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A Review of The Smartest Guys in the Room

Hollywood Does Enron

by HEATHER WILLIAMS

For armchair prophets who declared half a decade ago that share prices were bound to rise forever and make the whole world rich, watching Producer/director Alex Gibney’s new documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is bound to be like looking at snapshots of a party with where they got drunk with strangers, put lampshades on their heads, and ended up unconscious on the couch with their wallets gone and the house trashed. In the fog of morning-after regret there is the echo of the gibberish of the night before: The Dow Jones was going to hit 20 thousand! Stock market prices weren’t inflated because this was a "market renaissance!" Globalization would float all boats! Why, in the New Economy, workers wouldn’t need unions because they’d all be wealthy shareholders!

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, adapted from Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s book by the same name, rightly rekindles a public discussion about the price the world paid for general credulity about the notions of ever-rising markets based on the virtues of corporate self-maximization. Although it seems incredible given the magnitude of the financial scandals that have in the last two decades gutted public utilities, pension funds, credit unions, workers’ personal savings, and a significant number of treasuries and national banking systems around the world, the public has still never fully come to grips with the implications of these debacles.

Making a serviceable film about a corporate scandal that everyone ought to have seen coming seems a straightforward task. The moral story Big Business Gone Bad after all is a fable of right over wrong that even the most docile members of the mass media have mastered. For those who didn’t cut their teeth in the 1980s and 1990s on BCCI’s arms deals, Michael Milken’s insider trading, Chase Manhattan’s handling of Raul Salinas’ drug and bribe money, the plundering of the Savings and Loans, the untoward bailouts of investment banks caught in the East Asian Financial Crisis, the Federal Reserve’s intervention in the hedge fund world of Long Term Capital Management, the new century brought us plenty more graft, lies, and hapless workers cheated out of billions at at Worldcom, Tyco, Halliburton, and finally Enron.

Given that head start, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room does more with its subject matter than anyone has done before. While righteous pundits at CNN or the Lehrer Report featured tired pieces about the decline in corporate ethics or the need for greater vigilance at the Securities and Exchange Commission–with the underlying inquiry being that of how on earth could the executives at Enron have gone so far astray–Gibney’s film suggests that there was nothing about Skilling, Lay, Fastow, or any of the other principals that was, in corporate terms, particularly nefarious. The film points out that executives at Enron were ambitious, to be sure, determined to make big profits, little concerned about their employees and eager to cut out the competition, but that none had any grand plan to scuttle the corporation and run away with billions in cash. In fact, despite the self-consciously macho culture of the corporation, in which employees were charged yearly with voting up to 15 percent of the workforce Survivor-style out of the corporation, the film suggests through close-ups of the traders that most of the people who took home the millions were former high school dorks. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, for example, at an interview with Charles Wickman, a former trader whose rubbery broad face lends him an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Potatohead, recalling his motivations at the corporation: "If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stomp on that guy’s throat."

The visuals are entertaining and well-assembled: workers in rumpled suits carrying their pink slips and desk effects in cardboard boxes with the steel-and-glass Enron skyscraper gleaming behind them; naked strippers and champagne; corporate jets and luxury cars emitting the coiffed figures of now-infamous executives Jeff Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and Ken Lay, shots of dad and son Bush and their industry colleague Dick Cheney sending their Enron friends their best wishes in personal video greetings. Between theses images, the film relies smartly on a mixture archival footage and solid, smart interviews with journalists who wrote book-length accounts of the scandal, ex-Enron people, and various other players in the drama, including a hapless Gray Davis in lights-out California.

Beyond its elegance, the film’s strongest point is its ambiguity. Like a mystery novel with the last chapter torn out, Gibney’s film never offers the viewer a clear answer as to who or what was to blame for the Enron fraud. Was it Ken Lay, who built the company and was known to tolerate misconduct and graft among in the upper ranks at times? Perhaps, but Lay would have been nowhere without his right-hand man Jeff Skilling, who figured out how to make fictive profits with so-called mark-to-marketing treatment, which enabled the accountants to put down projected future profits as current assets. But then the film reminds us that Skilling could never have done what he did without a cooperative Securities and Exchange Commission to legalize his accounting scheme or an eager Arthur Andersen to conjure the fictive profits and make yearly losses into gains and please the shareholders. Skilling also needed the magic of Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow who, for $45 million in skimmed-off fees, set up shell corporations where Enron could hide $30 billion dollars in debts from its investors. And because Enron was doing little in the energy industry in the 1990s that was actually bringing in revenue, it was clearly the Wall Street brokers who were recommending the stock to their clients and keeping the share prices booming and the cash flowing to Enron were more than minor players. But then, the same analysts point out self-righteously that if they asked too many questions about Enron, their bosses in the brokerages and financial groups threatened their jobs because parent companies stood to lose lucrative investment banking deals with Enron, who, after all, was leading the market in derivatives. And all of this would have been impossible to maintain if Enron’s savage securities traders hadn’t been able to define the derivatives market in gas and oil futures in the first place by finding loopholes in new deregulation laws big enough to drive a truck through, and that of course was the fault of visionless politicians who blithely handed public trusts to the private sector in the name of efficiency.

The chain of deferred culpability that so strongly links the boardroom to the halls of government gives the film great narrative strength, but it also suggests one false conclusion, which is that Enron achieved what it needed politically through the Bush family and the Republican party. This may be convenient four years after the exit of Democrats from the White House, but it obscures the reason why Enron or any of the other corporate scandals that broke after January 2001 did not become campaign issues in the last election cycle. The California deregulation bill that infused a faltering Enron with no less than 5 billion dollars in extorted rates was after all passed in 1996 by an Assembly controlled by Democrats. Likewise, the Bush Administration who was blamed for not putting an end to the California energy crisis did in fact cap prices after five months in June 2001. The Clinton Administration, by contrast, stood by for nineteen months of energy gaming between May 1999 and January 2001.

The Democratic Party was just as whorish as the Republican Party when it came to Enron’s money, just a little less pricey. Between 1999 and 2000, the Republican Party took in about $1.1 million from Enron in soft money contributions, but the Democratic Party was happy to take in $532,000. Enron also saw clear to grease the campaigns of 70 Senators in 1989-2001, including 27 Democrats.

Given the constraints of a two-hour film, the fairest statement may be that an account of the Enron’s fall ought to supplemented at some point by a prequel that shows something about how such a corporate behemoth rose in the first place. Such a cinematic sibling would feature the cast of characters in the Clinton administration who could not do enough for Enron, domestically or internationally, or a set of powerful New Democrats working with Joe Lieberman who bent over backwards to do what they could for Enron and took plenty of their money and legislative suggestions. The prequel would also feature Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright’s State Department bullying public officials in Mozambique, Brazil, and Argentina into accepting Enron’s terms on pipelines, or turning a blind eye while Enron-backed thugs in Maharashtra, India beat up citizens who were protesting the $3.2 billion gas plant going up their front yards. Perhaps there might be an interview with Mack MacLarty, Clinton’s advisor and turned Enron project director who helped run political interference for the company when its projects were turned down by the World Bank, who considered them unviable. Thanks to a Democratic White House, Enron instead got $2.4 billion in loans and loan guarantees from the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Of these loans, U.S. taxpayers would eventually mop up $1 billion in unpaid debts left by the corporation after it went bankrupt. Finally, there may be footage somewhere of Enron executives attending meetings of the World Trade Organization, where Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was happy to help Enron and its accounting partner Arthur Anderson help dictate the content of the General Agreement on Trade in Services, which, not incidentally, helped export and standardize Arthur Anderson’s creative accounting methods to the rest of the world. After leaving public office, the esteemed Mr. Rubin would later go to work for Citigroup and use his connections at Treasury to try and bail out Enron in mid 2001. Then there’s the odious role of neoliberal environmental groups, such as NRDC, which shilled for the deregulation of electric utilities and lobbied on behalf Enron’s raid to acquire local power companies such as Portland General Electric. NRDC’s energy guru Ralph Cavanagh told the skeptical residents of Oregon that Enron was a company they could "trust."

These very significant omissions aside, the film does what a film should do: it puts the mega-corporation back in the spotlight and suggests that the demise of Enron and the disappearance of 60 billion dollars in equity ought not to have shocked anyone and will likely happen again with a similar cast of characters. Detailing the decade-long chronology of Enron’s rise, the film makes it clear that the company’s collapse was actually years overdue, and all its deceptions were orchestrated with complicity of all the major players in the market and most of the agencies charged with overseeing corporate activities. In so doing, Gibney actually manages to lay out a compelling logical framework for a colossal scandal that we have yet to fully process.

HEATHER WILLIAMS is an Associate Professor of Politics at Pomona College; hwilliams@pomona.edu