The Smartest Guys in the Tomb


Joshua Micah Marshall digs up an old ad and writes:

It's an ad for Enron—entitled "Metalman"—that ran not long before the company's implosion—probably some time in 2000. As you'll see, it's a man encased in a confining suit of metal, hobbling his way across tableaus of 90s go-go capitalism, mainly, mostly set in Asia. As pure ad making, it's good stuff. But I always remembered it because it so boldly and expressively captured the ethos of that moment—old, slow, regulation, limits giving way to new, unbounded, deregulated, liberated. 'Metalman' is the old sclerotic, regulated past falling behind in the deregulated, faster, freer, richer, better world.

Knowing, as we soon would, that Enron was a colossal scam adds some zing to the morality tale. But this sort of deregulatory chic wasn't confined to Enron. And it played a sizable role in bringing us where we are today.

Marshall is onto something, but he's missing an important piece of the puzzle: In the real world, as opposed to the ad world, Enron didn't embrace deregulation. It was happy to roll back the regulatory burden when that helped the business's bottom line, but—like many other companies—it was just as quick to lobby for limits when that looked like it would boost profits. As Jerry Taylor pointed out in The Wall Street Journal seven years ago,

Since ending the legally protected franchises that utilities had on those services was a prerequisite for Enron's strategy, the company lobbied aggressively for competition and "consumer choice" for gas and electricity services.

But while donning the garb of Ronald Reagan on the one hand, the company was donning the mantle of Ralph Nader when it came to the transmission and distribution side of the energy business. Enron, you see, was worried that the incumbent utilities would either under-price the non-utility competitors that Enron wanted on their trading floors or, alternatively, would charge such high prices for access to their transmission systems that non-utility gas and electricity providers would be unable to effectively compete for business.

So Enron insisted that electric utilities be forced by law to get out of the generation business, that strict price controls be set for the rates charged for access to the various transmission grids, and that the day-to-day operation of the electricity distribution systems be handed over to state officials who were directed to govern those systems at the behest of the system's "stakeholders" (read: Enron and friends). So Reaganite competition, according to Enron, required new micromanagerial rules about industrial organization and the de-facto nationalization of the transmission systems by officials who'd have to answer to Enron.

Taylor also notes the company's support for energy subsidies, carbon controls, and various taxes, as well as its ability to preach the exact opposite of its usual policy preferences in a few jurisdictions where it managed to buy its own transmission systems. This sort of political capitalism may have "played a sizable role in bringing us where we are today." But if you call it "deregulatory," you're buying too much of what Enron was selling. The ethos was much more complicated than that.

Leftists and liberals have a word for polluters who pose as careful environmental stewards: greenwashing. We need a similar word for times when the eager beneficiaries of the corporate state pose as free-market entrepreneurs. A word, that is, for propaganda like the Enron ad.