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ENRON: A Perfect Company to Work For? Reflections of a Guilty Bystander

James came to volunteer with the immigrants at Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker, after hearing a talk at St. Cyril’s Church, where the pastor insists that the Catholic Workers speak periodically.

James came from a family of refugees on the run, but he was able to receive a good education and training. He was also a linguist, the envy of those who are not, and was called upon to work in various and distant foreign lands for US companies.

He was truly a self-made man.

James wanted to teach the new immigrants about motivation, discipline, hard work and how always to say, “yes, sir,” and “no, sir.” They must focus on getting ahead, being someone, being respected. They must be achievers. No goal was insurmountable.

James told the men that it was not necessary to be poor. If they were poor, it was darned well their own fault. If he had made it, they could. The men must take risks as the leaders in his company did, if they wanted to get ahead. (James forgot that the immigrants took great risks to get here-suffering an awful journey, all being robbed.) He also forgot that the people south of the border frequently do not have bootstraps to pull themselves up with.

James loved the company that he worked for and was always bringing it up. It was almost as if his company values were nudging out those of his church as the number one source of inspiration in his life. Our Catholicism seemed to be so different from his. He was evangelical in his seeking success, and you could feel his lack of patience with those who were working for slave wages in other countries. It was proven that hard work would free anyone from poverty if God was with them. The story of “The Little Engine that Could” provided the model.

Catholics were at fault in Latin America, according to James, for not encouraging people to work hard. Where people became “evangélicos” (Protes-tants), production rates were much higher, he claimed.

The “higher-ups” at James’ company were men who had taken “risks” and thus were successful. They knew how to get things done. If only the public sector-libraries, parks, etc., had imitated them, all would benefit much more and everything would be run more efficiently at less cost.

If only the business world would be allowed to be unencumbered and operate in a free manner without government interference, great success and gain would come to all. More would trickle down to the poor. The role of government is to protect big business and not interfere. Money should not be wasted on education and social services. The “work ethic” would handle all of this.

The company that James worked for had a beautiful ethical and moral system. Everyone who worked there had to take this value system seriously and promote it.

Partnership in the community was crucial: “As a partner in the communities in which we operate, our company believes it has a responsibility to conduct itself according to certain basic principles.”

According to its website, the company intended to conduct itself in accord with four important values: Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.

Instead of saying in their mission statement that they would try to make as much money as possible without going to prison, they said, “We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.” This is the golden rule, of course, and means that gold be shared.

But his company insisted on going further than the golden rule, rejecting all those things frequently required to make money. Their rulebook said:

“We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruth-lessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.”

Unfortunately, the “higher-ups” at James’ company took one risk too many-like taking the money and running.

When Truth and Honesty struck the “twin towers of Houston” that James’ company created, Houston had its own 9-11 and the company totally collapsed, apparently from a faulty structure.

All hell broke loose as this conflagration destroyed the livelihood of many of the true believers and buried them deep in the hole of poverty. Buried with them were Respect and Integrity.

The higher-ups protested innocence and in a spirit that can only be reminiscent of the cry of the Alamo, spread the word: “No document should go unshredded!” This, of course, was done to protect the innocent and done in the spirit of Respect and Integrity and to avoid all ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance.

What Does It All Mean?

It goes without saying that Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron, invented a new kind of economics called “Lay”ssez-faire capitalism.

Attempts at talking about the system that allowed such a catastrophic collapse does not get far with the Acton Institute, whose literature said, “Left-leaning pundits have used Enron’s failure to decry what they perceive as the inherent and systemic corruption of corporate America. They choose to ignore the facts.”

The Action Institute insists that everything is fine, that a very few major exceptions don’t really raise questions about international business practices in which robber barons typically siphon off millions for executives and stockholders rake in profits, while workers around the world are paid slave wages under bad conditions and through “privatization” and “deregulation” the people are deprived of any basic human services or have to pay huge increases for something as important as electrical power.

People just have to give up sin, says the Acton Institute. It’s the executive who sins, not the system that is sinful. But isn’t that a lot to expect of people-to give up sin-to avoid stealing millions?

According to the Wall Street Journal (says the Acton Institute), Enron did not sin, at least technically. The attorneys of Vinson & Elkins (one of Houston’s more prestigious law firms) forgives Enron’s executives’ sins even before any of them confesses: “Enron’s practice of forming special-purpose entities to keep debt off the books was creative and aggressive, and no one has reason to believe that it is inappropriate from a technical standpoint.”

The Acton Institute asserts that “Such a legalistic approach to moral reasoning may keep Enron executives out of jail and clear of liability.”

We wish we had the lawyers at Vinson & Elkins to keep our immigrants out of jail, people who did not even steal one million-albeit one dollar.

Jose’s wife and children have been with us for several years. His crime: Traffic tickets and an open container. Jose was tested as legally sober.

Another immigrant named Juan went to jail with a sentence of many decades for a traffic accident in which there were fatalities. He was legally sober.

(Incredibly enough, the Acton Institute has been invited to teach business ethics to our seminarians in many dioceses of the United States, and has even published books in conjunction with the Vatican.)

James called from another country. He was very upset.

He had been fired from his job at Enron. It was the first time we knew where he worked.) James felt betrayed. He was a loyal Enron employee, had accepted the Enron philosophy hook, line and sinker, and had never apostasized for a moment.

We offered our sympathy and offered prayers for his future work. James plans to start a Catholic Worker house in South America.

In the meantime, the directors of Enron Field in Houston are trying to find another name to replace that of Enron on the ball field. They insist that the replacement be someone really involved in the community (as was Enron). We gave a talk recently to a Catholic women’s group, where people were terribly concerned, saying, “How will we live without Enron? They helped everyone in the community with their philanthropy. They must have helped you. How will you survive without them?” (Enron never helped Casa Juan Diego. We explained that the many who help Casa Juan Diego are simply people in the community who want to help-not corporations.)

Giving encomiums on Enron regarding their philanthropy while being aware of the thievery of so many workers’ pensions is as tragic and absurd as Michael Novak’s recommendation in his book, Business as a Calling, of Andrew Carnegie as a role model because of his philanthropy, even though he deprived countless workers, who had to work inhumanly long hours, of anything resembling a wage on which they and their families could live. This kind of philanthropy comes from ill-gotten gains.

It is tragic that so many people lost any chance of retirement income with the failure of Enron. Their fate is similar to those millions who work in poor countries for multinational corporations and who not only won’t receive retirement income, but at present cannot survive on their income, even though the Wall Street Journal continues to run articles on how fabulously “free trade” is helping the poor around the world. (Thanks to a Houston attorney who favors globalization as we know it, we receive clippings from the Wall Street Journal on these topics.)

Saying it is unfair to judge the global economy or capitalism as we know it on the basis of what happened at Enron is like saying it is unfair to blame Hitler for what a few Germans did.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 2, March-April 2002.