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Spread Thin

Enron's Kenneth Lay and Global Crossing's Gary Winnick weren't just spreadsheet jockeys, they were the last great heroes of the self-delusional business culture.

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Bizarro CEO: The business culture of Kenneth Lay's Enron wasn't just crooked; it had fostered a new, parallel reality.  

The business culture, which may now be ending, started twenty years ago as the Reagan era took hold and the bull market got under way. Before that, before corporate man became a sexy thing, corporate America was a white-bread, repressed, deeply uncool place to be. A host of structural changes nurtured this new culture -- deregulation, an end to inflation, massive deficit spending, and the bulge of baby-boomers in their prime earning years among them.

My own favorite theory, however, for what caused business to become such a compelling sport and transforming experience was the advent of the spreadsheet (in '82 or '83, shortly after the introduction and widespread adoption of the IBM PC). First VisiCalc, then Lotus 1-2-3, and then, of course, Excel. If you could work a spreadsheet, money suddenly became a highly fluid concept -- the buck never stopped anywhere (oddly, during the eighties, bottom line became a metaphor for something absolute and irreducible when, in fact, the bottom line was becoming ever more elusive). Financial strategy became like a war game. If you played it one way, you risked the end of the world, but if you changed a variable, you were safe and secure. Business reality became wonderfully plastic (running numbers has about the same relationship to actual business as sex fantasies do to sex -- indeed, running numbers gets to be a sort of fetish).

Financial engineering (the term of art for the business that grew up around working a spreadsheet) becomes as complex as any activity becomes when you increase the variables exponentially. "Can he keep track of the moving pieces?" was what got asked about prospective managers of high-flying companies. The question was not, "Can he work hard and focus on the many details of the business?" Rather it was, "Can he appreciate that business has become a Rube Goldberg system of effects and counter-effects, of balancing one representation against its counter-representation (what the Street is told versus what the media is told versus what the employees are told), of keeping not two sets of books but as many sets as can be imagined (the spreadsheet accommodates all fantasies)?"

In short order, business became way too complex for mere businessmen -- the pallid, gray dad types of the past. Business suddenly demanded a different caliber of brain power and temperament.

I remember being glum and depressed, at first, about the new ethos of the early eighties. All of a sudden, one's subversive college friends were becoming investment bankers (it took me two years to figure out what an I-banker was -- that it was in some mysterious way different from just being a stockbroker). But then I caught the spirit, too. There was a revolutionary quality to what was going on -- the old order was being swept away (almost everybody from the prior business generation was exiled). There was nothing, I found, so thrilling as a business meeting; you met all kinds of overblown, exaggerated, unstable types; it was what the literary world was supposed to be like but wasn't. Takeoverism became all the rage (I was a writer, but I found there was nothing stopping me from offering to take over companies -- and briefly, I became a bully with a spreadsheet).

Every day it was happening: Absolute nobodies, with only heart and imagination -- and strange new ideas about how to analyze and manipulate numbers -- took over heretofore unassailable, invulnerable, and oppressively dreary great American corporations. It was a class overthrow: outsiders against insiders, smarties against dopes, risk takers against old farts.

Business, which used to be a specialized, opaque, conservative activity -- something like the military -- became the national pastime. If you weren't taking over companies, you were getting into the stock market, watching the miracle of those mutuals and 401(k)'s going up and up. If you weren't an entrepreneur working spreadsheets to start your own dreamy enterprise, you were an option holder in someone else's dream.

Everybody was in business. Everything became business -- technology, entertainment, news, even academia. And if it was already business, it could always be made more businessy -- Enron was a Texas oil company that transformed itself into a global financial enterprise. Financing something, or refinancing something -- the moment when reality always suffered its greatest adjustments -- become the nation's central economic activity.

The culture itself may have been dumbed down, but business culture was smart, competitive, obsessive, relentless in its pursuit of the next best idea. Business became the ultimate abstraction. A new, near-philosophical language was invented to deal with the many-hued nature of reality and nonreality that the world of business was defining (it was as utopian as the language of revolution). Business became the focus of how people related to one another, of how communities were created, of how human progress was made. Business, as a system of logic that would allow you to accomplish any goal, at potential great benefit to everyone (and with a little extra to the person running the spreadsheet), was the metaphor of the age. The rich would get richer, and so would everybody else.

The question now, the embarrassing question (to say the least), is to what extent the business culture -- our culture -- was just a twenty-year Ponzi scheme.

The literary agent John Brockman, famous for hosting a "billionaires" dinner at the annual TED conference for technology, media, and finance bigwigs (the latest iteration of this dinner, minus the billionaires, was held last week in Monterey), said to me recently: "Everything business people say is a lie."

He was at that moment reflecting on Enron and the collapse of Gary Winnick's Global Crossing. But he had a larger point: The business culture itself -- not unlike, say, the Cold War culture -- had created a false world. He didn't only mean it was crooked; he meant the business culture had fostered a new, parallel reality.

In some sense, of course, businesses were doing, in this new era, what businesses always have done, just with the benefit of more sophisticated mathematical (as well as propaganda) tools: trying to con anyone willing to be conned. Businesses now, as always, depended on borderline half-truths (We are an absolutely healthy company; you can count on our stock going up), insisted on dubious assumptions (Consolidation is necessary), and employed "aggressive" accounting practices (What debt?). Except in the past, before the advent of the business culture, we tended to assume that in fact this was business -- a little lying or a lot of lying. Caveat emptor.

But in this new age, a dramatic structural change -- i.e., everybody became part of the business culture -- allowed for the second stage of reality distortion. This might be called the mass hypnosis, or the propaganda stage -- the big lie.

The initial lie, those early spreadsheet fantasies and eureka moments (they were not all lies, actually -- adding layers and layers of complexity to financial structures often was actually profitable), provided the capital to increase the level of reality control ("mindshare" this is sometimes called). This reality control involved subsidizing politicians and sports arenas (not just Enron Field in Houston but 3Com Park in San Francisco, Staples Center in Los Angeles, Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego). It meant opportunistically moving money through financial institutions that would then tout your genius rather than have analysts question it. And, of course, it meant issuing hundreds of thousands (no, it must be millions by now) of press releases (it would be vastly unfair if, at the end of all this, some P.R. people didn't go to jail).

But most of all, the business culture benefited and thrived because there was no counter-business culture. The business culture bought not just presidents and dirty politicians (Democrats and Republicans alike -- they all needed the dough) but everybody.

The only people who remained outside the business culture, it sometimes seemed, were people who had something wrong with them. They were emotionally troubled, or socially maladjusted, or marginal in some more or less unattractive way, or quaintly anachronistic. (The recent rise of the anti-business vegan-Euro-Pacific-Northwest protesters has been instructive because they are so obviously all retards.)

Likewise, academia, in theory a noncommercial cultural force, became a place for economic and cultural castoffs -- the top talent is always rushing off to the private sector.

And then there's the media. Certainly the media has romanticized the business culture and retailed all those bogus press releases, as well as done what the media always does in the presence of a new Zeitgeist -- embrace it and seek to be part of it (media people are most often late getting to the Zeitgeist, so when they do finally get to it, they doubly embrace it). A recent example was the Davos conference, the Woodstock of the business culture, held last month in New York (after having been expelled from Davos, Switzerland). Lavish media attention was given to the conference (the Times treated it like a major-political-party convention), which almost everybody acknowledged was a bust, because by almost everyone's admission, if you don't say nice things, you don't get invited back. And to be invited and then to be invited back is, as they say in business, a "cash equivalent." We're all on the take.

Every sin of omission and commission -- supported by those relentless press releases -- was committed as much by the media as by any other business. The media became a prime participant and its managers (if not necessarily its shareholders) key beneficiaries of the business culture. Indeed, the media, as much or more than any other business, has tied itself into a spreadsheet-induced knot of debt and consolidation and surreal accounting practices.

Of course, reporters, editors, producers, and correspondents are righteous about not being business-culture stooges (Time Inc.-ers are always saying, Of course we can write about AOL Time Warner). But try calling up media biggies to get them to talk to you about their own companies, and then it's P.R. people and communications people and public-affairs people up the wazoo.

This is another key feature of the business culture -- nobody is allowed to talk. If you say anything, you're fired. Worse, if you say anything, you're fired and your severance is gone. Indeed, even if you are fired, you've signed all sorts of nondisclosure and mutual-nondisparagement clauses.

And since nobody's really outside the business culture anymore, this effectively means we're all muzzled.

The fascination with the collapse of Enron and Global Crossing and, I suspect, many other corporations to follow is the sense that there is something larger going on than just a ridiculous excuse for a company coming undone. We all sense the culture might be cracking open. And we're game for it: because the market crapped out, because we all think we're going to lose our jobs anyway, and because we all want some blood.

And because we all feel a little guilty.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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