Enron: Making Money in the Financial World – Stock Market, Commodity Trading Scandal (2005)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a 2005 documentary film based on the best-selling 2003 book of the same name by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, a study of one of the largest business scandals in American history. About the book:
McLean and Elkind are credited as writers of the film alongside the director, Alex Gibney. The film examines the 2001 collapse of the Enron Corporation, which resulted in criminal trials for several of the company’s top executives; it also shows the involvement of the Enron traders in the California electricity crisis. The film features interviews with McLean and Elkind, as well as former Enron executives and employees, stock analysts, reporters and the former Governor of California Gray Davis.
The film won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006. The film begins with a profile of Kenneth Lay, who founded Enron in 1985. Two years after its founding, the company becomes embroiled in scandal after two traders begin betting on the oil markets, resulting in suspiciously consistent profits. Enron’s CEO, Louis Borget, is also discovered to be diverting company money to offshore accounts. After auditors uncover their schemes, Lay encourages them to “keep making us millions”. However, the traders are fired after it is revealed that they gambled away Enron’s reserves, nearly destroying the company. After these facts are brought to light, Lay denies having any knowledge of wrongdoing. Lay hires new CEO Jeffrey Skilling, a visionary who joins Enron on the condition that they utilize mark-to-model accounting, allowing the company to book potential profits on certain projects immediately after the deals are signed…whether or not those projects turn out to be successful. This gives Enron the ability to subjectively give the appearance of being a profitable company even if it isn’t. Skilling imposes his Darwinian worldview on Enron by establishing a review committee that grades employees and annually fires the bottom fifteen percent. This creates a highly competitive and brutal working environment.
Skilling hires lieutenants who enforce his directives inside Enron, known as the “guys with spikes.” They include J. Clifford Baxter, an intelligent but manic-depressive executive; and Lou Pai, the CEO of Enron Energy Services, who is notorious for using shareholder money to feed his obsessive habit of visiting strip clubs. Pai abruptly resigns from EES with $250 million, soon after selling his stock. Despite the amount of money Pai has made, the divisions he formerly ran lost $1 billion, a fact covered up by Enron. Pai uses his money to buy a large ranch in Colorado, becoming the second-largest landowner in the state.
With its success in the bull market brought on by the dot-com bubble, Enron seeks to beguile stock market analysts by meeting their projections. Executives push up their stock prices and then cash in their multi-million dollar options. Enron also mounts a PR campaign to portray itself as profitable and stable, even though its worldwide operations are performing poorly. Elsewhere, Enron attempts to use broadband technology to deliver movies on demand, and “trade weather” like a commodity; both initiatives fail. However, using mark-to-model accounting, Enron records non-existent profits for these ventures.
Enron’s successes continue as it became one of the few Internet-related companies to survive the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, and is named as the “most admired” corporation by Fortune magazine for the sixth year running. However, Jim Chanos, an Enron investor, and Bethany McLean, a Fortune reporter, question irregularities about the company’s financial statements and stock value. Skilling responds by calling McLean “unethical”, and accusing Fortune of publishing her reporting to counteract a positive BusinessWeek piece on Enron. Three Enron executives, including CFO Andrew Fastow, meet with McLean and her Fortune editor to explain the company’s finances. Fastow creates a network of shell companies designed solely to do business with Enron, for the ostensible dual purposes of sending Enron money and hiding its increasing debt. However, Fastow has a vested financial stake in these ventures, using them to defraud Enron of tens of millions of dollars. Fastow also takes advantage of the greed of Wall Street investment banks, pressuring them into investing in his shell entities and, in effect, conduct business deals with himself.

Reflections on Impeachment, 20 Years Later

It was a tragedy for Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and America. He could have averted it by apologizing.

I didn’t believe the story when I first heard it—presidents and staffers don’t carry on like that. When I came to see it was true, I was angry. I wrote angrily in these pages.

I see it all now more as a tragedy than a scandal. I am more convinced than ever that Mr. Clinton made the epic political miscalculation of the 20th century’s latter half. He had two choices when news of the affair was uncovered: tell the truth and pay the price, or lie and hope to get away with it.

If he’d told the truth, even accompanied by a moving public apology, the toll would have been enormous. He would have taken a hellacious political beating, with a steep slide in public approval and in stature. He would have been an object of loathing and ridicule—the goat in the White House, a laughingstock. Members of his party would have come down on him like a ton of bricks. Newt Gingrich and the Republicans would have gleefully rubbed his face in it every day. There would have been calls for impeachment.

It would have lasted many months. And he would have survived and his presidency continued.

Much more important—here is why it is a tragedy—it wouldn’t have dragged America through the mud. It only would have dragged him through the mud. His full admission of culpability would have averted the false testimony in a criminal investigation that became the basis for the Starr report and the two articles of impeachment the House approved.

.. The American people would’ve forgiven him for the affair. We know this because they’d already forgiven him when they first elected him. There had been credible allegations of affairs during the 1992 campaign. Voters had never thought highly of him in that area. His nickname the day he was inaugurated was “Slick Willie.”
.. If he had chosen the path of honesty, Americans wouldn’t have backed impeaching him, because they are adults and have also made mistakes and committed sins.

And we know Mr. Clinton would have been forgiven because in September 1998—after the Starr report was released, amid all the mud and lies and jokes about thongs and cigars—a Gallup poll asked, “Based on what you know at this point, do you think that Bill Clinton should or should not be impeached and removed from office?” Sixty-six percent answered “should not be.”

Bill Clinton, political genius, didn’t understand his country’s heart.

.. and the year of hell, the cultural catastrophe, followed. That’s what it was, a year in which 8-year-olds learned about oral sex from the radio on the way home from school, and 10-year-olds came to understand that important adults lie, angrily and consistently, and teenagers knew if the president can do it, I can do it. It marked the end of a certain mystique of leadership, and it damaged the mystique of American democracy. All of America’s airwaves were full of the sludge—phone sex and blue dresses. The scandal lowered everything.
.. It was a tragedy because in lying and trying to protect himself, Mr. Clinton was deciding not to protect America. And that is the unforgivable sin, that he put America through that, not what happened with Monica.
.. The Starr report ran 452 pages and contained an astonishing level of sexual detail, of prurient, gratuitous specificity. Congress could have withheld it from the public or released an expurgated version. It didn’t have to be so humiliating. But Mr. Clinton’s enemies made sure it was.
.. Almost immediately on receiving the Starr report, Congress voted to release it in full, “so that the fullest details of his sins could be made public,” as Ken Gormley writes in his comprehensive 2010 history of the scandal, “The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.” They put it up on the web. Its contents wound up on every screen in America, every newspaper, every television and radio.
.. Lawmakers released the videotape of Mr. Clinton’s grand-jury testimony, so everyone could see the handsome presidential liar squirm.
Mr. Starr’s staffers said they needed extremely detailed, concrete specificity to make the American people understand what happened. At the time I assumed that was true in a legal sense. Now I look back and see mere blood lust and misjudgment.

I see the desire to rub Mr. Clinton’s face in it just as he’d rubbed America’s face in it.

Top to bottom, left to right, a more dignified government, one that cared more about both America’s children and its international stature, would have shown more self-restraint and forbearance. And there might have been just a little pity for the desperate, cornered liar who’d defiled his office.

.. It wouldn’t have so ruined the life of a woman who, when her relationship with the president commenced, was only 22. She paid a steeper reputational price than anyone. Charles Rangel, at the time a senior Democratic congressman, said on television that she was a “young tramp.” The White House slimed her as a fantasist. She went into hiding, thought about suicide.And in the end, 20 years later, she put the Clintons to shame.

.. Publicly for two decades she has reacted with more style and dignity than they, said less and with less bitterness and aggression, when they were the ones with all the resources, and a press corps eager to maintain good relations with them because Hillary would surely one day be president.

Monica told her side and kept walking, and even refrained from blaming her shaming on the Clintons. Feminists abandoned and derided her. She took it all on her back and bore it away. In my book, after all this time, she deserves respect.

Sometimes America gets fevers. They don’t so much break as dissipate with time. Twenty years ago we were in a fever. Others will come. The thing to do when it happens is know it’s happening, notice when the temperature is high, and factor it in as you judge and act, realizing you’re not at your best. Twenty years ago, almost none of our leaders were.

Republicans inch towards action on global warming

The key is to avoid the language of guilt and repentance for climate change

Some coastal Republicans who must contend with the consequences of a warming planet do not attempt to deny the scientific consensus. Carlos A. Gimenez, the mayor of Miami, was plain when talking about rising sea levels last year: “It’s not a theory. It’s a fact. We live it every day.”
..  More than half of the Republicans who represent districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 are members of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group that advocates climate-change fixes.
.. Some endangered Republicans defend the environment, if only in a NIMBYish way. Unfortunately for the overall sanity of their party, those Republican politicians are the most likely to lose their jobs if a Democratic wave transpires this autumn.
..  52% of Republican voters think there is “solid evidence” of global warming—up from 39% three years ago. Only 24% believe that human activity is to blame, though, compared with 78% of Democratic voters.
.. That huge partisan gap has grown since the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore turned green and made it a Democratic cause. “There’s a huge identity-based effect based on the cues Republicans have received from Fox News, conservative media and elected officials telling them that the science is uncertain
.. Yet moderate and younger Republicans are more likely to agree with the established science. And support for green policies can be found in odd places.
.. Slim majorities of registered Republicans back limiting carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations and favour a carbon tax on fossil-fuel companies
.. Conservatives have long had difficulty talking about climate change because the debate is often framed in the “language of repentance, guilt and doing with less, which doesn’t work well in the conservative community
.. That a rich, well-run country cannot pass a bipartisan law to deal with climate change is a tragedy. But if much Republican opposition to climate science is purely political—a way of identifying yourself as not a Democrat—then it can be swayed.
.. Republican voters will back carbon taxes if they are told Republicans favour such a policy.

The Tragedy of James Comey

James Comey is about to be ubiquitous. His book will be published next week, and parts may leak this week. Starting Sunday, he will begin an epic publicity tour, including interviews with Stephen Colbert, David Remnick, Rachel Maddow, Mike Allen, George Stephanopoulos and “The View.”

.. Yet anybody who’s read Greek tragedy knows that strengths can turn into weaknesses when a person becomes too confident in those strengths. And that’s the key to understanding the very complex story of James Comey.

.. Long before he was a household name, Comey was a revered figure within legal circles.
.. But he was more charismatic than most bureaucrats — six feet eight inches tall, with an easy wit and refreshing informality. People loved working for him.
.. If you read his 2005 goodbye speech to the Justice Department, when he was stepping down as George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general, you can understand why. It’s funny, displaying the gifts of a storyteller. It includes an extended tribute to the department’s rank and file, like “secretaries, document clerks, custodians and support people who never get thanked enough.” He insists on “the exact same amount of human dignity and respect” for “every human being in this organization,”
.. Above all, though, the speech is a celebration of the department’s mission.
.. Many Justice Department officials, from both parties, have long believed that they should be more independent and less political than other cabinet departments. Comey was known as an evangelist of this view.
.. Comey sometimes chided young prosecutors who had never lost a case, accusing them of caring more about their win-loss record than justice. He told them they were members of the Chicken Excrement Club
.. Most famously, in 2004, he stood up to Bush and Dick Cheney over a dubious surveillance program.

But as real as Comey’s independence and integrity were, they also became part of a persona that he cultivated and relished.

.. Comey has greater strengths than most people. But for all of us, there is a fine line between strength and hubris.