AUSTIN -- A new wrinkle in the annals of corporate scandal -- Salomon Smith Barney, the stock brokerage/investment banking firm, allocated almost a million shares of hot IPO (initial public offerings) shares in 21 different companies to Bernard Ebbers, CEO of WorldCom, and that is just the tip of the Everest, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Salomon also gave IPO shares to about two dozen other top telecom executives.

According to the Journal, "the linking of investment-banking business to IPO allocations has been a controversial, yet pervasive, practice on Wall Street." The New York Times, not one to leap to a conclusion, reported, "At issue is whether Salomon handed out such allocations to ensure that companies like WorldCom continued to give the firm investment banking business." Surely not! No connection whatever. Motivated only by charity, these brokers.

Come on, get real. If this were a third-world country with CEO's getting IPO's in exchange for investment banking business, no one would have any trouble identifying it as a kickback.

Meanwhile, I'm still working on President Bush's challenge at the Economic Forum in Waco, Texas. "Apart from government," he inquired, his brow furrowed with earnestness, "what can we do?" How about we get the CEO's of the Fortune 500 together for a big prayer breakfast? They can discuss faith-based securities regulation, faith-based toxic waste disposal and other innovative "apart from government" approaches. Start a "Pretzels for Crawford" collection? Send in your suggestions now.

As the U.S. distinguishes itself by being by being all-but-absent from the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, Africa, --- we sent a "low-level" delegation --- of course we are reminded of the words of our peerless leader on the subject of global warming: "We'll get used to it," said Bush.

One interesting aspect of the debate on global warming is that there is a "debate." Earth scientists -- even those at Texas A&M -- have no doubt that it is happening and happening faster than their original models predicted. But as so often happens, public debate is deformed by corporate money. In the current issue of Mother Jones is a report on a corporate lobby called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which specializes in ghostwriting "model" McBills for state legislatures, bills that unsurprisingly favor the same corporate special interests that fund the lobby.

Texas Rep. Fred Bosse went to an ALEC conference and told MJ, "I saw that one of the talks was on the greenhouse effect, which was one of the issues I've always been interested in. There was this professor from someplace, and the theme of his talk was that the greenhouse effect is nothing but a scam being advanced by environmental terrorists to destroy business in America."

As Upton Sinclair observed, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." But the people we elect to represent the public interest theoretically suffer from no such conflict -- except for those campaign contributions. When the scientists are telling you one thing, and Exxon is telling you another, who you gonna believe? Who's got a dog in the fight?

American corporations aren't stupid: They know from public relations. I am indebted to Mother Jones for the following list of recent corporate name changes: Nuclear Engineering is now U.S. Ecology; Monsanto Specialty Chemicals is now Solutia; ChemLawn/ChemGreen is now Tru Green/Land Care; the Agricultural Insecticide and Fungicide Association is now CropLife America, and Benton Oil and Gas Company has become Harvest Natural Resources. Think they're on to something?

What concerns me about anyone pretending to expertise describing global warming as "a scam advanced by environmental terrorists to destroy business" is that it sends public debate into cloud cuckoo-land. It's not as though the measurements and readings taken by several thousand earth scientists around the world and by the United States government are under question. One can certainly debate what the findings mean in terms of global warming -- how much, how fast -- and scientists do have differences on those points. But I notice an increase in the tendency on the right to think one can win an argument by dismissing or impugning the other side.

We see the same thing in discussions of whether to wage war on Iraq. The very definition of a rogue state is one that attacks without provocation, and it is certainly worth a pause to think about whether we want to put ourselves in their company. No one is pretending that the possibility of Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons is not serious and dangerous. But it's silly to dismiss the grave questions that need to be answered by impugning the patriotism or courage of those who raise them. It just doesn't advance the discussion.

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 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.