The Enron analog

May 27, 2013
The Executive Branch of the US government is beginning to look like Enron just before bankruptcy. That's not to say the administration of Barack Obama has criminals in high office, as Enron did.

The Executive Branch of the US government is beginning to look like Enron just before bankruptcy. That's not to say the administration of Barack Obama has criminals in high office, as Enron did. The basis for comparison here is consistent, unabashed, and in too many instances motivational hubris.

The title of a 2003 book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind captured that element of the Enron debacle exquisitely: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Enron, in its years of misbegotten glory, did hire smart people. It subjected them to a high-pressure, high-casualty system of performance appraisal. It assured survivors they belonged to an organization that could trade anything and make large amounts of money doing it, an organization that had innovated beyond the need for physical assets.

Most not criminals

Most Enron workers were not criminals. All of them, however, acted within an aura of institutional superiority. Many of them, encouraged by corporate culture if not managerial direction, stretched limits—of law, of ethics, of reason, of self-restraint. Some of them eventually went to jail. All suffered when, in 2001, Enron collapsed under the weight of its manifold excess.

The Obama administration lays no special claim to status as the smartest people in the room. All administrations do that. What stands out about the Obama administration is its overweening self-righteousness.

From health-care reform to renewable energy to deficit spending as economic stimulus, the administration pursues an aggressive agenda, which it treats as self-evidently moral and correct and its opponents as self-evidently wrong in every sense of the word. The oil and gas industry receives this treatment when it resists policy assaults such as heavy new taxation and regulation of gasoline chemistry, to name just two potentially costly threats of the moment. The latter of those initiatives represents one among many salvos from an Environmental Protection Agency that, since Obama took office, has set new standards for limits-testing regulation.

Governmental activism developed naturally and inevitably in an administration led by a career activist turned politician. It's the culture. The agenda stands even above the government itself—or at least the Legislative and Judicial branches. When the Supreme Court in 2010 issued a ruling the administration disliked in a case involving political spending by corporations and other groups, Obama saw fit to scold justices openly during his State of the Union speech. When Democrats controlled the House and Senate, Congress could be entrusted with nothing less than writing health-care reform legislation, later to be known as Obamacare. With the House now under opposition control, however, the president regularly disparages emanations from there as fulsome politics, unworthy of serious concern.

Obama similarly tries to marginalize anyone who questions his enthusiasm for government as a factor of American life. He told Ohio State University students in a commencement speech on May 5: "Unfortunately, you've grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices [are] also doing their best to gum up the works. They'll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices."

The IRS scandal

Less than a week after the president spoke, reports emerged that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted for investigation groups seemingly allied with the administration's political opponents. The revelation, confirmed by an IRS official on May 10, has escalated into a scandal with potential to hound Obama for the rest of his presidency. Administration officials alternate between expressing outrage over IRS misbehavior and insisting Obama neither ordered the targeted oversight nor knew anything about it.

What Obama did do, what he has spent 4 years and 3 months doing, is foster a culture in which a self-evidently righteous agenda supersedes governmental restraint. In such self-affirming cultures, some people always stretch limits. At Enron, the behavior cost money; in government, it diminishes liberty.