Corruption? Absolutely

As we sit in the rubble of Enron, WorldCom, and other, as-yet-undiscovered or unpublicised corporate implosions, it's worthwhile to wonder which is the egg (in the chicken or egg debate): the lack of accountability or the corrupt perspective of the corporate elite.

ManagementSpeak: I am confident our company will be exonerated of all charges.

Translation: We can afford better lawyers and more of them.

-- This week's contributor prefers anonymity to exoneration.

Marilyn vos Savant, the professional genius, proved that the egg came first. Heritable mutations happen only in sperm and ova, she reasoned, so something that was almost a chicken laid a true chicken egg. Makes sense to me.

As we sit in the rubble of Enron, ImClone, WorldCom, Tyco, AOL and other, as-yet-undiscovered or unpublicised corporate implosions, it's worthwhile to wonder which is the egg: the lack of accountability resulting from more than two decades of business deregulation, or the corrupt perspective of the corporate elite who acquired the resulting additional power. Lord Acton notwithstanding, I think the corruption came first. It's the egg, and it smells rotten.

Government regulation is what allows businesses to act ethically. Without regulation, those businesses that resort to any tactic to win have the advantage over those that restrict their behaviour to conventional codes of ethics. Consequently, ethical CEOs should welcome government regulation, not fight it. It levels the proverbial playing field. The goal of an ethical CEO would be efficient regulation, not deregulation.

For more than two decades we've been subjected to unrelenting propaganda from the BIG/GAS (Business Is Great/Government and Academics are Stupid) contingent decrying any and all regulation as a fundamentally bad idea. Regulation, we've been assured, prevents businesses from being competitive in world markets, harms productivity and hampers profitability.

The additional profitability stemming from deregulation turned out to be the result of an increased ability to cook the books. And if deregulation has made business more competitive, it's hard to find the evidence -- US trade deficits are at record levels -- but it certainly has made it less accountable to anyone.

Business will be reregulated. Current abuses are simply too flagrant. The only question is how; the probable answer is badly. The business community no longer has the credibility to be part of the process. It's up to Congress and executive-branch agencies to design the regulations. Their goal will be minimising any chance of new abuses, unfettered by considerations of how hard or easy it will be to comply.

Every new regulation will result in reporting requirements, every reporting requirement will require new information technology, and nobody is going to care how hard it is to build.

Which means CIOs and CTOs will be reaching for the aspirin.

Assuming, of course, that a new regulation hasn't turned aspirin into a prescription drug.

Send any comments to Lewis, who heads IS Survivor Training, which organises "Leading High-Performance IT". Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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