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Why Martha 'needs' more

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The new law on corporate responsibility will accomplish nothing without a profound change in American culture. It is this culture that drives people to violate the laws and risk public condemnation, if not prison, to make more money than they could ever possibly use.

Take Martha Stewart, who until recently was a stunning commercial success and a major arbiter of American taste. She was worth an estimated $650 million in 2001, according to Forbes magazine. What could possibly drive her to risk her reputation and fortunes, if not liberty, by going anywhere near the line that separates legal from illegal, in order to make a few more hundred thousand dollars?

Or what could make the founder and former CEO of Adelphia, John Rigas, and his sons, or former ImClone CEO Samuel Waksal or former Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski – all rich beyond belief – engage in acts that led to criminal charges?

I should rush to add that none so far has been convicted of anything. But there is enough smoke (such as plea bargaining and evasive denials by the parties involved) that a reasonable person may assume there is some fire. If one wants to look at those already convicted, look at junk-bond king Michael Milken, who had an annual income – not total wealth! – of $550 million. He landed in prison after seeking to make a few more million.

Obviously, in the higher income brackets we are not talking about buying a home, sending kids to college, or purchasing a car. Money has become a way to keep score, to figure out who outranks whom. Making more dough has become a cross between a habit and an obsession. Padding expense accounts, paying bribes or kickbacks, and evading taxes become a routine.

Although the focus is on the CEOs and other corporate tycoons, they are hardly the only ones who don't know where to draw the line.


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