Kenneth Lay and Jeffery Skilling are two characters that really get my panties in a bunch.
Lay, the founder of Enron Corp., and Skilling, its chief executive officer, were juried this week into a future that may well include life in prison.
While in their control, Enron took traditionally accepted corporate business practice to its logical conclusion: the fulfillment of individual greed through corporate abuse.
In saying this I would like to be careful, fair and in the end, hopeful.
Fulfilling the almost insatiable greed of a few requires overwhelming ignorance or denial on the part of many. This, whether we like it or not, or whether we say it or not, is the foundation upon which “corporate business 101” is built.
Consumer ignorance, the consommé on which Enron continually gorged itself, comes about not because we are without intellect or are poorly schooled, but rather because our unlimited need to consume is fed by our unlimited willingness to trust.
Trust, that is, in a corporate message that goes something like this:
Progress, good health and right livelihood ferment best in a marketplace that demands and supplies the most for the least.
What is fermented and then consumed in this scenario makes us big — our business grows, so does our profit and, in the end, our country. Big is simply better.
I am careful here not to suggest that we (all of us) are inherently dumb or unduly gullible, but rather that we have become uncertain of our own ability to care for ourselves. We have become vulnerable and co-dependent, co-dependent on corporate largesse.
Second: I want to be fair.
Corporations have given us countless labour-saving devices, fast-growing and disease-resistant foods, life-saving and life-extending technologies, fast transportation and instantaneous access to information.
This of course has come at a price.
Almost without notice, but certainly not by accident, corporations have also given us an unrelenting and mindless consumerism; they have misplaced and then replaced the common good with the corporate good; and what I fear most, corporations have worn away the very fabric of democracy.
To become overly big in theory, we have had to become quite small in practice.
We are continually and systematically doing less for ourselves.
We are quick to hand over responsibility for our own health to institutionalized practitioners and pharmaceutical companies.
We downsize our need for personalized communication — the hard work of being neighbourly — by increasing our pathological and emotionally unsatisfying addiction to a cellular exchange of ideas and feelings.
Today we rarely reach out and touch anybody.
We neither “break bread” with those who think differently from us, nor do we confront, eye to eye, those who profess to represent us.
We have come to regard social equality as being on the same channel, having the same server, voting for the same Idol.
We no longer retire on what we have earned with our own hands or saved through our own frugality. Even in retirement we continue to consume, invest and hedge against inflation and a rising cost of living.
We buy retirement vacation homes in places for which we often long but do not, and cannot, belong. Places in which we plan to be temporary. Places where we can be autonomous by first being anonymous.
In twilight we plunk down big money for motorhomes that take us away from friends, community and eventually from ourselves.
We “sarcastically” advertise that we are “proudly spending our children’s inheritance.”
We want to be free, finally, on the road, away from responsibility.
The road back from here to Lay and Schilling’s is a long and winding one, but one well worth mapping.
When the dust settled Enron’s ruse on consumers, citizens and shareholders put 40,000 people out of work and cost hardworking honest folks over $100 billion — much of which was in the form of retirement investments.
Simon Caulkin, a financial reporter for the Guardian Unlimited details what it took to turn Enron loose on the world: “political support and willing believers — ‘useful idiots’ in both academic and financial worlds who took at face value everything the firm told them and eagerly talked it up.
“In systems where incentives are sharp enough and the moral compass deliberately disabled — what’s good for shareholders is good for the company is good for me — that’s what happens. In that sense, to get where Enron ended up didn’t require management to be deliberately evil; it just required it to take what most MBAs learn at business school and pursue it to its logical conclusion.”
Where then, you might ask, is the hope?
Wisdom often comes our way as a result of great personal loss. We learn when we are touched by our own inattention.
We are not often idiots twice.
In business, in family, in what we think we need and what we know we want, in retirement, and in governance, we can ill-afford to be disembodied from reality. A lot of us are now paying closer attention and that alone gives me great hope.