First off let me emphasize that my issue here is not at all with any of the individuals in Texas whose personal lives and finances were tied up with Enron and who were hurt by the company's failure. To lose your well-paying job when you can't find another that pays as well, to believe that you have a huge solid 401(K) that turns out to be flimsy -- these are indeed sad things. But my contention is that they are no sadder (and in most cases significantly less sad) than the stories of countless thousands of others who were losing their jobs and retirement security at the same time. And yet the media spin was all about how specifically awful it was for Enron employees, in a way that I believe distracted from the real horrors.
I admit up front that my own particular employer history colors my view here. I remember sitting in my manager's office at SGI one day early in this saga with an article about what a terrible and awful thing it was for a certain percentage of Enron employees to have lost their jobs, one of the first such articles that I saw. We looked at the number and noted that SGI had laid off a significantly larger percentage of its employees at that point. This did not make it less sad that Enron was laying off employees (well, I think the citizens of Texas created the environment that caused this in the first place, but I suppose I can't blame every individual in the state for that), but it made the melodramatic subtext fall flat for me and set me up to pay attention to the specifics of such accounts.
Because soon you started to get the pitiful tales of people who had lost their retirement incomes. This didn't make sense to me at first. Unless it's a default on a pension, how can you lose your retirement income like this? You had to read very very carefully and try to pick apart the actual facts to figure this out, but it turns out that the 401(k) accounts under discussion were not accounts that the employees had paid into out of their salaries (like mine is), but accounts into which Enron had deposited Enron stock above and beyond the employee salaries. It was never real money to begin with, in the sense that it was money that could have been spent. So the tales of people who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars are, to my mind, misleading. That wasn't real money; it was paperwork and hope.
But that's compensation, people tell me, and part of the deal that Enron had with its employees. I have trouble seeing it that way. It was free manna from heaven (and as is always the case with such perks the recipients quickly come to believe that they "deserve" this money because they are so talented and skilled and hard-working, although that's irrelevant to my point). Look, my compensation and 401(k) package is partly based on the assumption of a profitable company, which my company hasn't been since I've been participating in the program -- and neither, in reality, was Enron. Furthermore, if my company's stock were currently valued at what I once thought a reasonable price to assume (less than half of what the executives were straight-faced claiming it should be worth), I would have $400,000 in stock at this point (plus twice my current 401(k) amount because of company-matching during profitable times). Instead I have basically nothing and no particular hope that it will ever be otherwise. But this is not a sad, pitiful, poor-employee story like all the Enron stories because all along I have been getting a salary to spend as I will plus a work environment and job that is by far the best I've ever had (which is what many of the Enron employees say about their former jobs).
In other words, I am in the same boat as many of the Enron employees, at least regarding feeling the monetary effects of having much of your financial hope invested in your own failing company. But I am certainly not a story for the New York Times business section or National Public Radio, not by any means.
Again, I do get how terrible it is for somebody who has every reason to believe their retirement account is substantial and secure to discover otherwise (even if that account is built from what I'm calling money that isn't real, which is to say bonus Enron stock). It's not that I don't have sympathy. What I don't like is the isolation of the Enron employees as somehow worse and special. Yes, when you lose your job in a well-paying industry that's retracting you may well have trouble finding work at all, much less work that pays as well. Believe me, I've been there. This is distressing. But this is not in any way more distressing in the Enron case than in the cases of countless others, yet you'd never know this from the media spin.
All that said, I'm not only hoping Ken Lay fries but, more fantasy-wise, I'm hoping that the connection between Enron's manipulations and false profits and the Bush administration Enron-influenced energy policy comes more clear. Now that is what I would consider a major story here.