Jim Hightower

Faking the Fifth


Like an evangelist exhorting the sinners at a brush arbor revival to come forward, confess their sins, and seek absolution–the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been calling on energy trading corporations to confess, under oath, whether they have been doing any of the down-and-dirty deals that the devilish Enron got caught making. And, oh, there’s been quite a rush to that altar. The latest is Reliant Energy of Houston, an Enron neighbor that now tearfully concedes that, yes, it too has strayed from the straight and narrow, worshipping the god of Mammon over the righteous path. Reliant, which used to go by the plain Jane name of Houston Industries, now flashes its hipper, “new economy” brand name on the Astrodome and other Houston landmarks to let everyone know that it’s a major money player in the highflying world of corporate traders. The problem with high-fliers, though, is that they can lose sight of earth, and Reliant did just that when it engaged in a bit of bookkeeping fakery called “round-trip trades.” The game here is to sell megawatts of power to another company and–Hocus Pocus!–buy them back all at once, which jacks up your revenue picture, even though nothing happened–no power moved, no money actually changed hands. It’s designed to fool investors and artificially inflate the company’s stock price. Of course, Reliant’s CEO, Steve Letbetter, says this is merely the work of a couple of lower-level corporate miscreants who are long gone, and that he personally knew nothing–nothing–of this malfeasance … even though he admits that 20 percent of his corporation’s business last year came from these phantom trades. One fifth of your corporate revenues are fake, and the CEO doesn’t take notice?


Meet James Howard of Brooklyn, New York: 42, diabetic, blind in one eye, takes care of his disabled wife and their kids, a tenth-grade dropout, relegated to poverty jobs, a hard worker. Mr. Howard has been an exemplar of the welfare-to-work programs that the former Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, had imposed to crack down on “welfare cheats.” But James Howard was no cheat–as The New York Times reports, he’s a guy doing the best he can with what he has, and public assistance was designed to help struggling families like his make ends meet. Nonetheless, with public assistance ending Howard found himself thrust into Giuliani’s highly ballyhooed “Work Experience Program,” which promised to put him in a good, full-time job–if he performed well in a training period to become a subway cleaner. Howard’s effort was A+. He had almost perfect attendance, cleaning the Coney Island Subway subway terminal, where his tasks included disposing of bodily wastes from the subway cars and scouring an employee bathroom that, as a trainee, he was not allowed to use. He was on the job in the harsh winter, wearing two coats and three pairs of socks. He ate his brown-bag lunch in a utility closet filled with the acrid aroma of cleaning fluids. The program promised that he would be hired after three months, but they kept Howard as a low-paid trainee for 18 months… then dumped him. “Winners Make the Grade, Whiners Make Excuses,” barked another sign at the WEP office. Howard made the grade, but it was Giuliani’s WEP making excuses, claiming that the subway system had imposed a hiring freeze and–oh, by the way–your welfare benefits have also expired. Howard played by Giuliani’s rules, but now Rudy’s gone and doesn’t give a damn about him.


The car that’s long been known for its snob appeal, the car that’s emblazoned with the family crest of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the car that for generations has been the very symbol of America’s material wealth–that car now wants to be just one of the boys. Specifically, Cadillac has come out with a pickup truck. Cadillac. Pickup. I can’t imagine Joe Bob, Willie, Geezer, and the boys pulling up at Ida Belle’s Chat & Chew Cafe in their Cadillac pickups. Of course, this is not what Joe Bob and them would call a “working truck,” and Cadillac hasn’t designed it for such workaday riff-raff as us. It is, after all, still a Cadillac, so this pickup has a soft leather interior, a Bose sound system, and a $50,000 sticker price. Instead of plain pickup colors, this ritzy truck comes in hues that Martha Stewart must have designed: “sable black,” “white diamond,” and “silver sand.” Cadillac’s pickup is so fancy that a trailer hitch is optional. In fact, Cadillac refuses to call its new vehicle a mere pickup. It’s an S.U.P–a Sports Utility Pickup, don’t you know. Cadillac’s truck has a soft and appropriately luxurious name, the Escalade EXT, and the company told The New York Times that its target customer is a man, 40-something, who lives in a $2-million home, and “might have inherited his father’s construction business.” Apparently the target customer also is one who’s either clueless or doesn’t give a damn about keeping America tethered to the spigots of foreign oil and keeping our country gagging on the toxic pollution of gasoline, for the Escalade EXT is a hog. It weighs nearly three tons, has a toxic-spewing 345-horsepower motor, and gets a pathetic 13.5 miles per gallon. Meanwhile, Cadillac is busy in Washington, D.C., lobbying against tougher fuel economy standards.

Jim Hightower is a speaker and author. To order his books or schedule him for a speech, visit www.jimhightower.com. To subscribe to his newsletter, the Hightower Lowdown, call toll-free 1-866-271-4900.