Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Smartest Guys, the Hardest Fall

NB: This was my entry for Marla's Intellectuelle contest. Congratulations to the winners! Since I've taken my posting frequency down a notch, I am kind of glad not to have more writing responsibilities--but I will be really interested to check out the new Intellectuelle site when it launches.

With that said, this post is my review of a documentary about Enron that I saw last month.


Prov 16:18-19
Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.
It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor
than to divide the spoil with the proud.

1 Cor 1:19-21
For it is written,

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.

I don't watch movies often, but when a good documentary comes out, the nerd in me rises like an insatiable Minotaur that must be fed. I heard about Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and felt a rumbling inside that I hadn't experienced since seeing a trailer for Winged Migration a few years ago.

I used to write and edit for a company that produced real-time online transcripts of financial quarterly earnings calls. Every publicly traded company makes (and usually broadcasts) them to inform analysts and shareholders about the company's financial status and projections for the future.

Every call we ever covered followed an established pattern: the CEO gave the bright opening pep talk and closing comfort like shots of novocaine, and the CFO, sandwiched in between, ran through the numbers. I learned terms like "mark to market," but never knew what they meant. If you're like me and were not trained in accounting, let me break it down for you: Enron was booking future profits as though they'd already been realized. Back home we call that "counting your chickens before they hatch."

Although I'm no longer in that line of work, my experience there opened my eyes to a world I'd never had access to or been at all interested in. When I saw the Enron documentary playing at a local theater, I wanted to get a glimpse into the story behind the sinking of this modern Titanic.

What I saw was the arresting, personal account of the oldest story and oldest themes that exist: wanting to be like God (the Most High, the Omnipotent); pride, arrogance, and ultimately, hubris. Because of the myopic, unadulterated greed of the upper echelon of Enron (as well as its lawyers and bankers), billions of dollars were wasted, and billions more in pension funds and salaries were gambled away.

Isaiah 14:13
But you said in your heart,
'I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.'

In Enron's heyday nearly everyone was fooled by its appearance of integrity and its Teflon balance sheet. The Chairman and CEO had aspirations of being not just the best natural gas company in the world, but the most powerful company, period.

Reflecting on the causes of Enron's demise, I couldn't help but think of Satan and his angels, who wanted more than the area of responsibility and stewardship they'd been granted.

Jude 6
And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day...

In the same way, the overseers of Enron, together with many of the country's foremost banks and politicians, were complicit either in being reckless with billions of dollars, or in watching on in approval like a grinning Saul.

There was one man who was willing to stand against the tidal wave of adulation: John Olson of Sanders Morris Harris, who had followed Enron from its inception.

"[W]hen Enron said, 'Jump,' most analysts asked, "How high?'

Most analysts, that is, but not John Olson. The senior vice president and director of research at Houston-based securities firm Sanders Morris Harris was always skeptical of Enron's excesses. At the risk of being the laughingstock of Texas society, Olson refused to join the herd in touting a company whose business grew ever more opaque and incomprehensible even as its share price soared. And while almost every other analyst had 'buy' recommendations on Enron stock, Olson steadily maintained that the company was 'not very forthcoming' about how it made money and that 'no analyst worth his salt can seriously analyze Enron.'" (link)

The spiritual lesson of Enron is as painfully obvious as those of the sinking of the Titanic: a shipbuilder boasted that "not even God could sink this ship." The Titanic was foolishly piloted "at a dangerously high speed of 20.5 knots in the dark of midnight through a minefield of icebergs," ignoring multiple warnings to change course. The ship became a byword, an archetype of ultimate hubris and gross human failure to listen and be warned.

Psalm 51:17
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

The documentary was so named because the Chairman and CEO, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, had King's Quarters at the top of two staircases ascending from Enron's vast trading room. They were called "The Smartest Guys in the Room."

NB: Unfortunately I can't recommend that anyone see this documentary--there's a surprise scene with strippers when the film discusses Lou Pi's fetish for them. It's a long and graphic scene. I guess that's what I get for taking a chance on an unrated documentary!