Three Little Pigs: The Unlearned Lessons Of Enron

By

Leonard Zwelling

         I am fascinated by evil.

         I am not talking about the Hitler and Vlad the Impaler
stuff. Those guys were nuts. I am talking about the every day evil to which all
of us are prone. We speak too harshly and hurt others. We are insufficiently
forgiving. We are hypercritical and we are not empathetic. And that’s just me
on a good day.

         These little evils probably do as much damage as the big
ones perpetrated by wild men (and it is usually men) like the guys from ISIS—or
Enron, not for their intensity, but for their ubiquity.

         What interests me most is the pure commonality of it all.
How rampant is the evil? How, as Hannah Arendt said of Eichmann, banal it
all is! But it isn’t.

         In the past few years I have had the opportunity to get to
know or get to hear three of the men who were incarcerated after the debacle
known as Enron. They indeed thought that they were the smartest guys in the
room and surely not banal. Just ask them. What is so pitiful is that they still
think they are.

         Recently I have heard the errors in business made by people
such as those prosecuted in the Enron case blamed on arrogance, ignorance and greed. Assuming that
this is true, one would think that a few years in the slammer would erase at
least some of these three traits. I found the exact opposite to be the case.
The more they get caught, the more arrogant they get. They continue to blame
“outdated rules” for their bad behavior. (Government only makes rules in
reaction to bad behavior not the other way around. The rules are put in place to
protect the public from people like these. The government is NEVER proactive.
Bad behavior causes the rules; the rules don’t cause bad behavior.)

The
Enron grads justify their bad behavior by saying they checked with the
accountants and CPAs before they did the deeds that got them locked up. I have
even heard one say that he got a national award from colleagues and a prison ID
card for exactly the same actions like off-balance sheet book keeping. You know
what? He’s right!

         The only real moral of the story appears to be evil is OK as
long as you don’t get caught. Or, I was just trying to increase stock holder
value. Or, I misunderstood the rules. This was being said in juxtaposition to
an admission that what this person did misled the shareholders and the
auditors, but was OK because it followed the letter of the law. It was self-sanctioned lying.

         None of this surprised me as I have seen it pervade academic
medicine through out my career from the rationalization of plagiarism (I was in
a rush) to the endangerment of human subjects (I am the doctor I know what’s
good for this patient). Believe me, I get it. Some of the most famous and
prominent oncologists I have ever known have fallen victim to this intense
arrogance, ignorance and greed.

         However, on Thursday evening while I was listening to a
panel discussion on Jewish ethics and business and heard one of these Enron
grads be applauded for his honesty and his candor about wrong-doing now, while
still claiming he followed the rules, I lost it.

         But before I ran screaming from the room, one of the other
speakers who ran a much smaller, but far more successful business discussed how
she (take note) treated her employees and shared the profits with them when the
company was sold. When asked why she behaved so admirably, I leaned over to her
mother who I know well and said, “this is where you stand up.”

         The piggies needed better upbringing so they didn’t need the
rules to tell them what was wrong and what was right. Piggies need stern
mothers and fathers or they become hogs and they just might get slaughtered. My
female friend with the smaller business, often cited as a best place to work,
needed no artificial north star. Hers was in her heart and it had been there since
childhood.

         When I was a vice president and had to discipline a faculty
member (usually male) who had screwed up in the performance of clinical
research, I always asked my associate VP, “can we speak with his mother?” I am
still asking that question about the Enron piggies.

         Now that I know them close-up and have even met some of
their parents, I still don’t get it. Evil is the most fascinating of subjects
upon which to ponder.

         The Devil’s greatest trick is making you think he doesn’t
exist. What I saw on this panel from the Enron alum was a true Devil charming
the back teeth out of a room full of adults who should know better. At least
everyone was well behaved when I suspect there were people in the audience who
the panelist from Enron had seriously wronged and to his credit, admitted as
much, but with little convincing contrition associated with the words. Rather
he seemed, once again, to be getting away with it. It sounds like he is back
making money giving speeches about his bad behavior and rationalizing it
because everyone is still doing it.

         Jumpin’ Jack Flash is still a gas, gas, gas, except when he
is in both oil and gas at Enron. And piggies will never be the Kosher source
about Jewish ethics. How many of the Wall Street crooks were Jewish? Way too
many!

         These three piggies have learned nothing.

Leonard Zwelling