I'm tracking a new phenomenon called "scandal fatigue." It sets in when the corporate crime rate gets too high and the numbers being bandied about become too boggling to wrap your mind around.
For instance, I was plenty angry when WorldCom announced that it had misstated its earnings by $3.7 billion. I couldn't really get a handle on what a figure like that meant, but I knew it was a pantload. Then they looked through the books again and realized that, oops, the amount was actually $7 billion. Was I supposed to be twice as ticked off? Or were there just too many zeros to grasp?
The reason our eyes start to glaze over at a certain point is that we lack what T.S. Eliot called "an objective correlative" -- a way of relating to something as abstract and conceptual as a 7 followed by nine zeros.
With that in mind, I've done a little research in an effort to offer up some perspective on the magnitude of these crimes. My hope is that when you see a number like $100 million -- the amount Jeff Skilling pocketed from Enron before abandoning the sinking ship -- expressed not in dollars but in terms we can all identify with, your outrage meter will be set to the proper scale.
Here goes. The total amount of sweetheart insider loans doled out to John Rigas (Adelphia), Bernie Ebbers (WorldCom), Stephen Hilbert (Conseco), Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco) and Ken Lay (Enron) was $3.9 billion.
With $3.9 billion, you could: Fund Habitat for Humanity to build 83,691 homes for America's homeless at a cost of $46,600 each. Send 35,583 poor but deserving students to Harvard Business School. Buy 390 million tickets to see Austin Powers in Goldmember. Lend United Airlines the $1.8 billion it says it needs to avoid bankruptcy -- twice. (Or you could just flush the money down the toilet. The results will be the same.) Foot the bill for you and the 195 members of your high school class you really liked to ride a Russian rocket into space. (The downside is, two of you will have to sit next to 'N Sync's Lance Bass.) Fund the SEC's new, greatly increased annual budget for five years.
Still having a little trouble with the figures? Well, consider this: According to Fortune magazine, the total amount of money raked in by corporate executives selling company stock even while their companies crashed and burned was roughly $66 billion.
With $66 billion, you could: Fund the annual budget of the FBI, corporate crime-fighting included, for 16 years. Give 74 times what America currently gives in foreign aid to all of sub-Saharan Africa. Cover the entire $25 billion America has spent fighting the war against terrorism in Afghanistan -- and still have enough left over to give every Afghan more than two times their average yearly income. Spend 132 million nights with Julia Roberts at the nightly rate she charged as the hooker in Pretty Woman. Buy 3.3 billion copies of Who Moved My Cheese? (But even if you read each and every one, you still couldn't explain why it's been a bestseller for over two years.) Pay President Bush's $400,000 salary for 165,000 years. (Although if he's anything like his dad, you'll only be on the hook until 2004.)
I imagine your blood is really boiling now. But maybe still not enough to take action. Then try these numbers on for size: The total loss in market value of WorldCom, Tyco, Qwest, Enron and Global Crossing was $427 billion. With $427 billion, you could: Fund the United Nations for the next 263 years, and still have $164 billion left over for unforeseen famine relief and peace-keeping missions. Get Argentina back on its feet by paying off its external debt three times over. Give $356 to every man, woman and child on the planet living in poverty. Build and deploy 2,702 comet-hunting Contour satellites. (The cost to track them down is extra.) Buy 61 billion packs of cigarettes, now $7 each in New York. Or you could transplant the lungs of 1.7 million patients suffering from irreversible emphysema, at $250,000 each. Order 34 billion prime-cut filet mignons from Omaha Steaks. Pay the combined salaries of every player in baseball for the next 237 years. Although I don't know why you would.
Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of eight books.