Wall Street is being rocked by serial scandals at the world's biggest companies. Half a year after Enron, it's now clear that it wasn't a sneeze, it's a disease. Not a week passes without some humungous fraud, or simple failure, being uncovered at some putative pillar of probity now striding toward bankruptcy.
Yesterday suspicions arose that the malady had crossed the seas, as Vivendi shares started to crumble on the backdrop of crushing financial problems, the banishing of its chief executive and rumors that its books had been cooked.
Israeli reactions to these shenanigans are of two kinds.
Some say it's only a matter of time before Enronitis strikes here too, noting suspicious elements in the financial statements of some of the local titans.
But the prevailing attitude is that it can't happen here, because our business sector is more conservative, more careful, fairer, and more closely supervised. There is no chance of the kind of fraud that wipes out massive chunks of the public's assets. The American scandals, proponents of this view claim, result from the ills of free marketeering.
Well, we have bad news for holders of the first view - and the second view too. No, we won't be subjected to one massive scandal after another of the kind sweeping through Wall Street.
We won't have IsrEnrons - because the economic mechanisms in place here enable anyone who pleases to embezzle fabulous sums of public money without a whisper of evidence in any financial statements, without establishing secret partnerships, or falsifying balance sheets.
In Israel you can steal billions without exposing yourself to real risk, without using sophisticated mechanisms, without using expensive investment banks, without raising billions on the bourse, without even arming yourselves with teams of lawyers. Best of all: you won't even need insurance to shield yourself from lawsuits if you get caught.
No, Israel doesn't have Enrons or WorldComs or Tycos, it doesn't have global companies whose managers found ingenious ways to embezzle billions from the public, Israel has a good old public sector it has the Jewish National Fund, the Mifal Hapayis state lottery, it has the Jewish Agency and the Israel Aircraft Industries and the Electric Corporation, it has El Al Airlines, the municipalities, the Oil Refineries, the Mekorot water utility, Israel has the Broadcasting Authority and the unions and all the rest of those giants waxing fat at the taxpayer's table.
Enron and its ilk have board of directors and publish periodic financial statements, and are wide open to public audits, Elron's managers sweated blood to whitewash their sins but Israel's public sector doesn't need all that.
Uh, is that wrong?
No, 'round here all's jim-dandy. There's little or no reporting to the public, directors bear no responsibility. Sometimes there are no directors at all. The politicians lavishing the lolly don't even know what that "responsibility" thingie is, even though they're the ones clutching the purse-strings.
True, once a year the State Comptroller publishes a thick tome, telling us by how many billions the Israel Aircraft Industries exceeded its budget, or how the lottery managers hand out pork to their pals, or how land worth hundreds of millions winds up with friends of the local council chiefs, and so on.
But the news value of the State Comptroller's report quickly wanes. No politicians are spurred to bellow for the blood of the corrupt, as George Bush called for the incarceration of the crooks. The State Comptroller's report is the talk of the town for maybe a day, during which the ostensibly chastened officials caught in flagrant malfeasance, or mere inefficiency, proclaim they "are studying the report and reaching conclusions".
No politician or party in Israel will champion the eradication of corruption, waste and apathy. No minister, no Knesset member, no clerk, not even Israel's academics. They all know all too well that their turn to gorge on pork may come one day.
Israel has no Enrons because our elephantine failures, our horrendously misguided investments, our major embezzlements are ensconced deep in the classified, or merely murky, budgets of our public bodies.
In Israel, the public sector is responsible for 54% of the nation's total economic activity - that's 50% more than in most nations we would like to emulate.
In Israel, we have an Enron and a WorldCom every year, financed by our taxes. We simply don't notice them or kick up a fuss. We don't bark, they are woven into the warp and woof of our lives.
So, as you read about the latest horrific abuse crawling to light on Wall Street, don't gloat about the ills of America's free market compared with Israel, that shining beacon of decency. Our situation is much, much worse. We just don't talk about it.