Review: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (2013)

Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Year Release: 2013
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: misogyny, suicide

Finally, at long last, I have been granted the ability to listen to this mess of a tale. Enron started off as a natural gas company looking to disrupt the industry which turned into strict trading of energy that led to an energy crisis that endangered and disrupted the lives of millions. There’s much economic and office-political maneuvering to be found within this book.

Fascinating in its deception and complexity, the authors of this account provide fiction-esque portrayals of the key players while keeping in mind the vast losses and far-reaching consequences.

What drew me to this story is its connection to Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes’s father lost his family’s wealth and savings in the fallout from this fraud. The similarities between the two companies and their trajectories are similar. Both tried to challenge industries that have incumbents which have been doing it for decades (blood testing and energy utilities, respectively). Both decided that their products and services function in ways that they don’t (Silicon Valley internet startups and stocks). Both had entire divisions devoted to lobbying and succeeding in changing laws to get themselves into field despite established protocols. The Enron story deals more with speculative trading and more corporate type deception, while segments of Theranos feel more like a spy thriller than your typical bankruptcy story. It’s a bit frightening how many commonalities there are between various corporate frauds.

Despite the lack of tight pacing and mind-bending twists, McLean and Elkind weave this story with almost a narrative focus on the executives at the heart of the fiasco. They do a good job characterizing the different factions that emerge as executives come and go, and the roles of the endeavors founded by Enron to make the deceptions work. Contextualizing the mythology that emerged and featuring quotes from a variety of people who worked at or with Enron helps build the cultural context.

The book does its best to explain the economics, both standard operating procedures and the deceptions. An economist, however, I am not. I had to relisten to a few chapters in order to make sure I followed. Some things got glossed over due to the absurdity of thinking that the ruse would work. But I would have appreciated some more of those explanation. That is, after all, at the core of the scandal. The greater market forces and various international accounts, however, are very easy to follow, with each chapter almost dedicated to new concepts.

Overall, a story of a company whose accounting antics could only be described as not strictly illegal, but definitely skeevy.

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