The Smartest Guys in the Room - Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind

So, yes, another corporate scandal book, pretty much in the same mould as When Genius Failed. Similar approach, similar American-journalist-as-author style (which I've also seen in Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine - so it's not just restricted to financial disaster stories). So, on the whole it's fairly dry, with the occasional random bits of amusement thrown in. It's also got a strong slant of hindsight.

The end of the book is rather good, as you see how everything actually collapsed. It comes across as a 'run on the bank' at a company with rubbish cash flow and excessively opaque accounting. The first part is a relatively dull reconstruction of the company's history, in order to explain the final situation.

I have some reservations about this first part, since it uses the benefit of hindsight to mark pretty much every move made as bad, and emphasise Enron's tricky accounting. The problem is, it's never really made clear how widespread these practices are, and how dangerous they are in general. Enron massively overused accounting tricks, and everyone went along with it for the fees. Noone felt accountable for it - they were all letting someone else take the role of brake. It was fraud, but not "let's nick all the money". It was fraud through doublethinking corporate cultures. And the difficulty is that the book doesn't explore the grey area between the kind of thing that I'm sure is going on at all major corporations, and that which gets people thrown in jail.

The only problem I have with the second part is more a problem with reality - there doesn't seem to be a strong conclusion. Enron's problem wasn't a fixed set of people so much as a (seemingly-repeatable) recipe for self-reinforcing reality distortion, and I don't think there's a consensus on how to solve this. The book gives the impression that at least some part of the problem comes down to people who through disposition (go-getting deal makers who can't see a downside) or otherwise refuse to face up to problems and the necessity of admitting when something is screwed up (naming no Lays, Skillings or Marks). The people at the very heart of Enron's downfall are still unable to admit the problems they caused.

Posted 2006-06-11.