Clements Center Monthly Talks

Gavin Benke

A Western Wall Street – Enron, Finance, and the Remaking of Houston in the 1990s

Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Simmons Hall, 3101 University Boulevard, on the campus of SMU
12:30 to 1:30 pm

This noon talk will present research on the complicated relationship between the Enron Corporation and Houston, Texas that is a part of Dr. Benke’s book manuscript, “Electronic Bits and Ten Gallon Hats: Enron, American Culture, and Postindustrial Political Economy.” After oil was discovered near Houston, Texas in 1901, the city was destined to be linked to the energy business, and indeed, for much of the twentieth century, Houston’s fortunes were tied to the petroleum industry. While oil fueled a building boom in the 1970s, it also helped to plunge the city into recession in the 1980s as the commodity’s price collapsed. When Houston began to recover by the end of the decade, business and political leaders were determined to diversify the region’s economy. As a natural gas company that was offering services related to the energy, the newly formed Enron Corporation seemed to offer a model for how Houston could transition to a “knowledge economy.” While the company still operated an extensive pipeline network, at the start of the 1990s, Enron was building a business that applied sophisticated financial instruments to the natural gas business. However, the company’s chairman, Ken Lay, believed that Houston would need to change so Enron (and companies like it) could recruit the sort of workers such a knowledge economy required. Enron’s fate, it seemed, was inextricably bound to Houston’s. Convinced that Houston needed to be able to compete with cities such as New York and London for young, mobile knowledge workers, Lay took an active role in the city’s affairs throughout the 1990s. Through his involvement with prestigious events, such as 1990s’s World Economic Forum, numerous charitable activities, and the creation of a new downtown baseball stadium, Lay consistently worked to refashion Houston as a cosmopolitan global metropolis like New York and London. However, the close connection between Enron and Houston was not always a welcome one. When Enron became national shorthand for corporate fraud, many Houstonians struggled to create distance between the city and the disgraced company. 

Gavin Benke is this year's Summerlee Fellow for the Study of Texas History and received his PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, 2012  He is spending the academic year as a Clements Center fellow revising his manuscript for publication.