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Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2002 / 16 Shevat, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Step right up to Enron's carnival booth -- HAVE you ever been on a carnival midway, and come across a shell game?

You may not have, at least not recently. Even traveling carnivals are being forced to clean up their acts -- to keep things relatively straight.

But the carnival midway -- specifically, the shell game -- has moved onto America's front pages. The shell game is an almost exact analogy to the Enron story. And if the big financial executives in America's boardrooms are surprised by how interested -- and angry -- citizens are about Enron, all those executives need to do is think in terms of the shell game.

The shell game was really not a game at all, in the sense that in a legitimate game both competitors have a fighting chance. The shell game -- in which a customer paid money to guess underneath which of three shells a little ball could be found -- was built on confusion. The proprietor quickly moved the shells around on a flat surface; the customer -- thinking the game was on the level -- picked the shell that he just knew the ball was under. He lost whenever the shell-game operator wanted him to lose -- which was usually.

Customers figured out that the shell game was rigged -- and that is precisely how Americans seem to be feeling about what the people who ran Enron did. It is now apparent they ran their business -- "energy trading," which should have been a tipoff -- with the intention of perplexing just about everyone outside the Enron boardroom. They wanted the world to keep its eyes on the moving shells.

Which is where the public anger about the accounting firm that worked for Enron comes into the story. Should Enron's outside accountants not have seen through this and put a stop to it early on? Only if you believe -- as many Americans, until recently, may have believed -- in the old-fashioned definition of accounting.

The accountant -- in the America evidently held in such contempt by Enron -- was the bookkeeper. As simple as that -- the accountant was the guy who added up the ledgers, and made certain they matched. The accountant was supposed to be sort of a stick-in-the-mud -- the accountant was Bob Cratchit, not Champagne Tony Lema. That was the value of the accountant -- he was the necessary clear-eyed straight guy.

But when accountants began "consulting," things got a little murky. A year ago they might have told you you were mired in the past if you believed something so stodgy. Let them try to tell you that now. "Creative accounting" is -- or should be -- an oxymoron; accountants aren't supposed to be creative. Accountants are supposed to make sure the numbers add up.

Their very lack of imagination should be seen as an asset -- as intentional. That's another thing the accountants might have been offended to hear from you -- a year ago. Now? The entire country is waiting for an explanation of how numbers can add up in a variety of ways, depending on what you want them to say. You, who are reading the newspaper this morning, are your own accountant, for your checkbook -- and you know that there's only one correct answer when you do the math on your deposits and withdrawals. That's why, in Enron's world, you're a sucker. The trusting fellow on the midway trying to compete in the shell game.

Why do you suppose companies like Enron contribute such large amounts of money to candidates for president, for the Senate, for the House of Representatives? Is it because their love of country is so strong that they want to be invested in the glorious fabric of our democracy? Or is it because they want to be certain the shell game is never raided?

At least most of the itinerant carnival workers employed by the shell-game operator understood that they were part of a fixed enterprise -- at least they knew enough not to throw their own money into the shell game. But, by all appearances, the people who worked for Enron in non-boardroom positions didn't know; they were suckered into the shell game, too, and now they are left with next to nothing.

The carny on the midway was never all that bright -- he was just swift-handed with the shells. And he didn't ask a bookkeeper to assure him the crooked game was fair. Even carnival hucksters knew you couldn't do that.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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