Friday, February 08, 2002

One thing about the Enron collapse --- it's certainly shining light on the character of some of the principals.

Jeff Skilling, "savvy and detail-oriented" when running Enron, was forgetful and ignorant before Congress. Ken Lay tried to cancel his appearance before Congress entirely when it became clear to him that he'd get tough questions. (How could he ever have doubted it?) Before that, his wife showed up on teevee, claiming in a well rehearsed performance that the family was broke, and all their houses were up for sale to generate a little spare cash. Strangely, no local real estate agents seem to know about that.

But then again, we're talking about Enron executives. Their company is in Chapter 11, and they're traveling to bankruptcy hearings on its corporate jets --- which they're still even using on private business, to go to a funeral. (Those jets are also supposed to be on the block, but again, they haven't been sold yet. The market for corporate jets is terrible these days, don't you know. Terrible).

Nor has the bankruptcy kept them from continuing to pay for their luxury suites and box seats at the baseball stadium still known as Enron field. And, in the process, keeping their name on the stadium, for whatever that's worth --- they payments are part of their naming rights deal, which the team is desperate to ditch. (It's certainly not worth much in monetary terms, as the naming rights are not transferable, and the last thing Enron needs right now is more publicity).

They built a business on lies, hugely overstating the revenues, and sweeping hundreds of millions of dollars in debt under the rug in phony partnership deals --- which were, incidentally, arranged to divert millions of dollars from Enron's corporate treasury directly to them. They filled it with high-tech gadgetry and toys and gadgets which are currently choking Ebay. Some of it, they didn't even seem to have a use for --- at one point, secretaries were put behind unstaffed trading desks and told to look busy as management put on a show for visiting Wall Street analysts. And when the deals started to unravel, they dumped stock while telling employees and shareholders that everything was fine.

You could try to write some of this off as the apotheosis of greed, or something like that, but that, by itself, doesn't explain the ludicrous evasions and denials, the obsession with toys --- jets, baseball suites --- and the flashy arrogance. Where have we seen this before?

How about Ivy league colleges which seem at times to put an impregnable barrier between the spawn of the elite and the consequences of their actions? Like Harvard, for instance, where two officers of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, an annual drag show that has been kicking around since before the civil war, are now under indictment for stealing $100,000 from the organization, having apparently made little effort to disguise the theft. And Jordana Lewis, writing in the Harvard Crimson, thinks it unlikely they thought a year of drugs, hot parties, and slick clothes were worth another ten in the clink. Quoth she:

The more obvious explanation is an audacious cockiness that they wouldn't go to jail, that Harvard (or at least the Harvard name) would bail them out, and that it would all make for an interesting chapter in their soon-to-be-written tell-all. Most of that arrogance probably has to do with the mind-boggling breaks we get at this school. If we don't study for a class, the professor punishes us with a Gentleman's C. If we are caught drinking underage, the Ad Board disciplines us with a firmly-stated, flimsily-followed admonishment. If we rape another student, we are penalized with a one or two-year vacation from school, subject to review.

Harvard is completely without serious consequences and its students can do no wrong, or so it seems. Regardless how much students slack, shirk or steal, the University eventually tosses a diploma in their direction and they stride into the real world having been coddled by academics and protected from the harsh realities of the real world. Sheltered by brick, ivy and egos, we are taught to feel impervious to everyone else's rules, according to which people go to jail and ruin their lives for mistakes they made when they were, yes, just 22.

The overgrown college student theory may seem simplistic, but it has a few merits; it certainly explains the way the names of the "partnerships" that Enron executives used to loot the company seem to have been plucked off the wall of some freshman's dorm room: JEDI. Raptor. Chewco (from Chewbacca).

If that explanation appeals to you, then you might want to consider in that light the career of another overgrown collegian. The one whose father let Ken Lay overnight in the White House, and appointed Lay to a trusteeship on his presidential library. The one whose own presidential campaign traveled on Enron's corporate jets (you know, the ones they haven't sold yet). The present resident of the White House, George W. Bush.

Dubya's enough in tune with the general fratboy weltanshauung that he once told a female Yale graduate that "something had been lost" when the school, his own alma mater, had begun to admit women. And he certainly seems into aggressive accounting.

His political party nearly turned Arkansas upside down looking for shady deals by Clinton's former associates --- the theory apparently being that those would somehow shed light on Clinton's own character. Perhaps there was something to that...


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