Monday, February 4, 2008
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" (Alex Gibney, 2005) This "buy the book" documentary scrupulously tells the unscrupulous story of Enron, the energy-trading company whose fall was so huge it sucked down the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, as well as the pensions and retirement accounts of its employees. At the eye of the "Big Suck" was a triumvirate of robber-barons with grandiose schemes on how to shuffle energy it didn't have, and what energy it did have was used to "cook the books." Those smartest guys are now infamous--Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow. They began as all fortunes do--they came up with an idea no one else had. Deficit Financing--don't get rich making a profit, get rich saying you're going to make a profit. And when you don't, offset the loss with dummy corporations set up solely to take the hit. And in this shell-game where money is a concept more than a commodity, the longer you can keep the plates spinning on the sticks, the more successful you might become. You just have to know when the plates begin to fall, then cash in. The film-makers have access to company films, P.R. pieces, and, most damning of all, the ribald voice recordings of the taders on the floor, famously yukking it up about gramma freezing in California. Skilling and Lay built up a cult of personality that gives them access to powerful friends who can manipulate the market to their advantage, delay investigations, and blue-sky security ratings (The speculation is that Lay helped formulate the Bush Energy Policy, which is why Dick Cheney has fought so strenuously to keep the names secret). The hubris becomes so great that soon they think they can sell a sunny day--tape recordings have company officials speculating on selling "weather futures." There is a damning wealth of information provided on the durth of anything approaching ethics and the depths to which the greedy can sink. One wonders if there's something deeper about Enron's company slogan: "Ask why."