AUSTIN, Texas -- Those of the populist persuasion are struggling against what is perhaps the most irresistible of all temptations -- the urge to say, "I told you so."

It is raining evidence these days. The newspaper business sections are turning into the Daily Fraud Update. Deloitte & Touche is now under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its role in the unpleasant doings at Adelphia, energy CEOs keep biting the dust -- first at CMS, then at Dynegy -- the Arthur Andersen trial in Houston gets more depressing by the day, and corporate evildoers are suddenly ubiquitous.

OK, I promise that I'm only going to do this once, but ... we did tell you so. Three years ago, I wrote a column explaining why I thought the high-tech market made Las Vegas casinos look good. One reader was so amused by this ludicrous display of ignorance he sent me an enormous flower arrangement -- the thing had to have cost a couple hundred bucks -- saying I'd given him the best laugh he'd had in years. I bring this up because I think it's important to remember the degree of triumphalism that raged among free-market fundamentalists during the short-lived "New Economy." So if we ever smell it again, we'll know to hunker down.

Thomas Frank, the very populist author of "One Market Under God," wrote last year: "Time was, the only place a guy could expound the mumbo-jumbo of the free market was in the country club locker room or the pages of Reader's Digest. Spout off about it anywhere else, and you'd be taken for a Bircher or some new strain of Jehovah's Witness. After all, in the America of 1968, when the great backlash began, the average citizen, whether housewife, hardhat or salary man, still had an all-too-vivid recollection of the Depression. Not to mention a fairly clear understanding of what social class was all about. Pushing laissez-faire ideology back then had all the prestige and credibility of hosting a Tupperware party.

"But 30 years of culture war have changed all that. Mention 'elites' these days, and nobody thinks of factory owners or gated-community dwellers. Instead, they assume that you're mad as hell about the liberal media, or the pro-criminal judiciary, or the tenured radicals, or the know-it-all bureaucrats.

"For the guys down at the country club, all these inverted forms of class war worked spectacularly well. This is not to say that right-wing cultural warriors ... ever got cultural history to stop. But what they did win was far more important: political power, a free hand to turn back the clock on such non-glamorous issues as welfare, taxes, OSHA, even the bankruptcy laws, for chrissake. Assuring their millionaire clients that culture war got the deregulatory job done, they simply averted their eyes as bizarre backlash variants flowered in the burned-over districts of conservatism: Posse Comitatus, backyard Confederacies mounting mini-secessions, crusades against Darwin."

As Ernie Cortes once observed, the free-market fundamentalists got rid of Jesus and Jefferson at the same time. The concept of free-market-as-God became pervasive in the media, generously funded by right-wing think tanks that are in turn were generously funded by corporate interests.

The free-marketeers preached their gospel like true evangelists. Populists enjoy one distinct advantage over liberals (using the ever-elastic definitions of American politics) -- populists are more inclined to keep their eyes on the shell with the pea under it. Liberals tend to troop off to defend sex education or some damn thing, forgetting the fundamental questions: Who's getting screwed, and who's doing the screwing? While they're busy working for gay rights or child care -- all commendable endeavors -- the corporations are buying off the politicians, who then let the lobbyists rewrite the laws.

Thus populists are less likely to be surprised when corporations collapse, political pundits who were supposedly using the First Amendment for free speech turn out to be on the Enron payroll, accountants and stock analysts turn out to be liars, and underfunded, understaffed regulatory agencies let things get out of control.

Populism is the simple premise that markets need to be restrained by society and by a democratic political system. We are not socialists or communists, we are proponents of regulated capitalism and, I might add, people who have read American history.

As Thomas Frank put it in another article, "(Enron) is not he result of sin; this is the way markets work. It is simply what happens when regulatory oversight is systematically shut down, bought off and defunded; when business journalism becomes salesmanship; when investment banking becomes salesmanship; and when political power is a prize that goes to the highest bidder."

Now that unregulated markets have so nicely proved his point, it becomes more important than ever to watch the shell with the pea under it. Congress will have to make a choice between real reform and pretend reform. You can either pay attention and raise hell, or just put yourself down for The Wall Street Journal editorial response, which is, "People deserve to get ripped off."

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.