we’ll end up glad it happened. (Enron bankruptcy trustees, please note: I’m defending your position! Still not too late to bribe me.)

Priceless Atlantic anecdote: When I proposed the subject of electricity deregulation to the magazine in 1992, its magnificent and hallowed editor Bill Whitworth was silent for a long pause and then said in his modified Arkansas drawl, “Gregg, don’t you think that topic is—a little dry?”When Bill Whitworth, the most bookish and circumspect in a storied line of bookish and circumspect Atlantic editors, tells you your topic is a little dry, that’s like the pope telling you that you need to get out and meet some girls.

The Atlantic piece was far from my only unpaid service to Enron. I’ve written articles in the New Republic and the New York Times advocating energy deregulation. I wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times,which ran while the California energy crunch had its momentary end-of-the-world status, saying not to abandon power deregulation. I’ve also written in the New York Times and elsewhere arguing that the Kyoto treaty could be saved, and Enron was pro-Kyoto because it hoped to profit from carbon-trading. Such high-class opinion advocacy is worth its weight in gold (note: articles don’t weigh much) to corporations snarled in political disputes; clearly, Enron was willing to pay richly for same. So how come they never paid me? What did Kristol or Krugman ever do to earn their bucks, huh? Attend a “conference”?

Enron, for its part, appears to have been splattering money around to pundits using the same formula it did with politicians, scattershot without any larger plan. Just another indication that Enron was poorly run, perhaps.

Meanwhile, living in a city awash in Enron influence-buying, I am left with this dismal thought: The only Enron money I’m ever going to make is the $500 Slateis paying me for what you just read.