Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
The story of Enron is one that is filled with greed, with hubris, with injustice, and with fraud. Some of those involved are facing legal prosecution. There will be a great deal of finger pointing, denying involvement and blaming other.
The story of Enron’s rise and collapse is told in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It is told not by telling us about numbers and accounting, but by telling us about people: Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow. We are told in the film that this top echelon of the corporation set the tone for a greed that permeated the company. The whole idea was to get as much as you can for yourself without regard to anyone else.
In some ways, this is what Capitalism is about. Among the foundations of Capitalism is self-interest. We work and invest to make money for ourselves. There is room for concern for others, but that too is often a part of our own self-interest. Through the years our culture has reined in Capitalism a bit, trying to soften the abuses it can lead to. We do this with regulations that protect workers, shareholders and the public.
Even with all the regulations in place, Enron managed to show the darkest side of unrestrained Capitalism. Lies were told to investors that made the company look more profitable than it was. Money and debt were moved around. Accounting was done in spurious manners. Advantage was taken of vulnerable situations (such as California’s deregulated power grid). Anything that either brought money in or made it look like money was brought in was done without regard for ethics or morality or who would be hurt.
And the winners were not the owners of the company (shareholders), it was those who were playing fast and loose with the rules and pocketing what they could get.
But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Large investment banks signed off on the things Enron was doing, because they believed that they would make money as well. Accountants approved Enron’s books. (It should be noted that the accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, lost credibility and went out of business in the aftermath of Enron.)
The films serves as an indictment of Lay, Skilling, Fastow, and many unnamed employees who acted with total indifference to morality – one could even characterize their attitude as bordering on malice. The film already has its mind made up as to the guilt of those involved. It includes bits that imply a guilt by association of both Presidents Bush and of California Governor Arnold Schwazenegger, even though the film presents no real evidence that any of them were involved in events that led to the collapse of Enron, only friendship with those involved. As such, the film may come across as more political than it should be.
It would be easy to watch this film and sit in judgment on those who orchestrated Enron’s business practices. Viewers may well come away wanting justice and punishment for those under indictment.
But we should also note that in many ways, Enron represents what we all want. It was the poster child for business success. It had new, innovative ideas for the marketplace. It built the better mousetrap, and was reaping the rewards. We all want to have success. Even as we disparage CEOs and sports professionals for their high salaries, we envy them. We want to be “the smartest guys in the room.”
Because the greed and arrogance were out of control and because Enron was such a large corporation, the repercussions of the actions by Enron’s corporate leaders (and the employees who followed their lead) damaged many lives in significant ways.
Perhaps we should note that our actions also grow out of the same forces that shaped Enron. Because we act on a smaller scale, our greed and hubris may have smaller effects, but they still have effects in people’s lives. Perhaps we should see the evil that led to the fall of Enron and the pain it brought to many lives as a matter of degree as compared to some of the things that many people do every day.
The opening shot in the film is a church tower with a sign that reads, “Jesus saves.” The camera pans back to show the corporate offices towering over this. Perhaps the filmmaker wanted to emphasize the way a corporate culture dwarfs the values that we want to have. But it also, I think, serves as a reminder as we enter the film that ultimately, self-interest is not the way of Christ. We remember that reconciliation with God comes by way of one who “emptied himself” for us.