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The sickest guys in the room
on 29 April 2007
Bethany McLean, who along with Peter Elkind, wrote the book from which this documentary was adapted, is clearly satisfied with herself as she sits on a couch relating what she knows about the fall of Enron. And she should be. She was the one who first really pursued the question, "How does Enron make money?" What she didn't know when she first asked the question is that they make money the old-fashioned way, they steal it.
What I was most forcibly struck with while watching this fascinating story is how much all the posturing and lying and misrepresenting of the talking heads, Jeff Skilling, Kenneth Lay, et al., reminded me of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al., in the White House. The key similarity is the use of their power over the media and in front of a podium to mislead the minions and the public to their advantage. Without the ability to lie to large numbers of people at the same time, and to stifle and belittle contrary voices, they would not have succeeded.
But also there is the complacency and the complicity of not just the greedy stockholders and the adoring employees, but the greater public who failed to ask not "why?" but "how?" In the case of Enron, how can a company exceed not only all expectations, but something like the law of financial gravity? If it looks too good to be true and nobody can give you a clear answer to how it's done--guess what? It is too good to be true. It may seem a stretch, but the same kind of mentality continues to persuade Nigerian scammers and "Congratulations: You've Won!!!" emailers that there are still fat bank accounts in America just waiting to be emptied. Nobody wanted to look too closely because nobody wanted to prick a bubble. Instead everybody wanted to believe that things that go up never have to come down (at least not now), and that the smartest guys in the room really were, and thanks to them we are all going to get rich, or at least we can applaud and admire from the sidelines.
Another failure is that of not looking critically at the cultural climate and the mentality of the traders and their bosses, whose morality (in the form of emails and public pronouncements) was that of people who would cheat their best friend, who would steal from widows and orphans (no exaggeration: they did) and laugh about it.
And the bankers and the brokerage firms, the federal watch dogs and the Congress--where were they? Lapping it up like lap dogs, getting paid off or having their campaigns funded by the robber barons at Enron. Greed is good! It's the American way! Deregulate everything! The police force, the army; and free enterprise and the magical, invisible hand of the marketplace will bring us unprecedented and unparalleled riches. Burp!
No, the honchos at Enron were not the smartest guys in the room. They were the sickest. Smart guys would have made a good living, maybe even enough to buy that house on the hill, a vacation home in some warm clime, while having banked and invested enough to send the kids and grandkids to good schools, and been satisfied. They might even have taken some pride in the work they were doing. But how can you take pride in your work when you are essentially stealing from others, especially when you are stealing from the very people who work for you and trust you? The smartest guys in the room would not have thrown so much time and energy into ripping people off, into gratifying a warped desire to financially lord it over others. They would not be those who cared more about ratcheting up their millions than they did about anything else in life. People who care about winning so massively and so cruelly are not smart. They aren't even well. They are the sickest guys in the room.
Alex Gibney (who also wrote and produced the excellent The Trials of Henry Kissinger 2002) is to be commended for making the kind of documentary that informs, enlightens and appalls. The footage from corporate meetings, press conferences, company skits (oh, what fun they had!) and interviews with the principals and those they ruined make for a most engaging moral lesson. The story unfolds like some kind of pathological tragedy from inside a fascist state or like the neoconned White House where public pronouncements are made with only one goal in mind: deception. What fools these morals be. And the biggest fools are the greediest whose lives are lived in empty pursuit of nothing more than naked power with which they can buy nothing of value that they didn't already have.