One of the very hottest shows in years is now playing at the Noël Coward Theatre in London’s West End. An indication of its popularity is the impossibility of getting tickets at my favourite location, the Half-Price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square. (People with Scottish chromosomes, such as I, are its best customers.)
Brilliant playwright Lucy Prebble’s production is titled simply, “ENRON.” By a combination of words, music, and lighting effects, it charts the rise and fall of that energy giant, which prior to its spectacular collapse on 2 December 2001, was America’s seventh largest corporation.
The theoretician of ENRON’s chimerical success was one Jeffrey Skilling, who would receive a 24-year prison sentence on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy—but who remained defiant to the end, in spite of having effectively ruined the lives of more than twenty-thousand staff through the loss of $1.2 billion in pensions and investments.
What was Skilling’s business philosophy? It had a number of elements, most of which were allied to a thoroughly rightist political and economic philosophy (both George Bush and George W. Bush were great supporters, sad to say). First, Skilling was against government intervention in the economic sphere—so as leave the field entirely open to his own brand of uncontrolled investment. ENRON was successful in getting the federal government to allow the deregulation of electricity; when California deregulated, ENRON caused appalling electrical power shortages in the State, thereby effectively blackmailing California into electric bills which rose by as much as 400 per cent. (Doctrinaire conservative readers may well want to ponder this.)
Secondly, Skilling shifted the focus from tangible assets (pipe and cable) to the brokerage of energy through the creation of a stock market for electricity and natural gas. This destabilization was accompanied by the realization of immediate profits on future activity—which created a smoke and mirrors operation. When debits rose, Skilling’s CEO (who would later confess all and receive a considerably lighter sentence) came up with the idea of creating “special purpose entities” (in effect, sub-companies) for hiding ENRON’s debt under the guise of assets.
In the play, Skilling justifies all this on Darwinian principle, specifically citing atheist Richard Dawkins’ notion of the “selfish gene.” He also argues that since the value of a company’s stock is really based on the faith of the investment community in its intangible worth, this is comparable to religious faith—belief in the unseen.
One can of course draw lower-level lessons from ENRON’s collapse and that of its famed accountancy firm Arthur Andersen. For example: the evils of bombastic, “old boy” Texans who make money their god (Dallas redivivus); or blame-shifting writ large—no-one willing to take responsibility (the lawyers blaming the accountants, the accountants blaming the directors, and the directors blaming everyone else; cf. Genesis 3:12-13); or the outworking of a classical Greek tragedy, eliciting pity and fear (Aristotle’s Poetics) George, since this could happen to each of us as well. But let me suggest an even more compelling lesson: that what one believes will inexorably impact what one does.
In the film, All the King’s Men (1949), based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel, the leading character, a thinly disguised young and idealistic Huey Long, lets the end justify the means to become governor—after which, his philosophy of selfish compromise causes him to forgot his youthful ideals entirely. In ENRON, an atheistic belief in infinite human possibility leads to immense hurt. Dawkins’ “selfish gene” reminds us of Ayn Rand—or of Robert J. Ringer’s 1978 book, Looking Out for Number One. When absolute moral standards are regarded as nonsense, and the egotistic individual is all, as Skilling maintains in the play, chaos and destruction are just a matter of time, no matter how glitzy the present situation may appear.
What about Skilling’s conviction that business success, as reflected in the stock market, is like religion—in the sense that both are founded not on tangible reality but on perceptions of worth? This is not a bad characterization of non-Christian faiths and the cults, but it certainly does not apply to historic Christianity. Genuine Christians don’t have faith in faith (“the magic of believing”) but faith in what God has concretely revealed. The Christian gospel is founded on reality itself: the demonstrable fact that God revealed himself in history, through the events and prophets of the Old Testament, and principally through the salvatory work of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by way of his incarnation, atoning death, and physical resurrection. Believing does not create reality; it makes the benefits of reality available to the believer.
The ENRON messes of this world—including, more recently, the staggering Ponzi schemes of Bernard Madoff—arise, not from an economic extension of biblical faith, but from the loss of it. (Madoff, allegedly a Jewish believer, first conned his fellow Jews out of their millions—“to the Jew first, then also to the Greek.”) Christian faith, with its justifiable belief in moral absolutes and its demonstrable gospel that one is saved not by self-aggrandizement but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, stands as the only effective counter to endemic ENRONism.
Be very careful what you believe. The consequences extend even beyond earthly economics: they impact eternity.
In the last issue, we promised your editor’s paper from the 2009 Beijing Congress of the Philosophy of Law and Social Policy. This was actually a follow-up essay to the one he presented at the previous Congress of that body, held in Kraków, Poland, in 2007. These papers have just appeared in a volume published by the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (IVR), under the editorship of Dr Friedrich Toepel of Bonn, Germany, a fine Christian lawyer. But since the subject matter of both papers is heavily theological (the nature of freewill) and since readers of the Global Journal are unlikely to obtain such a specialized publication, we are including both essays in this issue of the Global Journal.
The present issue also features a paper capable of setting the children’s teeth on edge: Dr John D. Wilsey’s “Critique of the Historiographical Construal of America As a Christian Nation.” This essay produced an appropriate stir at the November, 2009, sessions of the Evangelical Theological Society’s national meeting in New Orleans. We are most fortunate to be publishing it, and we trust that readers who make the grave error of thinking that the United States is the Christian replacement of the Israel of the Old Testament—or is by definition at the top of the Almighty’s “most favoured nation” classification—will be helped by it to a more mature theological view of nationhood.
— John Warwick Montgomery
——————————————————————————– Free Will in Criminal Law and Procedure, ed. Friedrich Toepel (Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010).