Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2002 / 4 Adar, 5762
It may hit a little too close to home.
It's easy -- now -- to heap scorn upon the top executives of Enron, and upon their accountants who apparently told them that what they were doing with the books was just fine. Now that the company, and its stock, are in the toilet, the world, not to mention the United States Congress, has a free pass to kick away at the people who were in charge.
And those people will face all kinds of sanctions in the years to come.
But before the rest of us become a little too holy about all of this, perhaps we ought to step back and take a look at something.
Yes, the lower-level Enron employees saw their retirement funds become next to worthless when the Enron stock suddenly plunged.
But when that stock was riding high -- when everyone who worked for Enron was envisioning the promise of easy money -- were they as concerned about how squeakily clean the bosses on the penthouse floor were playing the game? Or were they just happy that the stock was skyrocketing, and were they pleased that whatever the bosses upstairs were doing, they were doing it spectacularly well?
I ask the question not to impugn the rank-and-file Enron employees -- but to illustrate something about how this plays out at corporations all across the U.S. At companies where stock becomes part of retirement packages, how many complaints do you hear from those who work for the companies when the stock jumps so high that it makes eyebrows rise? How many demands do you hear for the boardroom guys to explain exactly how they are hitting this amazing hot streak? How many voices are saying: "Our stock is doing too well, and I want to know why, right this minute"?
This is not to suggest that every American company makes its money the Enron way -- although will you be shocked if Enron turns out not to be all alone as a shell-game operator?
But human nature being human nature, few people question good fortune. The fact is, the stock market is not all that much different than a casino -- the croupiers just wear more conservative suits on Wall Street than they do on the riverboats. And just as unsophisticated gamblers in casinos are eager to follow the lead of high rollers who are hitting the big numbers, so, too, have corporate employees been tickled and grateful when the high rollers in the management suites upstairs are on a sizzling streak. During the flush times, the employees' emotions don't translate to "How dare you play fast and loose with the rules." They translate to gleaming eyes and a desire to blow on the dice: "Baby needs a new pair of shoes."
The casino analogy extends past that. In a lot of economically devastated communities around the U.S., casino gambling arrives and money drops out of the sky. All of a sudden there are jobs, there is cash to be scooped up. How exactly this happens, the people in the communities don't like to dwell on. It's very much like the Enron situation: better to just turn your head and let the giddy times flow. There is an archaic phrase that, old-fashioned as it is, pretty succinctly sums up both the real casinos and the Enron casino: "ill-gotten gains." Something that seems too good to be true just about always is.
This is not about the arcane minutiae of accounting practices or trading regulations; this is about the frailties of the human heart. It's difficult to blame the regular worker -- at Enron or at any other big corporation -- for not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, or even look the gift horse in the eye, for fear that the gift horse will bolt and run. But when the horse drops dead at your feet, and becomes a rotting carcass . . .
Well, there are a lot of lessons in the Enron story, not that they are likely to stick. As long as the stock is zooming, the impulse at most companies is to praise the boys upstairs for knowing all the ins-and-outs, for being big players, for having the golden touch . . . any old phrase will do. We like that.
Until that darned gift horse keels