History Slam Episode Eighty-Seven: Enron

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By Sean Graham

enronA couple of years ago, the National Arts Centre produced Enron, a show that documented one of the most infamous corporate bankruptcies in recent memory. While I don’t remember much of the plot, I do remember that it was about 45 minutes too long and that there was some really weird symbolism with actors wearing dinosaur heads. Overall, I wasn’t a big fan of the production, but some in the crowd gave it a standing ovation – a reaction I attributed to the show being a rather scathing indictment of Enron and its leadership.

Like all dramatizations, though, Enron certainly took some creative liberties (I’m fairly confident there weren’t any dinosaurs at the actual company) and the real story is much more nuanced. What started as an energy company slowly expanded to include derivatives and other complex financial products. Of course, there was some actual fraud going on, but there were also some ideas that, at the time, seemed innovative and unique. Through the 1990s, Enron’s model was taught in a lot of business schools as a pinnacle of modern business practices. That was until the fall of 2001, when everything came crashing down.

In this episode of the History Slam I talk with Gavin Benke of Boston University about his research on Enron. We chat about the company’s origins, how an energy company got involved in complex financial management, and Enron’s relationship with 1990s culture. We also talk about how 9/11 influenced public perception of the company and George W. Bush’s place in the story.

Sean Graham is a William Lyon Mackenzie King post-doctoral fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University where he studies the history of North American media and broadcasting. He is an editor at Activehistory.ca and host/producer of the History Slam Podcast.

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