The Enron outrage

Free-market ideologues said the energy titan's triumphs proved them right. Now they should admit its humiliating collapse proves they were wrong.

Published December 15, 2001 12:33AM (EST)

"I believe in God and I believe in free markets," Enron CEO Kenneth Lay told the San Diego Union-Tribune back in February. What's more, continued this titan of the energy business, Jesus himself was something of a '90s-style libertarian: "He wanted people to have the freedom to make choices."

Maybe, then, it was the Lord's work Enron was doing as it pushed electricity deregulation through the 1990s, and transformed itself from a gas pipeline company into an energy trader designed to provide choices and maximize profits in the freewheeling aftermath. After all, what better sign of the Almighty's favor could there be than Lay's compensation for the year of Our Deregulated Lord 2000: $141.6 million, a full 184 percent increase over 1999. Blessed indeed are the market makers! "We're on the side of angels," the company's former CEO Jeff Skilling told Business Week a little while ago. "In every business we've been in, we're the good guys."

Fortunately for the rest of us, though, Enron didn't inherit the earth. The company may have promised to deliver greater "transparency" to energy markets, but upon inspection its own affairs turned out to be a tangled mess of lies, nepotism and exaggeration that included the overstatement of profits by some $586 million -- a revelation that caused panic among investors and a catastrophic collapse for the mighty energy trader.

Nor will the obvious implications of the Enron affair be suppressed for long. Enron's failings were in fact directly related to its corporate ideology, to its zealous, cult-like love of free markets. According to Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Enron fought fiercely and paid lavishly to limit or abolish federal oversight of its trading business; its trading business then collapsed for lack of oversight and accountability. It isn't a coincidence when those who run ads mocking government regulators and saluting themselves as colossal rule breakers turn out to be engaged in literal rule breaking and regulation circumvention. Why are we feigning surprise?

Enron was the peerless darling of the all those who believed that free markets were the acme of existence. Its wreckage is as good a place as any to sit down and take stock of the deregulated, privatized state into which we've been so rudely hustled over the last decade. And here is what it looks like: Top management walking off with hundreds of millions of dollars while employees lose their jobs, investors lose millions and customers get to look forward to more rolling blackouts. Profiteering. Bought politicians. Stock market bubbles that inevitably burst. Workers thrown out on the streets. Left to its own devices, this is what the free market does.

Yes, Enron hoodwinked the world financially. But ultimately the more remarkable aspect of this tawdry corporate tale is the way Enron tricked us politically, the way its leaders persuaded the world that their passion for free markets, particularly in the field of electricity, was somehow equivalent to "revolution," to "creativity," to human freedom itself. That only when the corporations were free to romp the worlds as gods would we truly have achieved popular democracy.

For management gurus, Enron was a particularly hallowed operation. Once a simple natural gas pipeline concern, Enron turned itself into an energy trader with awesome ambitions, buying and selling contracts to deliver power across the country. Who needed pipelines and power plants and other mundane physical assets in the age of the Internet? This was a "new economy," and in its last years Enron's starstruck fans took to describing it as a full-blown "market maker," a near-divine bringer of entrepreneurship and profit-taking to those slow-moving reaches of the economy where before there had only been regulation and an outmoded fixation on public service -- water, electricity, "bandwidth." And -- Holy shit! -- just look at those profits!

This is why recent years saw such precious expressions of Enronphilia as Gary Hamel's 2000 book, "Leading the Revolution," in which Enron is characterized as a "revolutionary" company, the home of "radical ideas" which "come from radical people," where "new voices have the chance to get heard," and where top brass say nice populist things like, "People are smarter than we are at the top." Before Enron's troubles became a crisis, Hamel and his hero Lay were even scheduled to appear together at a high-profile November guru-fest called the "Revolutionaries' Ball." (The event's logo featured a red flag.) Enron's own TV commercials exhorted viewers to ask the "confrontational" question, "Why?" -- a word that supposedly has the power to "bring years of conventional assumptions to a jarring halt." The company even equated its quest for free markets with the doings of folks like Gandhi, Lincoln, and the civil rights protesters of 1963 Birmingham. (I guess Jesus wasn't available when they were filming.)

In April 2000 Fortune magazine imagined Enron as Elvis Presley, the mythical bringer of hipness to the desert of 1950s culture. I still find it hard to believe this passage appeared in a responsible magazine of business, so I reproduce it here in full:

"Imagine a country-club dinner dance, with a bunch of old fogies and their wives shuffling around halfheartedly to the not-so-stirring sounds of Guy Lombardo and his All-Tuxedo Orchestra. Suddenly young Elvis comes crashing through the skylight, complete with gold-lamé suit, shiny guitar, and gyrating hips. Half the waltzers faint; most of the others get angry or pouty. And a very few decide they like what they hear, tap their feet ... start grabbing new partners, and suddenly are rocking to a very different tune. In the staid world of regulated utilities and energy companies, Enron Corp. is that gate-crashing Elvis."

The adulation persisted right up to the end. The cover of the September edition of Business 2.0 carried a photo of Jeff Skilling, then the company's CEO, giving the reader a big finger-over-lips "Shhhhhhh!" The secret Skilling wanted us to keep was not the devastating truth about Enron's profits, but that the "Revolution Lives." Yes, the dot-coms had tragically gone bust, but who cared about that? Enron's metamorphosis into a "virtually integrated company" offered "glimmers of a possible future." One trip to Enron's Houston headquarters and anyone could see that the "revolutionary" truths of the new economy still thrived.

By the time the issue hit newsstands, however, it was Skilling himself who had mysteriously disappeared from the CEO's office. Soon it was Enron's legacy, not dot-com hype, that was being dismissed as insignificant by the desperate new-economy faithful. Enron's scandal and collapse, it is now maintained, has absolutely nothing to do with the company's worship of markets and its efforts to discredit government oversight and its long-running campaign to push privatization and deregulation. "No linkage!" screams the Wall Street Journal, piling on with no fewer than four editorials variously accusing Enron's detractors of "schadenfreude," declaring that Enron's collapse actually discredited the foes of deregulation, insisting that Enron-style deregulation did too benefit consumers (because free markets always do, nyah-nyah), and smugly declaiming the libertarian line on California's recent energy disaster: The state simply failed to deregulate enough.

Enron's P.R. magic was still having an effect even in such critical quarters as NPR's "Marketplace" program. One segment on the day of Enron's collapse featured bereft employees declaring their faith in the company's management ("These guys are brilliant people. They're really smart. They know what they're doing") while another flatly declared that Enron -- bless its soul -- had worked to keep prices low for consumers and that its demise might lead to a spike in energy costs.

And Fortune, which had fawningly compared the company to Elvis, currently features a cover story headlined "The Enron Disaster." Fortune now claims the problem was "the company's critics didn't throw enough rocks," and asks, "Given the extent to which financial chicanery appears to have taken place, is someone going to jail?" But hey, even Elvis screwed up in his later years.

Enron's business was, even in the best of times, difficult to understand. When writing a story about the company last June I could find no one able to explain precisely how Enron made what then seemed to be such impressive amounts of money. Clearly being a "market maker" entailed packaging a lot of innovative derivatives and contracts. It clearly also entailed considerable involvement in politics. As Business Week put it, "One of the biggest risks is that Enron simply can't create the open markets it needs." To do that it needed our help.

That's why P.R. was such a large part of Enron's mission. Not only did it sell itself as a defiant "revolutionary," but it sold deregulation as both a great step forward for human freedom as well as an inevitability, something we couldn't stop no matter what. Anyone who lives in a state where deregulation measures have been proposed knows what I'm talking about: The great tide of commercials and business-magazine stories and newspaper inserts all revolving around the predictable fake-revolutionary slogan, "Power to the People."

And what voters in those states wouldn't give Enron at the polls, the company achieved by other means, chief among them a massive -- and perfectly legal -- shower of boodle on influential political figures. The company and its executives routinely donated vast sums to both political parties, here and in Britain, thus helping the English-speaking world to achieve the free-market consensus that was, until recently, the pride of op-ed writers everywhere.

Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was a donor to the campaigns and a partner in the golf games of President Clinton, whose administration vigorously pushed Enron's various foreign initiatives. Enron gave generously to House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas, who thoughtfully introduced an electricity deregulation bill. The company, of course, was largely responsible for the grooming of George W. Bush as a national figure. As governor of Texas Bush used to fly around the country in Enron corporate jets. In later years Enron distinguished itself as the single largest corporate donor to his campaign for the presidency.

The connections don't stop there: Lay is a business acquaintance of Vice President Dick Cheney and is co-chairman of Barbara Bush's Foundation for Family Literacy. Such was Enron's clout with the administration that Lay, alone among electricity executives, was permitted to meet face to face with Cheney while the latter was cooking up the administration's highly questionable energy plan. He also reportedly had a hand in choosing the personnel of the federal agency responsible for regulating his business. In Britain, where Enron profited nicely from the privatization of a regional water works, the company actually sponsored the 1998 annual meeting of the Labor Party.

An even more potent Enron weapon seems to have been to provide friendly legislators with cushy sinecures after their work on behalf of Enron had been done. The honor roll includes: Wendy Gramm, wife of Phil, who secured for Enron a crucial exemption from regulation in 1993 when she was working for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and who then slid comfortably into a seat on Enron's board; Lord John Wakeham, the British Conservative politician who played a major role both in that country's disastrous electricity privatization and also in Enron's British water dealings, and who later received a seat on Enron's board; Frank Wisner, the U.S. ambassador to India during the first Clinton administration, who helped Enron win the $3 billion contract to build the infamous Dahbol power plant in that country in 1993, and who then applied the necessary pressure when India began to develop cold feet, and who found a nice, warm board seat waiting for him, too, upon his retirement from the Foreign Service.

Former Montana governor and brand-new Republican national chairman Marc Racicot has done a hitch carrying the sacred banner of deregulation for Enron. Former Secretary of State James Baker has also logged time on the Enron payroll. Bush economist Lawrence Lindsay and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick enjoyed positions on Enron's advisory board before their official duties commenced. And the generosity is bipartisan (though Republicans have been courted more lavishly): Two of former Vice President Al Gore's close campaign buddies, Charles Bones and Johnny Hayes, have also swallowed Enron's golden pills. Recall that the Whitewater investigation focused on just a few hundred thousand dollars, and you begin to understand how devastating to the free-market crowd -- New Democrats and old Republicans alike -- any investigation of Enron's mega-million political dealings could turn out to be.

Those who are astonished that the name of Enron could even be uttered in the same sentence as "corruption" or "Whitewater" should know that the company has the peculiar distinction of being possibly the only corporation that is the subject of an Amnesty International report, which details the brutal treatment of protesting villagers near the Dabhol plant by Enron's hired goons. An equally poignant account of the madly corrupt Enron corporate style was provided by John Kachamila, the natural resources minister for Mozambique, who had the honor of receiving a bid from Enron for a planned natural gas project. Pressure from the U.S. government to accept Enron's bid soon followed.

Kachamila described the experience to the Houston Chronicle in 1995: "There were outright threats to withhold development funds if we didn't sign, and sign soon. Their diplomats, especially Mike McKinley [then the charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy] pressured me to sign a deal that was not good for Mozambique. He was not a neutral diplomat. It was as if he was working for Enron. We got calls from American senators threatening us with this and that if we didn't sign. Anthony Lake even called to tell us to sign. They put together a smear campaign against us, Enron was forever playing games with us and the embassy forever threatening to withdraw aid. Everyone was saying that we would not sign the deal because I wanted a percentage, when all I wanted was a better deal for the state."

This is the sort of thing that is being referred to when Enron eulogists fret that the company's "legacy" of deregulation is now at risk of being undone. And they are right to fret: Without the muscle behind it that the Enron billions provided, deregulation probably doesn't stand a chance. If practical business matters -- i.e., price and service -- are the only factors taken into account, most municipalities would quickly choose local ownership or control over the Enron way.

During the California deregulation disaster, for example, prices for power shot up all across the state, except in the city of Los Angeles, which owns its own generating facilities. "Municipal utilities are more efficient on average and sell cheaper electricity and promote conservation," says political economist Gar Alperovitz. They "serve the public in all those ways better than the private utilities." When the priority is public service and not the survival of some well-connected middleman interested only in scoring sufficient profits to build its megalomaniac CEO a 50-room McMansion in suburban Houston, then public ownership fits the bill quite nicely.

But who cared about service when there was money to be made? A cardinal characteristic of the new-economy '90s was the subjection of such mundane stuff to the ideology of the market. Markets, we were told, are always better and more democratic -- by definition, in every industry, and in every age. And the American business press was only too happy to agree that what Enron was about was democracy and creativity, not corruption. Their readers have now learned that business school ideology makes a poor substitute for facts, and we have all learned the hollowness of deregulation's promise. In return for handing our electricity systems over to the market and to Enron, we were told, we would be paid back with enhanced service and an ever-swelling stock portfolio. The California deregulation disaster should have eliminated all doubts about the first of these promises; Enron's collapse has now put paid to the other.

Perhaps the real theological lesson to be learned from all this is the simple statement of relief uttered by a California Public Utilities commissioner when he learned of the great conglomerate's destruction: "There is a God."

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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