Thursday, June 16, 2005


Picture taken from Buy.com

"Wasn't anybody sorry? ... The after-the-fact rationalizations were strikingly similar to the mind-set that brought about the Enron scandal in the first place. All the arguments were narrow and rules based, legalistic in the hairsplitting sense of the word. Some were arguably true --- in the way that Enron itself defined truth. The larger message was that the wealth and power enjoyed by those at the top of the heap in corporate America --- accountants, bankers, executives, lawyers, and members of corporate boards --- demand no sense of broader responsibility. To accept these arguments is to embrace the notion that ethical behavior requires nothing more than avoiding the explicitly illegal, that refusing to see the bad things happening in front of you makes you innocent, and that telling the truth is the same thing as making sure that no one can prove that you lied." (pp. 406)

Feri and I were at the Navy Exchange. Normally Feri will go off and look at the clothes (which I'll concede do tend to be less expensive than anywhere else), and I'll wonder around the book section. There aren't many books, but I have to say that often there are interesting ones there and this one caught my eye, having come out in paperback. If I have book or magazine with me (on this day I didn't) I'll normally head out to the car and read (after gassing it, and on this day I got the a/c going so we could both better deal with an unexpectedly hot day) while I wait for Feri; this book became my impromptu reading fodder. I didn't think it would suck me in, I thought I had been "Enroned" out --- how wrong I was.

The piece of the book I quote above comes from the epilogue, and it seems to so totally sum up what you read throughout the book. It's hard to believe that the Enron debacle could ever have happened. Before this book I knew that there were many enablers to this disaster who should have been working to prevent it from happening, not the least being Arthur Andersen which at the time was the premier accounting firm in the U.S. and should have kept this from ever getting to the point where everything imploded as it did. On that note, the recent Supreme Court "vindication" of Andersen was hardly clearing the company of its responsibility for the Enron meltdown, it was merely a technicality related to the extraordinary amount of document shredding that went on at the firm before Enron totally self-destructed. Andersen, only second to Enron itself, was responsible for the Enron disaster, because it allowed itself to be sucked into Enron and completely lost its perspective as an overseer responsible for preventing shady business practices and accounting out of fear of losing its fees from the company.

This book gives you a sense of all the characters, the corporations and analysts that looked the other way and didn't do their due diligence, that only focused on making money off the premier cash cow of the decade, the media that went along with the hype and made heroes out of the worst of the Enron criminals, and the academics who you'd think would ask questions but were more interested in fascinating case studies (with Harvard leading the pack) than in whether what they were looking at was indeed representative of the sort of reality that MBA students should be heading into.

Then there was the ethos that ran throughout the business world at the time but which seemed to be crystallized at Enron. It was about thinking you're smarter than anyone else, that you can pretty much do anything so long as you had a plausible cover story and you were making money for the company and yourself, and more than anything else it was making as much money as you could without regard for how what you might be doing was wrong though could "technically" be considered legal or for which you could somehow muster plausible deniability. The book is about over-sized personalities, greed, self-deception, and extraordinary hubris, it's on par with a Greek morality tale and I fear that it highlights traits that are still very much apart of the American corporate landscape. I can't say I followed everything in the book, I just don't have enough of a background in finance or investing in general, but that wasn't important as it was pretty clear as you moved along in the story that you were reading an extraordinarily well-written and engaging stoary about how people build a house of cards on a foundation of marbles, and go on to tell the world that it was an Egyptian pyramid that would last for many a millennia.

An eye-opener, and a pointed reminder of what people are capable of. Not a pretty story at all, and it's hard to get through it without at multiple points finding yourself shaking your head in disbelief or disgust. I'm looking forward to seeing the documentary by the same title that is based on the book.

5 Comments:

Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Let's put a shout out for plunging large urban areas into darkness, making the elderly and fragile poor pay quadruple for air conditioning at the peak of summer, precipitating a coup d'etat in the world's sixth largest economy (California), corrupting our highest elected officials, and setting a depraved standard in a crucial and preeminently influential sphere of society where every depravity must be matched for competitors to survive. This thing was mammoth and should be remembered after Babylon's forgotten.

12:48 PM  
Blogger James said...

Yep ... totally in agreement with your synopsis of this. My only problem with what you're saying is at the very end: I bet it's already forgotten in many quarters, or there are those out there who never quite "remembered" or "got it", as they still think they're too smart to be caught like those Enron dudes did --- and maybe they're right? :::Shudder, shudder, shudder:::.

It seems to me that we don't put in place the sort of regulatory oversight required to keep something like this from happening again. The industry fights it and politicians put pressure on the SEC and anyone else who might step in to keep industry in line to stay out, and in the end what's hurt is the consumer and in this case the most egregious example of the consumer taking it in the shorts being what happened in California. We're told that the industry will police itself, and then about every ten years or so something like this happens again. It just seems that we never learn.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

I worried about the ambiguity of that last sentence. Actually it was a wish that we would remember and an implicit lament that we certainly won't. I agree it's already almost as it never happened, which is why the movie was so shocking to me.

6:35 PM  
Blogger James said...

I have to see the movie for if it so clearly conveys what it seems to I'm sure it'll be an outstanding companion to the book, which I was captivated by --- it was like watching a train wreck setting itself up to happen, and the engineer, conductors, and firemen were all helping cause the accident to happen.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

To see the skyscrapers that were built and vacated and to see darkened cities makes it very real. Not to mention Bethany McLean appears and she's adorable.

11:28 AM  

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