NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore.
Yeah, I pulled a little Howard Beale ("Network," 1976) act last week. It started out as a little televised update on the Securities and Exchange Commission's consideration of a "CEO autograph" rule. The next thing I know, I'm screaming at the CNNfn anchors about the need to tear down the pampered elite from their Babylonian heights.
Well, the whole SEC proceeding is kind of ludicrous. The agency is considering a rule that would essentially require CEOs to certify that the information in their companies' annual reports is, as far as they know, correct. So that means up until now they have been allowed to lie?! You need a rule to make sure corporate leaders tell the truth?!!! Shouldn't this be a given in the first place???!!! WHY DO WE NEED A SPECIAL RULE TO ENFORCE WHAT SHOULD BE PLAIN TO BEGIN WITH?????!!!!!
Sorry. Did it again.
It's hard not to these days with all the corruption and mismanagement seeping out of today's business headlines. But you see, my blood gets boiling not so much because someone did something wrong, which is bad, but because it is indicative of a development in our society that is worse. Sometime while our back was turned -- probably while we were busy counting our fat 401(k)s and bulging portfolios -- America became an aristocracy.
Not sure? Close your eyes. Picture 17th Century France. Use the movie "The Three Musketeers" if you need a reference. Now, replace the castles and gardens with skyscrapers and corporate campuses. Put Brooks Brothers suits and Vera Wang dresses in place of the frilly, lacey Louis XIV stuff. Where people say "King" put "CEO." And those musketeers ... make 'em lawyers.
Voila ... our modern world.
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Disagree? C'mon. You've been reading the stories about CEOs -- some under fire, some not. Think about the lavish company perks like city apartments and limos and jets -- perks paid for with shareholder money. Ex-Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, for example, is being investigated for using company money to buy art and homes for himself and other top corporate cronies. Similar accusations about personal use of Adelphia money are being made against the Rigas family as well.
And you've read the tales of their contracts guaranteeing them millions of dollars, even if they run their company into the ground. Kenneth Lay, for example, reportedly got $67.4 million from Enron before it went down. How does that happen? Well, corporate board members, the ones who review these contracts, are typically members of the same privileged class.
Hey, we're a democracy ... well, more technically, a democratic republic. But dammit, not an aristocracy. How dare we let it happen?
Theoretically our by-the-people, for-the-people government should guard against it, but it doesn't. Money talks and lobbyists spread a lot of it. The accounting industry has spent over $4 million on the 2002 election cycle ... seen any accounting industry reform come out of Congress? No, of course not.
Well, Congress better do something about this aristocracy or we'll vote them out next fall, right?
No. Remember another movie -- "Memento" (2000)? The guy in it has this problem -- he can't make any memories. Anything he learns or encounters, even if it upsets him, just fades away.
Well, that's the American public's problem too. And like the guy in the movie, there may be a psychological reason for it. We all wish -- some overtly and some secretly -- we could be a part of that aristocracy. Maybe the desire to be something means you can't be mad at it for long.
Or maybe it's just easy to get mad, but harder to remember.
Whatever. I'm writing myself a note: "Stay mad as hell. Start revolution."
Allen Wastler is Managing Editor of CNN Money and a commentator on the CNNfn television network. He can be e-mailed here.