It’s been four and a half years since I wrote my first column on Enron. In the intervening half-decade I wrote or edited at least another dozen stories about the company, while obsessively reading news coverage and a solid shelf-full of books about the company and the other high-flying business blowouts that so thoroughly swamped the beginning of the new millennium in a morass of greed, corruption and mind-bending arrogance. Like many courtside watchers of the saga, I’ve long been looking forward to the trial of Enron’s two kingpins, Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay.
And yet now, with the trial finally underway, I find it hard to know what to say or think about it. Maybe it’s because of the “fatigue factor” — as the Houston Chronicle quoted a communications professor at the University of Houston saying on Monday: “You can’t hide the fact that all the details have come out over the last three years. There is nothing new. These guys have been hammered. People think they know what they need to know to have an opinion.”
An undeniable aspect of ancient history now accrues to the whole sorry spectacle. The go-go ’90s are long gone. The war in Iraq, the competitive pressures of globalization, the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth here in the United States; they’ve distracted attention from the cartoonlike figures of the Enron gang, with all their luxury sports cars and private planes and astoundingly incompetent business bungling.
But this morning, after spending some time at the Houston Chronicle’s fantastic clearinghouse of news about Enron, which includes blog commentary on the trial by lawyers, a separate blog detailing events in the courtroom and oodles of additional blanket coverage, I realized that it is high time to look more closely, again.
This trial marks the final chapter in a specific narrative of American business practices. Enron was the most admired company in corporate America, the poster child for deregulated energy markets, and a symbol of how our governing elite believed we should be doing business. If Skilling and Lay get off scot-free or with just a slap on the wrist, the moral of the the whole story will be broken. Not to prejudge these bozos, mind you, but finding them guilty of intent to commit fraud would go a long way toward resolving how future generations evaluate the era we just lived through. Think of it as a mark going down on the permanent record of capitalism. It’s time for the final score.