A conscience worth its weight

These are times that can drive a good man toward a bad road. Every day brings more news of hard-working Americans discovering their jobs have vanished.

I can understand why people who have been abruptly terminated might feel betrayed when they hear government officials such as Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill describe the collapse of entire companies as part of "the genius of capitalism."

Meanwhile, the Enron scandal is making a mockery of the safeguards that are supposed to prevent corporate bigwigs from getting rich at the expense of us little folks. "United We Stand" starts to ring hollow.

Within every responsible, law-abiding male like me is the smoldering ember of a rebel. On the surface, we look like solid, dependable citizens, but inside we're conflicted. We're the guys at street level who occasionally wonder if the system isn't playing us for suckers. Deep down, we sometimes envy the bad boys our mothers warned us about, the loners and outcasts who decided to reject the status quo, set their own codes of conduct, and dare anyone to stop them.

I call this the "Ocean's Eleven" syndrome. It's a nagging feeling that obeying the rules in life is wasted effort, and the best way to get the brass ring is to assemble a band of rogues and grab it out from under the noses of the fat cats. Fight the power. Score one for Joe Lunchbucket and Suzy Housecoat.

But reality isn't like the movies.

Many years ago, when I had a job driving a shuttle bus on the Las Vegas strip, one of my co-workers was a gritty drifter named Johnny. He told me that crime-for-profit was indeed a viable concept, but it had to be approached as a strictly one-time activity.

"You need a clean record, so the cops don't spot you as a suspect right off the bat," he said. "And you gotta make sure never to do it again, because that's when you start leaving a trail."

Johnny claimed to have netted $50,000 on his single criminal act. He wouldn't tell me any details, but ruefully admitted that he'd squandered the money soon afterward. Johnny also said that in his youth he accidentally killed a man and was forced to join the Army to avoid a jail term. He was definitely a rogue, possibly a liar, and absolutely nothing like Peter Lawford or Frank Sinatra.

I'm glad I never followed Johnny's advice. My conscience prevents me from enjoying any ill-gotten gains that might result from a big heist. I wish Secretary O'Neill would talk about the conscience of capitalism.

It doesn't take a genius to tell the difference between right and wrong, or to know that just because something isn't breaking the law doesn't make it OK. Too bad more of the people checking the account books at Enron didn't feel the same way.

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