life sentence


Ken Lay died yesterday of a massive heart attack.

The news of his death sent my mind in two directions. First, it sent me back to my belief that the corporation is one of the most insidious inventions of modern life. The giant Greed Machine that is Capitalism gave birth to the corporation the way Rosemary gave birth to her baby, creating a monster beholden to no one with an insatiable appetite for growth and profit. We have been trained to believe that corporations are somehow entities in themselves, so that none of the human beings that make them up are ultimately responsible for anything the behemoth does. A “corporate response” to any issue sees no need to respond ethically or with any degree of humanity because profit is the only measure.

CEO’s of major companies make, on average, 525 times the wage of a production worker. In June, when the stockholders wanted to ask questions about the executive pay package, Home Depot’s Board of Directors didn’t show up for the annual meeting and no one could do anything because that’s how a corporation works. Much of the economic disparity in our world lies at the feet of the multinationals. They somehow have millions to pay athletes for endorsement deals, but only pennies to pay the people who actually make the shoes.

Enron made the news not because they were that different, but because they were the ones who got caught. A jury of people other than members of Congress and lawyers declared the emperor naked and found Lay guilty for what his corporation had done. The verdict came down in May, yet Lay was not to be sentenced until October (you know – it’s the same way it works for all the poor people who get convicted; they get time to go to their vacation homes before they go to prison, too).

Ken Lay dropped dead in his vacation home in Colorado. One news account said it might have been caused by the stress of the trial and the verdict. Evidently, he felt little stress in committing the crimes, which leads me to my second thought.

His death demonstrates the uselessness of the death penalty: Ken Lay is dead; nothing had been made better. He laid waste to the lives of thousands of employees, violating their trust and using them like toilet paper. He destroyed lives and families in ways worse than many who are sitting on death row and he made money doing it. This week the federal prosecutors asked the judge to make him give up the forty three million dollars he made on the crimes of which he was convicted. They were too kind. I think they should have asked for every penny, every piece of art, every house, everything he had except for one change of clothing and a tin cup and left him to beg on the Houston street corner where that slanted E sculpture stood outside what was once his building. Of course, that’s my need for revenge talking.

One of the stories that came out of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was of a woman who saw her husband and her son killed in front of her by the same Afrikaans policeman. When he was convicted before the commission, they asked the woman what she thought his punishment should be.

“I was once a mother and a wife and now I am neither,” she said. “Let him come to visit me so I can be a mother to him.” She then rose and embraced him as the man wept uncontrollably.

Most possibilities for redemption for Lay and many of the former employees of Enron died with him yesterday, as they do with any criminal whom we see fit to kill. Death solves very little, if anything at all. I do wish they had taken every last penny he had, but I wish they had made him personally deliver it to the people he harmed, door to door, so he could see who Enron crushed when it collapsed.

I didn’t want his heart to stop; I wanted it to break.



  1. Oh yes, my friend. I don’t know what to say beyond what you said. Those folks who make the corporate response need to be forced to watch how their actions lay waste to the lives of others. Since my employer outsourced my job and gave me two hours to clear out my desk, I have had no one there so much as ask how I’m doing.

  2. As you grow up you’ll start to understand the world better. You’ll realise that the corporation isn’t ‘an insidious invention’ but an element of human organisational evolution as natural as the air conditioning in a termite mound. The corporation is no more ‘insidious’ than gravity, whatever Ken Lay’s crimes.

  3. Technically speaking, Ken Lay died an innocent man.

    A rule in US law, called abatement ab initio, states that when a defendant dies before a chance for appeal, the conviction goes away. Lay’s guilty verdicts on conspiracy and fraud no longer exist.

    Anonymous wrote that “the corporation is no more ‘insidious’ than gravity”, which is true in a pure sense, but I agree with Milton: the bottom line calls the tune. It IS about the money. For-profit corporations exist to make money. That’s what it’s all about.

    There are corporations for which it is NOT about the money (Newman’s Own comes to mind) but they are the exception.

    One hopes Enron is an exception too.

  4. I love that you started with “as you grow up,” whoever you are. Six months away from my fiftieth birthday, I think (though I won’t particularly claim to be grown up) that I have seen enough of life to stand by my statements about corporations. Natural social evolution or not, they are not our best work.


  5. What a great post, Milton. I have been pondering what I think about Ken Lay’s demise and you said it best. (Three people in my life, however, have doubted the “heart attack” story.)

    I, too, wish his heart had broken.

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