Monday, May 16, 2005

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

For Roger Ebert, this film is "not a political documentary. It is a crime story. No matter what your politics, 'Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room' will make you mad...."

My short take on the film: a smart movie about really screwed up people in a dangerous and criminal business culture. The bottom line: the film shows how the criminality of this culture goes way beyond Enron. Not just Enron, but all the institutions involved were culpable to varying extents: really big banks, accounting firms, legal firms, investment analysts, the white house, FERC, SEC, etc., etc.

The film is a penetrating look at a microcosm of criminal capitalism American style. One that, unfortunately--despite the ever-vigilant policing of our looking-out-for-the-little-people executive branch--is surely still macrocosmic, still pervasive, though some in the cult of free markets refuse to admit this, and stand steadfastly to their fundamentalist distortions of Econ 101 combined with Darwin-lite. The lesson is simple: much more, much stronger, and much smarter regulation required.

Policing: the job of the executive branch. What a laugh! Adam Smith would be appalled by the criminal, welfare-based types of "free" markets the Enrons of the world represent. Since we still have wolves guarding the hen house (e.g., the FERC case with California; Bush as the top law enforcer of the country), it can only get worse than it was when Enron was dancing its Wall Street dance and going way beyond having Arthur Andersen cook their books. We need more Elliot Spitzers. A lot more. Just like we needed more Eliot Nesses back when Capone and Co. were making their millions (chicken feed compared to, say, Lou Pai's hundreds of millions (formerly Enron's EES CEO), or to what Cheney stands to make in his lifetime as he consults the likes of Halliburton on how to get away with even more than it ever could before).

Here's a joke Jeff Skilling told during the California energy crisis, with a big grin: "What's the difference between the Titanic and California: the Titanic went down with the lights on." What a card! He's so funny I almost forget about the ridiculous energy rates millions had to pay then, including me—that is, how Enron simply stole A LOT of money from me and millions of other Californians. I didn't cry when he was in handcuffs. I smiled when I saw Ken Lay in handcuffs.

The California energy debacle, as presented in this film, is a great example of why the cult leaders, the radical fundamentalists of free markets, want pervasive deregulation. Guess what: it allows criminal corporations to make more money. And guess what: this is really BAD for the economy in general. Just like having lots of debt, and huge deficits, etc., etc. Bush and Co. is REALLY BAD for the economy Republicans! Admit it! The idea of the fiscally conservative Republicans is obviously an amazing example of Orwellian myth creation.

Just think of all the effort put into, for example, dealing with debt, whether it is the government paying it off or corporations hiding it in fake entities. Nothing is produced when so much effort is put into getting away with as much as possible, and too much money is spent on gaming the system rather than producing something valuable. Unregulated capitalism doesn't work. It can, however, work on the microcosmic level and, for example, make the Lou Pais and the Rockefellers of the world astronomically rich. And this is why it is supported by that class of people. Yes, I used the word "class." Bush has been part of that class since the beginning; Cheney has clawed his way into it. Every other class pays the bills when little of value is produced and so much money is made by very few people.

Bush and "Kenny Boy" have more in common than just being buddies: for me, this story of Enron provides a few important parallels of the type of mindset--and the type of tactics--we also see in the cultish White House: ponzi schemes (e.g., privatizing social security), accounting blatantly intended to mislead, HUGE deficits, lots of reliance on over-the-top PR, lots of hard-core bullying tactics, the upper echelons populated by high priests of the cult of free markets with lots of pseudo-Darwinian theories, etc. One significant difference: the white house has more of a righteous sense of doing God's work, or at least uses that PR spin to the utmost (I refuse to see Bush's faith as anything but opportunistic). The Enron crew really were mostly about making a lot of money. And they liked strippers. And company jets. And macho motorcycle trips. Lou Pai sold his five million shares of Enron stock for $353 million--obviously well before the fall, and just after divorcing his wife and marrying one of his stripper girlfriends. According to the film, he is the second biggest landowner in Colorado. Except for the stripper part (what about intimacy Lou?!), Pai, it seems, was clearly the smartest guy in the room.

Jeff Skilling, a truly twisted organism, as the film makes abundantly clear, saw himself as no less than a genius, and, I'm sure, a genetic wonder. His favorite book was some lame business cult book with "DNA" and "survival" in the title. He applied its teachings to set up a ruthless peer-analysis system that required 15% of the human resources of Enron be terminated each year. I bet that got results! Look at their efficiency! I'm sure it fostered a lot more ... criminality since the pressure demanded results. Get that Californian power plant to shut down; just pay them off. Get that Andersen accounant to sign off, and the lawyers too. Let's get the banks in on this. How about some Nigerian barges?

This company makes great reality TV in this film--but a lot weirder. Skilling, however, proved not too fit, and I loved seeing the genetic ubermensch handcuffed. A natural glitch perhaps? Actually, Skilling didn't seem so bright when, not long before the fall, he let his anxiety get the best of him and called an analyst who asked for some basic cash flow numbers an "asshole"--on a conference call. Duh. Some red flags went up, and the stock price … plummeted. Actually, it didn't really plummet until he left the company out of the blue. Another real smart move. "No really: my family needs me." In the film he gets compared to a Jim Jones who refuses to drink the Kool Aid after he has just handed it out to everyone else. I love that one.

There's a lot of outrageous stuff here. Prepare yourself to be disgusted by the grandiosity of the Enron schemes when you see it. Think of the massive power plants in India: a grand monument to the inefficiency of this brand of criminal capitalism. Try not to think about how this mess has hurt the US economy in general. It's too painful. Try not to think about what this says about America in general. Our leader, formerly just an altar boy, is now the Pope of this cult. Also keep in mind that, really, there was nothing Bush could do during California's energy crisis. Let the markets take care of themselves (and Kenny Boy). Survival of the fittest. Only the weak argue otherwise.

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