The Scarlet Pimpernel posed as Frenchy fop Sir Percy Blakeney to avoid detection by the Committee of Public Safety. Did Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling fool Malcom Gladwell as well as investors?
In 1992, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld co-founded the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic that aims to "exonerate the wrongfully convicted through postconviction DNA testing." Readers may recall that Messrs. Scheck and Neufeld applied their forensic expertise with deoxyribonucleic acid to head off a double murder conviction of O.J. Simpson in 1995.
But I digress. In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, ace provocateur Malcolm Gladwell (he of Blink and The Tipping Point) presents his own brand of postconviction DNA testing. He mounts a "semi-defense" of ex-Enron muckety-muck Jeffrey Skilling, who now dwells in the federal prison at Waseca, Minnesota. The DNA in this instance consists not of double helixes but of Enron’s public disclosures about its financial condition.
In "Open Secrets", Gladwell argues, um, that Skilling and other high Enronians pulled a Scarlet Pimpernel. He claims that Pimpernel-like, Skilling, et al., hid their bandidtry in plain sight. Investors have only themselves to blame, he suggests, for not seeing through Enron’s Pimpernelian disguise.
Gladwell harps on the difference that he conceives between "puzzles" and "mysteries". Puzzles simply require accurate information to solve, but mysteries call for speculative judgments and guesses. More data doesn’t help one decipher a mystery. Additional knowledge may in fact only deepen it.
Another super smart guy, Joseph Nocera, writes today in The New York Times about his gentle, ahem, disagreement with Gladwell’s innocence hypothesis. Nocera, the contrarian, sets out to show that fellow contrarian Gladwell got his contrariness wrong in Skilling’s case. What Gladwell calls "my semi-defense of Enron", Nocera concludes, "isn’t remotely true."
I love this stuff. One brilliant fellow tries to convince us that we don’t know what we believe we know — that Skilling did wrong — and then another brainiac strives to persuade us that actually we do know what we believe. You can almost taste the irony.
Nocera seems in the right here. Gladwell’s earnest cleverness understimates, in my view, the rapacious ingenuity of fraudsters.
But the innocence project goes ever on. Thank goodness, because it keeps us trial lawyer types in groceries.
© 2007 Barry Barnett. All rights reserved.