Monday, July 10, 2006

A Completely Impartial Review of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

Ooooh, now I'm real mad, so try to imagine what that's like. Even though Alex Gibney's documentary on Enron's rise and fall and fall and fall preaches to the choir pretty much no matter who's watching it (unless the person watching it happens to be a certain vice president who lets the oil companies dictate our national energy policy), his film is still an instructive polemic for anyone who's not duly reeling with righteous anger and indignance. Which is most of you, by the way. The New York Times review talks about the entertainment value in the schadenfreude and sense of moral superiority you feel, knowing the end of the story and watching these Enron assholes building their inevitable demise, but I didn't pick up on it. Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, who were at the time under indictment for their roles in the Enron collapse, come off as pathetic, insecure losers — not that Gibney or anyone else actually pities these guys buried under the mountain of shit they created and dumped on their employees and shareholders — but the words "tragic hero" are bandied about more than once. Lay and Skilling may be the very definition of hubris, convinced that once they beat the system the first time, they could do it indefinitely, but what Gibney makes both terrifying and infuriating about the Enron scandal is the massive systemic loopholes that are the story's uber-villian. It becomes harder to absolve Skilling and Lay, but simultaneously easier to understand their incessant denial and refusal to take responsibility; they're cogs in a machine from their point of view, and also the system's minions from Gibney's.

The lingering question is how to lay the blame, and there's a lot of it to go around. More from my perspective than from Gibney's, although I now realize how comfortably naive I was thinking that the most published, dumbed-down version of the scandal — Lay, Skilling, and Fastow cooked the books while some nimrod at Arthur Andersen was asleep — was the full story. Gibney exonerates Lay and Skilling on some of the charges levelled against them in order to spread the blame around. Not that the head honchos weren't responsible, especially in terms of cooking up their schemes in the first place (many of which appear to be legal), hiring characters they knew to be ethically bereft, and screwing over their shareholders and California to buy a little more time when it became clear the company was going in the toilet — but Gibney's larger point is that Enron is symptomatic of our corporation-government-media symbiosis that would make conspiracy theorists proud. I don't want to blame the Enron bosses so much for beating the system that I exculpate the accountants, the investment bankers, the lawyers, the deregulators in the government, and the sheepish, spineless media for being greedy enough to make the system beatable. And I want to blame the bosses for creating a trader-eat-trader world environment on the desk floor while still passing responsibility to the traders who screwed the California power grid in order to make huge bonuses.

Where I'm most conflicted though, is with the individual investors. In my mind, the slimiest thing the Enron execs did throughout the collapse was put a lock on the investors' stock while dumping their own, and for that alone, I hope Lay is burning in hell right now. But there's two resonant themes of the film — the first is "Ask Why," Enron's former motto; the second is that no one, including the Lay and Skilling, could actually explain how Enron made its money — and put in the context of the collapse, I think they perfectly characterize not just American capitalism, but American culture in general. We see, for example, a line worker on one of Enron's subsidiary power grids; at Enron's height, his retirement package was worth about four-hundred thousand dollars, but by the collapse, he sold it for $1,200. Which is bullshit, but at the same time, I doubt that he asked any questions when his 401K was making money. For all he knew, his retirement could be built on the backs of genetically engineered hamsters who pooped money (which isn't far off from how Enron actually "made" its profits). I'd be a lot harsher here, but I sort of feel like the lesson "Don't invest in something you can't begin to comprehend" has maybe a $500 price tag and he was still totally bilked.

I'd have more sympathy, maybe, but now I'm scared... and I'm sure this is the same feeling people who don't want to see the Geneva Conventions applied in Guantanamo Bay have. There's this big, apathetic thing out there that has control over you in ways you can't even imagine, and you're helpless against it. Not to mention, complacent. It's that cycle — helplessness, hopelessness, and complacency — that makes the movie, the corporate world, or just the world itself so overwhelmingly depressing; that feeling if I were in charge of Enron or WorldCom or Global Crossing or Adelphia or HealthSouth or Tyco or etc., I'd run the damn thing ethically, with the Golden Rule etched above the building's main entrance. And then there's the realization that I'll never run a company, a successful company, because businesses who choose what goes over their building's main entrance don't get to be that way by following the Golden Rule.