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"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"

Econ Extra Credit: “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”

The Econ Extra Credit Team Sep 9, 2021

Our September selection comes to you with an eye to the past, specifically on the checkered story of energy and commodities giant Enron, which began its dramatic collapse 20 years ago next month.

By transferring troubled assets to outside entities (keeping them off Enron’s own books), using unrealized future income to pad profit-and-loss statements and otherwise concealing debt, executives’ conspired against and defrauded investors and creditors at an astronomical scale. It pushed for the deregulation of energy markets before manipulating them, as in California.

Enron filed for bankruptcy in December 2001, clocking up shareholder losses of about $74 billion — the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history at the time. “This wasn’t just an implosion — it was a scandal,” Bethany McLean, who co-wrote the book upon which the documentary was based, told “Marketplace” in 2011. “The Enron story leapt off the business pages to become part of the country’s cultural consciousness.”

This true-crime pick (true white-collar crime) is narrated by Peter Coyote. It’s a fast-paced and illuminating account of one of the most notorious cases of corporate malfeasance in American history. “No matter your politics,” the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 2005, “‘Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room’ will make you mad.”

We hope you’ll get mad with us this month. “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is available with a library card or university login on Kanopy and via the usual-suspect streaming platforms. In our next instalment of this Econ Extra Credit newsletter, David Brancaccio gives his take on the documentary. In the meantime, let us know your reaction: 

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