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One Flew Over The CEOs' Nest

What was it in our collective unconscious that allowed scores of corporate execs to take millions before our very eyes?
 
 
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Watching the latest installments of Must CEO TV -- disgraced corporate execs carted off in handcuffs or robotically taking the Fifth in front of congressional committees -- I found myself thinking that instead of the usual talk show pundits, it would be more useful to convene a roundtable discussion on the subject featuring Dr. Phil, Dr. Jung and Dr. Freud. Call it "The Three Doctors."

I'd love to hear what these legendary explorers of the human psyche would make of the likes of John Rigas, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, Sam Waksal, and those Three Horsemen of the Enron Apocalypse, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Andy Fastow.

What led these men to do the despicable things they did? How could they show such wanton disregard for the well-being of so many harmless innocents? What exactly makes them tick -- and what made them into ticking financial time bombs?

Were they, as some armchair analysts have theorized, kids who grew up with no love in their lives, now desperately trying to fill the inner void with money and material possessions? Or is the corporate crime wave we're now witnessing the result of these corporate chieftains' overdeveloped, bullish ids wresting the psychic controls away from their 98-pound weakling superegos and steering their companies, their careers, and the stock market into the ground?

Or were they something else, perhaps? The financial equivalent of career criminals? In "Without Conscience," renowned criminologist Dr. Robert Hare identified the key emotional traits of psychopaths. Included in what he called "The Psychopathy Checklist" were: the inability to feel remorse, a grossly inflated view of oneself, a pronounced indifference to the suffering of others, and a pattern of deceitful behavior.

Sound like anyone you've read about recently?

Could there be any better example of a person with a grandiose -- and sociopathic -- sense of entitlement, of feeling that the rules that mere mortals live by don't apply to him, than John Rigas? He thought nothing of "borrowing" $3.1 billion dollars from his shareholders so he and his sons could live like sultans -- even though they already were before they looted the company coffers.

If you're wondering what the inability to feel regret or shame looks like, meet Dennis Kozlowski. Tyco shareholders may be out $80 billion in market value, and he may be facing criminal trial for tax cheating, but "Deal-a-Day Dennis" refused to let a few unfortunate details like these stop him from shamelessly hosting a lavish and boisterous holiday bash this Fourth of July that featured cases of vintage wine and rides around Nantucket Harbor on his $25-million antique yacht.

And you'd be hard pressed to find a man more willing to play fast and loose with the truth than that indefatigable social climber, Dr. Sam Waksal. He didn't just lie about big things like the prospects of FDA approval for his company's cancer drug Erbitux. No, Waksal lied even when there was nothing to gain from the deceit: He claims he's 52 when he's actually 54, that he was raised in Toledo, Ohio, when he grew up in nearby Dayton. Either way, he's a middle-aged Middle American, so why the subterfuge?

But before we get too comfortable -- and self-righteous -- pointing our Monday morning fingers at these white-collar crooks without a conscience, we need to admit that their anti-social behavior couldn't have flourished in a vacuum. We allowed it. Even celebrated it.

Like the klepto-CEOs, our culture also suffered a severe empathy shortage during the irrationally exuberant '90s. For instance, no one seemed to care that, even at the height of the bull market, we still had over 14 million children living in poverty. The last decade also saw a marked decline in media coverage of the plight of the homeless. Who had time to notice, especially when another hot new IPO was about to turn some 20-something computer geek into a dot-com billionaire?

And just as Enron's Jeff Skilling, who abandoned Enron's sinking ship with his $100 million stock option lifejacket, exhibits the psychopath's profound proclivity for denial -- continuing to insist he "made the right decisions" -- so too did our culture.

During the '90s, denial replaced baseball as the national pastime. We buried our heads in the sand -- unwilling to question the integrity of the bulls rushing down Wall Street for fear it might jeopardize the 30 percent rate of return we had come to see as our birthright. And the buoyant pronouncements of our political leaders only served to hammer home the communal delusion that the party would go on forever.

"Never has the promise of prosperity been so vivid," said candidate George Bush in the days leading up to the 2000 election, while his opponent, Al Gore, blithely hailed "the greatest prosperity ever" and promised voters: "You ain't seen nothing yet." For his part, Bill Clinton, in his final economic report to Congress, assured the nation that "the expansion will continue" -- even though economic growth had already slowed by 60 percent.

This shared denial provided convenient camouflage for corrupt CEOs. In America, we keep score with money and the trappings of wealth -- so the psychopaths fit right in. They were nothing more than the winners of a game we all wanted to play -- a game that we knew rewarded certain aberrant tendencies.

Just as our culture-at-large has celebrated shallowness, so too did the corporate culture. It started putting a premium on charismatic CEOs who looked good on the cover of Forbes and Business Week or being interviewed on TV by Katie Couric and Larry King -- and ushered in the era of the rock star CEO.

It turns out, of course, that far too many of these preening, pampered, overpaid, egocentric corporate American Idols were good on the tube or glad-handing Wall Street but tended to overlook mundane little things like where to list the liabilities and assets on the balance sheet.

By all means, we should prosecute any crimes that these Wall Street wolf boys committed. But while we're at it, we should take the opportunity as a culture to sit on the couch and see what it was in our collective unconscious that created these nightmares.

Reckless grandiosity? Grotesque delusion? Sheer madness? Paging Dr. Freud.