Monday, January 3, 2011

Just Because You Are Smart, Doesn’t Mean You Are Better

Today’s film is another documentary, and one I’ve been trying to watch all the way through for a while. Disclosure, I did try to watch this a few years back but switched off because it was making me angry. But, I figured, with this blog, I could try again. The film in question? Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room.

Everybody knows the joy that comes with making money, and have fantasised about making it hand over fist. But what happens when you DO make money that way, even if it comes in dirty – do you sit back and let it flow? Do you let it happen? This is the true story of men who did just that, and encouraged it to do so.

We have all heard about the Enron Scandal from a few years back, but how many of us actually read into it or the history behind it and its major players? In a nutshell: the collapse of Enron (the largest corporate bankruptcy in US history) lead to the reveal of large scale book cooking, with full knowledge of company CEOs Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, as well as CFO Andrew Fastow, lead to criminal proceedings against Lay and other members of the Enron governing board and the ruination of many people’s lives. This documentary aims to reveal the “whys” and “hows” what happened with the collapse, what lead to it, and those affected by it.

Opening with the investigation into the suicide of Cliff Baxter, a high ranking Enron executive, the film immediately asks “who was responsible for the collapse of Enron?” and, (as any good documentary does), uses a series of interviews with many affected, from ex-staff to shareholders to politicians to industry experts as well as lots of well-documented archive footage to show that Enron basically collapsed under the weight of human greed, personal self-interest and preservation and good old fashioned hubris.

Once again, we see that human greed gets the better of some people who should have known better. I can’t fault people for being greedy, but with things on the scale of multi-billions of dollars, one would have to know that if shit goes bad, shit REALLY goes bad. And, as we all have seen, shit REALLY REALLY went bad and took down a lot of people, innocent and guilty.

What is shown in this documentary is that even as far back as the 80s Enron was practicing very shady business methods, in which a pair of stock and oil traders, Louis Borget (then company director) and Thomas Mastroeni (then company treasurer), were found to be syphoning of millions of dollars from and through Enron, eventually pleading guilty to conspiracy to defraud. Ken Lay, as was shown both in history and this documentary, however actively encouraged the two men to “keep making us millions”, even in the face of all investigations into the matter.

Following this scandal, and with the introduction of Jeff Skilling to the company, Enron began trading oil futures in a system known as “Mark To Market Trading”, which basically allowed to company to speculate its own profits at whatever level they speculated (for example, the company was able to book $53M in profits on the Blockbuster VOD broadband system, that actually failed to make any profit in the slightest). In addition to this, many other  business practices; good, bad and all points in between, were shown to be implemented, all of which helped to quicken the overall collapse.

Now, the phrase “history’s greatest monster” is thrown around quite a bit these days, but the so-called “smartest guys in the room” are monsters. Kenneth Lay really was an unconscionable, shown time and again to be more than willing to put profit by any means necessary above all else. Jeff Skilling is shown as a man so crippled by his own unfettered self image and willingness to implement very unpopular business practices, that in the end he really was his own best “yes-man” and worst enemy.

The collapse was not only at the hands of Lay and Skilling, though, as several other key players (including the late Cliff Baxter) are profiled and shown to have their fingers in the pie as well. Each of these players is shown as being more than willing to be “creative” in their profit gaining. In addition to the creativity inside the walls of Enron, some very long standing outside ties also contributed to the length of time in which Enron was allowed to play fast and loose with, well, everything,

The fact that there are people so blindly, or not-so-blindly, greedy and willing to put money at the apex of everything, regardless of the means makes me shake my head in confusion and anger. These are people who make Gordon Gecko look like a sane and rational human being. I can understand wanting to be the best, and that sometimes you have to be a little cut-throat, but to so willingly and so knowingly fuck over people’s lives to make a profit is just callous. These men were damn good at what they did, it’s just that what they did was not very good.

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