They Saw It Coming

Two “half-fine bitches” predicted the financial crisis that has now engulfed us. If only we’d listened.

Left: Getty; Right: Landov

When I was growing up I heard a member of the pool hall hustling scum who used to offer requested or unrequested salty editorials on the facts of life to any who would listen. With a wet round toothpick extended from his mouth, his gooey mop of a process in place, he took his shots casually as he moved around the table and described some women who had put a crimp in his game as "half-fine bitches." I assumed that he meant that whatever way in which they had slighted him would have been more tolerable if they had been inarguable beauties from the top of their heads to the soles of their feet.

These women seen us being taken and they wasn't mush-mouthed about it.

I imagine that if he were one of the cold-blooded and deregulated reptiles of our financial system who have put a chill on our economy, that hustler would describe Bethany McLean and Meredith Whitney in the same way. We should not forget them because, with reporters’ instincts and business intelligence as good as they come, each woman pulled the covers off of the cavalier iciness and the irresponsible ways up and down Wall Street. They seen us being taken and they wasn't mush-mouthed about it.

We were recently told in The Daily Beast about some women who were not given a listen but might have provided us with a better plan for pulling the country out of the fine mess it is presently in. They are just the most recent female brains to get on the case. I think it is also important to learn from history quite close to us and not treat it as though it is part of another era beyond reasonable comprehension. One thing we would have learned if we looked closer was that everything was right there to help us recognize the deceptive actions that have most recently made Bernard Madoff's name into a curse word.

The trouble is simple. In our attempt to keep up with the constant trivia that comes at us through our media like huge bursts of neon confetti, we repeatedly make the same mistake. Instead of thinking, we become so accustomed to a state of hypnosis created by meaningless information that we too often fail to link our moment to very clear proof that we are about to step in it with both feet. Again.

That is why everyone should know or be willing to learn what Bethany McLean did at Fortune magazine when she tried to make sense of the accounting at the demonically crooked Enron but could not. The result was a book that became, at last, one of the most important documentaries ever made— Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It’s now on the public record and should be required viewing for any needing to understand why extreme deregulation parallels allowing the blindfolded to crawl naked through a snake pit.

What is so good about the DVD is that it presents the human truth of corruption and the great dangers it poses to our financial markets. It is quite understandable how Enron was running a deregulated con job that should have warned us of the even bigger mess that we now face.

We see that women were as caught up as the men in the new financial careers that took them to unimagined, monied places. Such fresh opportunities do not often result in good but what they do produce is the expected imbalance of fallibility and greed that always arrives with Wild West or casino or buccaneer capitalism, each version of business a part of the Enron story.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room spares us any mushy feminist idea of sophisticated working women as innate alternatives to the circumscribed machismo of Enron's former nerds. That doesn't mean the boys' club in charge is allowed to play with itself in the dark. The documentary pulls the covers off those no longer overweight dough boys who started working out, threw away their thick glasses, began riding motorcycles, and took to fraudulent balance sheets and stock trading like spikey, ice-blooded predators born to the slime.

While vociferously bilking the world, Enron is seen getting all the help that it needed from many banks and investment firms that have recently come back into the news, this time for nearly capsizing our financial markets. In other words, let me reiterate my point: Enron was a harsh preview of things to come.

There are others besides McLean herself who, whether men or women, make clear the truth that came from doing plumber's work in the company's lower aft hole. That backside opening below the belt had been passed off as a treasure trove of great profit but turned out to be bloated closed with no more than impacted financial fraud and commercial constipation. The toxic dung of absolute corruption.

As McLean says of Enron's traders, the ones most willing to play an economic version of dirty pool or investment social Darwinism: "Enron's traders were like the super powerful high school clique that even the principal doesn't dare to rein in. They had become the major engine of at least reported profits at the company."

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It was almost an economic religion or at least an ideology that was not moored to the actual but the theoretical. As we have so often learned in our electronic world of pervasive contact and threadbare information, the unexamined abstraction is often worthless when pressed by the dictates of life. Thus was paved the way for the abstractions that underlay the casino capitalism about which everybody now has nothing good to say.

What gives the documentary its greatest strength are the human moments that perhaps go beyond any previous and specific proof of confident and coldly hysterical soullessness. There is nothing more illuminating than hearing the crudely supercilious voices of the frat boys at Enron laughing, joking, and celebrating themselves as they create a heartless and insanely lucrative energy crisis in California. When the hiss of reptiles turns to words, you hear something that you have never heard and will never forget.

Not long ago, New York Times super mind Tom Friedman referred to an essay in Portfolio by Michael Lewis, who writes about the importance of Meredith Whitney. Whitney is the woman who analyzed and clarified the level of sheer imbecility that became a gigantic caul over the eyes of the men who ran Citigroup, a big supporter of Enron when the time was "right."

(How dare these half-fine bitches keep stepping on the heads and the tails of the reptiles in charge?)

McLean and Whitney are not the kinds of women who get the attention or are sought out the way that Sarah Palin or Madonna or Paris Hilton is. But they are helping to define the shift away from assumed authority that is slowly becoming a characteristic of this new era. They are proving yet again that the brain is making a comeback and that meticulous thought is necessary to an accurate understanding of our system and who screws it up as well as why and how.

Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.