Lessons From The Abyss
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Looking at the whole horrible Enron mess, even a veteran cynic has to feel pretty good about the future. Look what we now know that we did not before! True, it was a wreck unlike any since the Titanic, a craft destroyed by the arrogance of its designers and the inattention and stupidity of those who ran it. Yet in spite of the lives lost and the hardship for those who had to attend the movie with a young girl not once but four or five times, even the great Titanic produced some worthwhile lessons.

Let's see, what were they? Oh, yes. Nothing is unsinkable! Hm. Perhaps we didn't learn that yet. Wait! How about: If you have a lot of people onboard, you want to set aside one seat in a lifeboat for each. Back then, you know, only the first-class passengers stood any chance of getting off the ship alive.... Uh-oh. Come to think of it, maybe we didn't learn that either.

Okay, maybe we didn't learn anything from the Titanic. But let's not make that same mistake with Enron! At least a dozen lessons may be garnered from what happened to the morons who ran that enterprise into the ground.

1. Accountants are people too. We used to think they were wise, honest, and probing, necessary to keep gung-ho management straight. Now it's clear: They're not. Accountants are potentially a bunch of gonzo-maniacs--and greedy to boot! They also can be convinced, it seems, that anything is okay as long as they're following orders. That sounds familiar. So now you know that if something has been vetted by one accountant, that doesn't mean squat. You probably need two.

2. Think before you shred. The idiots who fed miles of documentation into their shredders certainly did so at the behest of senior management. What bureaucrat ever did anything important on his own? Sadly, shredding makes things easy on the investigators. If all the tons of paper were still around, the courts would have spent years trying to figure out what the heck Enron was doing and whether it was legal, semilegal, or felonious. Now the whole bunch of them are liable for obstruction of justice, a relatively easy rap to prove. Instead of causing a lot of confusion and trouble, they're going to the hoosegow! Except they won't get the real guys! They'll get the teeny-weenies! That's the lesson. Wait--we knew that already!

3. Even big guys have problems just like you and me. When the man George W. Bush calls Kenny-Boy--the infamous Kenneth Lay, the Enron mastermind (if such a word can be used in this context)--was asked why he needed to cash in hundreds of millions of dollars in options, he said he had...expenses. Well, we can certainly see the problem. But Kenny-Boy Mr. Lay, he has expenses that lesser mortals can only dream of. In addition to his lifestyle, which is very costly, he also has debts, which are even worse than expenses. Most of those debts came from--guess where?--bad investments! That's a problem any Enron shareholder or employee can sympathize with. So, no man is completely unworthy of our sympathy. That's an excellent lesson.

4. Analysts are whores. Yes, incredible as it may seem, people sometimes don't have the best judgment in the world if they're being paid both to analyze companies and to finance their deals. That often happens when securities analysts advise management while at the same time evaluating their stocks. Hello!

5. Don't worry about the feds. They'll be along later. As citizens of the U.S., we pay taxes to fund government entities like Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Why? To protect us from scoundrels who can't see the forest for the fees. Right about now, those guardians of the public weal are riding into battle, just in time to pick up the dead. There's a lesson in there somewhere. Let me know when you find it.

6. It's better to be big and crooked than small and trusting. Yes, it's the little people down in Texas and the small investors with their life savings tied up in rancid stock who are taking it hardest. The rampaging beasts will hire sleazy lawyers, and pretty soon they'll be laughing over their juleps at the 19th hole. It may be a while until such an opportunity for filthy lucre comes again, but when it does, it's probably better to be numbered among the despicable winners than the pathetic losers. Is that a good lesson?

7. If you're gonna blow a whistle, blow it outside! Sherron Watkins let her senior management know what's what. She really had everybody's ear--six months later! Next time, call a frickin' reporter!

8. Internal communications are important for hoodwinking employees. When Kenny-Boy Mr. Lay wanted to keep the Hindenburg in the air for several more months, whom did he go to? His employees! He was open! He communicated! If he's out there on the message board, he must be a good guy, right? The lesson here is to distrust anything that you find on the Internet. It is an untrustworthy medium, good for a few giggles and nothing more. That is a truth that transcends this debacle. Ignore it at your peril, you credulous fools!

9. Stonewalling is still the best defense. Just because it brought down Richard Nixon doesn't mean it hasn't worked dozens of times since. It's working for David Duncan, the Andersen guy in charge of the Enron account, who has been taking the Fifth when need be. And Dick Cheney is fighting the General Accounting Office for possession of his documents. Says it's his right to maintain radio silence on considerations the Administration used to determine energy policy. You go, girls!

10. Your 401(k) ain't worth diddly. I don't think we need to say any more. If you don't have Retirement Plan B in place, you haven't been listening.

11. Nicer guys finish last. Why is it that the one halfway decent guy in Enron senior management, Cliff Baxter, is found dead in his car with a gun by his side and a suicide note, and the rest of the bastards are walking around with hundreds of millions of dollars in their pockets? Help me out with that.

12. Hope springs eternal. On Jan. 28 the New York Times stated, "Many think that Enron's business model for virtual trading remains sound despite the company's problems." Really? "Despite Enron's collapse," the paper wrote, "its goal of merging the best thinking in energy, finance, and information technology as an online commodity trader still garners respect."

Well, suppose they're right. Then the fellows who ran this, the greatest failure in the history of American mercantile capitalism, were simply bad guys with a good idea. They weren't the first. They won't be the last. Get rid of them, and we can all go on with business as usual, right?

Business as usual! What a concept! And my, how far we've come!

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.