American Mythology: the Enron fable

There’s a movie-critic persona in all of us, but I promise not take that path. After viewing this past weekend the film “Enron: the smartest guys in the room,” all I am seeking is a form of poetic license to advance a few comments on what much of “big business” in America is all about.

Intuitively, I felt that most people in the audience were well versed on most, if not all, sordid aspects related to this modern American saga of fraud and deceit. We were there probably to see how a filmmaker, Alex Gibney, would combine dry economic details with scandals, capital sins and personal drama. And most of us probably had high hopes that those who, at our insistence, had accompanied us would stay awake and not bored.

As far as I am concerned the documentary was a complete success in both how it was presented, and the carefully staged, and effectively injected, sprays of humor. Very light sprays, one might add, which is understandable in order to avoid the censuring eye of that inquisitorial ultra-Right still brandishing the bloodied ax used last year on Michael Moore and his strident, if appropriate satire.

The narrative worked; the humor worked; the cast of characters dwarfed any cast that best reality-TV could possibly offer; and the wealth of available data brought all the pieces needed to construct the puzzle… with plenty to spare.

Larger-than-life characters consumed by arrogance and greed played their parts… unimpeded by a system without proper controls, and people with comparable greed: from a major accounting firm, to banking/investment giants, to governmental agencies at state and federal levels. All failed miserably, showing the face of capitalism at its anarchical worst. Fastow, Lay and Skilling may not be so smart after all, if it weren’t for the fact that the rest of us are careless, greedy, or dumb… possibly a little of all.

CEO Jeff Skilling, a product of Harvard B-School, is said to have told one of his professors- one who had asked him if he thought he was smart, “I am fucking smart.” As daring and self-centered as that may appear to most people, for those of us who were “seminarians” three or four decades ago in these elite B-schools, that self-anointment comes as no surprise at all.

At my “MBA-ordination,” I don’t recall any classmates who didn’t feel that way, or whose mindset didn’t have personal wealth and power sitting in front row. As these priests of business either achieve the pinnacle of power, or become consiglieri for those who do, it’s easy to see how personal objectives may have buried any form of conscience or ethical behavior… if not for all, likely for most.

Unfortunately, Enron, its colorful executives and predatory business practices, does not represent the exception to the rule… but represents much of the rule itself. There are presently myriad “endruns” scattered throughout the spectrum of business which are squeezing the economic life from all of us… often pricing, monopolistically or sub Rosa, our energy, healthcare, communication, and financial needs; playing us all for suckers at the pharmacy, the gas pump… and just about everywhere else.

Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that big business is sacrosanct…that what’s good for big business is also good for us. The man at the helm of the nation has been championing their cause from the day he first set foot in the White House… with their all-out help, one might add.

Challenging big business has been painted as un-American and odious as burning the flag. We have been fooled into thinking that big business is synonymous with a free market system… a notion which has become the ultimate insult to those who believe in, and are advocates of, free enterprise. True free enterprise has become rancid, passé… as attested to by the former magicians from Enron.

We are a year away from Lay’s and Skilling’s trials… and what’s anticipated to bring guilty verdicts and stiff prison sentences for both. Bush has kept a more than discreet distance from his pal Ken Lay (Kenny Boy) during these past three years, but one can picture the Irish tenor in Bush belting the high notes for that Texan ballad honoring the great energy-manipulator… and son of a preacher man.

   O Kenny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
   From gas to oil and down the electric side
   The goodtime’s gone and all the snakes’re crawling
   ‘Tis you, ‘tis you must go and I must hide
[With apologies to Frederick Edward Weatherly and his “O Danny Boy”]

Gibney will probably bring us Part II to this Enron fable next year. It will be interesting to see how these two “smartest guys before justice” make their case for stupidity or ignorance to save their skins… after they’ve proven to be so “fucking smart.”