Lay’s legacy: Commoditize everything

Marketplace Staff Jul 7, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: There’s going to be a memorial service for Ken Lay Sunday in Aspen, Colo. His family announced this morning the former Enron chairman will be buried there. Near the vacation home he owned. Services will be private. Family only. But commentator and consumer advocate Jamie Court says Lay’s legacy will stay with us all.

JAMIE COURT: Ken Lay was one of the pioneers of a simple proposition. Anything can be exploited as a commodity.

The more badly the public needs a resource, say energy or water or even bandwidth, the more cash to be made.

And the spoils go to the trader who can engineer the highest price.

Today, this vision is the operating principle from Wall Street to Capitol Hill.

Take trading in water. Lay’s Enron was a trailblazer.

Buying up scarce water rights and privatizing public water systems has since become a boom business for the likes of Vivendi, Bechtel, and American International Group.

In the post-Lay world, American inhibitions are evaporating against turning the most basic necessity of life over to profiteers.

Lay was also one of the first to propose trading Internet bandwidth access as a commodity.

Lay’s vision of the Internet advanced just last week in the US Senate. The federal Telecommunications Deregulation Act will turn the Internet from a freeway into a private toll road.

AT&T and Verizon will commoditize access and charge “congestion fees” to create faster access for customers who pay more.

It’s the same principle as those so-called congestion fees Enron extorted from Californians to keep their electricity flowing.

For three decades, Lay crusaded to turn the public electricity grid over to private traders. The traders managed traffic and charged tolls.

Ripped-off grandmothers in California paid the price for Enron traders’ greed.

But we still haven’t learned.

Despite California’s evidence of gross market manipulation, the push for electricity deregulation isn’t dead yet in America.

Ken Lay’s spirit will be with us until Americans decide that there are some resources too precious to be put up for sale to the highest bidder.

RYSSDAL: Jamie Court is president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

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