Thursday, 2 August 2007

Condonites and Actonites


Mamiko and I watched Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room last night. It was fascinating stuff, but what is most interesting for me about the Enron debacle is that the lessons learned by Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay seem to have been completely forgotten. Only last year Japanese internet messiah Takefumi Horie was charged with one of the Enron bosses' crimes - decieving investors about stock price - and last month we saw the final fall of Conrad Black, the Canadian/British newspaper mogul charged with mail fraud and perverting the course of justice. What is especially chilling is that all these men were not simple businessmen: they were linked to - no, up to their eyeballs in - the political systems of their respective countries. Ken Lay was a close friend and confidante of the Bush family and mentioned as a possible Treasury secretary when Dubya came to power; Takefumi Horie was asked by then-PM Junichiro Koizumi to run for the Diet in 2006; Conrad Black was a life peer in the House of Lords. These weren't just ordinary moguls - they were figures of the establishment. They really should have been cleverer, if not more ethical.

It seems to me there are two schools of thought on the men who do these things (and they're invariably men):

a) That they were born bad, lied and cheated and conned their way to the top, and didn't stop doing it once they got there; their crimes were just an extension of a flawed and immoral personality type - they were sociopaths and narcissists with MBAs. We can call this the Condonian View, after Richard Condon, who once remarked that "It's no use kidding ourselves that [business moguls and politicians] are ordinary people just like us, because they're not. For all the similarities, they might as well be from another planet. Probably are."

b) That they started off good, moral and legit, but the more money and power they got, the more they started to believe that they were above the law and the less respect they started to have for it - they deluded themselves into thinking that fraud was their right and that they could get away with it; power had addled their brains. We can call this the Actonian View, after Lord Acton, who famously wrote that "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

I'm not sure which view I hold to be true. Either way, both seem to suggest that the only reason men like Rupert Murdoch, Richard Branson, Lakshmi Mittal and Mohammed Fayed haven't been tried for any specific crime is that they're too clever to be caught.

1 comment:

zero_zero_one said...

I haven't seen The Smartest Guys in the Room yet, though I hear it is pretty good. I would hazard that the reason that "lessons haven't been learned" is that Conrad Black and others like him haven't simply taken to crime in the wake of the Enron fallout, they've been getting away with things (or trying to at least) for years.

In some ways I would hope that the Condonian view is correct, and that there is some hope and people in positions of power can not be corrupt. The Actonian view is so much more poetic though, don't you think?