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Enron: Darwinian Morality Tale

John on December 3, 2006 at 2:36 am

Why am I writing about Enron at this late date? Primarily because I just finished watching Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a two hour long documentary about the rise and fall of the company. However the scandal has made some news recently with the death in June of Ken Lay and the conviction of Jeff Skilling in October.

Most of what I’d heard and read about the scandal was political. Ken Lay and his family had a close connection to the Bush family. Lay was one the largest donor to Dubya’s 2000 campaign. In case you haven’t kept up, Lay was convicted on all counts and then died in July of this year.

What I hadn’t heard about before was Jeffrey Skilling and how his business practices were heavily influenced by his favorite book: Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. There is an excellent segment of the film which deals with this and how it had a direct effect on Skilling himself and Enron. Here’s the You Tube video which contains that portion of the film (starts about 3:30):

[Update 1/3: The video was removed from You Tube. The transcript below will suffice.]
Here’s a partial transcription of it as well:

Narrator: When Jeff Skilling applied to Harvard business school, the professor asked him if he was smart. He replied “I’m f**king smart.”

One of his favorite books was The Selfish Gene, about the ways human nature is steered by greed and competition in service of passing on our genes.

At Enron, Skilling wanted to set free the basic instincts of survival of the fittest.

Bethany McLean: Jeff had a very Darwinian view of how the world worked. He was famous for saying once in Enron’s early years that money was the only thing that motivated people.

Perter Elkind: Skilling’s notion of how the world should work really trickled down and affected everything about Enron did business.

Bethany McLean: He instituted the system known as the PRC or Performance Review Committee. It required that people be graded from a 1 to a 5, and roughly 10% of people had to be a 5. And those people were supposed to be fired, hence this came to be known as rank and yank.

Jeff Skilling: I personally am convinced that the PRC process is the most important process that we conduct as a company…[snip]

Amanda Martin-Brock: It was a brutal process…[snip]

Narrator: At Enron, no one was more aggressive than the traders.

Charles Wickman: If I’m on the way to my boss’ office to argue about my compensation and if I step on somebody’s throat on the way that doubles it…well, I’ll stomp on the guy’s throat. That’s how people were.

Obviously, this sort of thing had disastrous consequences for shareholders, employees, residents of California and ultimately for Jeff Skilling himself. On October 23rd, just about six weeks ago, Skilling was sentenced to 24 years and 4 months behind bars for his crimes.

It would be a brutal kind of justice to see Skilling spend those years in a maximum security prison where his views on “survival of the fittest” would be truly tested. Fortunately for him, he will face no such existential crisis. Skilling will serve his sentence at a minimum security prison in Waseca, Minnesota that is a converted college campus.

Skilling’s story reminds me of another Darwinian businessman facing charges: Jeffrey Epstein. Democrats have long accused President Bush of going easy on Enron founder Ken Lay because of his family ties. In fact, Lay was convicted and would have spent years in prison if not for his death this summer.

Meanwhile, Jeff Epstein, who is a friend of Bill Clinton, has the Palm Beach prosecutor running interference for him. This is the same prosecutor who has made a career out of targeting Rush Limbaugh and most recently Ann Coulter. And despite credible evidence of statutory rape, Epstein has remained suspiciously out of the press and out of the clink since his arrest.

In both cases — Skilling and Epstein — the crimes stem from a particular world view, something which seems not to have caught anyone’s attention thus far. But what really makes Skilling’s story a kind of morality tale is how it all ended. His downfall came at the hands of whistle blower (and former Enron vice-president) Sherron Watkins. Watkins is a Christian.

Jeffrey Skilling starts his prison sentence on December 12th, a week from Tuesday.

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