The Impossible Will Take a Little While
ENRON'S GOOD FIGHT
“We fought the good fight,” Jeff Skilling said, standing strong after he and “Kenny Boy” Lay were convicted of defrauding Enron stockholders. But what an odd choice of words. I suppose Joachim von Ribbentrop and Attila the Hun could say the same thing, but fighting to stay out of jail is a small imperial dream. Skilling and Lay did authorize blitzkrieg-worthy raids on West Coast utilities, where Enron traders bragged about stealing from “grandma Millie,” and jamming their $250 a megawatt hour power “right up her ass.” And Enron did conquer the venerable Portland General utility, then leave it a hollow shell—I met a woman who’d lost her entire retirement. So maybe those were the fights Skilling referred to. But these opponents barely put up a struggle.
Maybe Skilling was talking about political battles. Enron lobbied through the laws that opened California up to utility deregulation, then gouged the state’s and other West Coast utilities for every possible cent, and sent them to edge of bankruptcy. If low-income rate-payers couldn’t afford the costs or social needs went unmet because of the need for bailouts, that was someone else’s problem. Enron also served as George W. Bush’s single largest donor, even lending him their private plane to campaign in, and their accounting firm, Arthur Andersen and their law firm, Vinson & Elkins, were close behind. In return, Bush appoint the man Ken Lay recommended to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, replacing an earlier chairman who’d begun to question Enron’s financing schemes. When California officials pleaded for price caps in the face of skyrocketing manipulated prices, the FERC and Bush enabled Enron to make hundreds of millions of dollars more by refusing to help.
Enron also fought the good fight internationally. As described by Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, Enron overcame massive popular opposition to build a power plant in the State of Maharashtra, contributing endless dollars to local officials until they finally agreed, and locking the province into a $30 billion contract. When the plant went on line, the electricity, as predicted by the critics, was so costly that the government decided it was cheaper not to buy it, but to pay the mandatory fixed charges of $220 million a year to produce nothing.
I don’t claim to know the soul of Skilling or Lay, or to understand how as America was still mourning 9/11, these men who had more money then most of us could ever imagine, rationalized pulling their stock out of the company while destroying the futures of tens of thousands of employees and stockholders. Enron was strong, Lay told his employees, at the time. If they all persisted and stood together, he said, they’d prevail. So he advised them not to sell what they had, but in fact to buy more, even as he dumped millions of dollars of his own stock. Enron’s employees then watched helplessly as their future melted away.
“We fought the good fight,” gives us a clue to how Skilling and Lay could do this, as does Lay’s sanctimonious talk of how “God, in fact, is in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord.” It was all a grand game, like the games played by all those who wheel and deal in the destiny of other people’s lives. Lay and Skilling needed no heroes. They made themselves their own Gods and worshipped their own soaring ascent. The actual people whose worlds were shattered by Enron’s legacy were invisible and expendable.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for best social change book. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org. To get his articles directly email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles