Rollins College Profile: Bradley (’77) on Enron, Life, and Real-Deal Capitalism
“Greedy capitalism got the blame for Enron, but Enron was anything but a free-market corporation…. They were gaming the system, using politics for their own interests. That’s not free-market capitalism. That’s political capitalism.”
- Robert L. Bradley, Jr. Quoted in Leigh Brown Perkins, “Energy Surge: Robert Bradley ’77 Profile, Rollins College Magazine, Fall 2009.
The end of Enron was an unlikely new beginning for Robert Bradley ’77.
After 16 years at the energy giant, the last seven as a public policy analyst and speechwriter for CEO Ken Lay, Bradley found himself stranded when the company imploded in a firestorm of shady dealings. Like most people at Enron, he never saw it coming. “As with most Enron employees, my equity was in company stocks,” he said. “So I not only lost my job, I lost my financial cushion. It was a crisis for me.”
Bradley transformed that crisis into a new career as one of the nation’s leading advocates of free-market energy policy. He founded the Institute for Energy Research, a think tank for market-based sustainability, and its lobbying affiliate, American Energy Alliance, which leads the drive against cap-and-trade (what Bradley calls “cap-and-tax”) energy legislation, as well as a national renewable-energy mandate.
Bradley espouses the view that concerns over global warming are exaggerated and that, in fact, government can significantly increase energy costs and reduce energy reliability without appreciably influencing the climate. Politically popular or not, he is no lightweight. An academic and historian with a Ph.D. in political economy, Bradley is an adjunct scholar for the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. He has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and blogs on climate issues for masterresource.org and on libertarian politics for politicalcapitalism.org.
He is also the author of six books on energy, including Oil, Gas and Government: The U.S. Experience. He is currently writing the second book in a trilogy titled Political Capitalism, which uses Enron as the canary in the coal mine. “Greedy capitalism got the blame for Enron, but Enron was anything but a free-market corporation,” he said. “They were gaming the system, using politics for their own interests. That’s not free-market capitalism. That’s political capitalism.”
It was government dependence and arrogance that precipitated the Enron bust, Bradley writes in the trilogy’s first book, Capitalism at Work. “Only by manipulating the levers of government was Enron transformed from a $3-billion natural gas company to a $100-billion chimera, one that went from seventh place on the Fortune 500 list to bankruptcy.”
Bradley’s vision for a sustainable energy market focuses on greater reliance on free markets (less government control) and the end of corporate welfare (leaving business to compete without subsidies). For example, he explained, Enron was sounding the climate alarm for years, all while benefiting from wind and solar subsidies and banking on potential emissions trading markets.
If it seems a leap to use the model of failure represented by Enron in the debate over climate change, Bradley begs to differ. He believes the proposed energy legislation currently under debate is just the kind of regulation that Enron bigwigs would have loved to game. “Enron pushed for cap-and-trade because they were going to be the number one provider,” he said. “What have we learned from Enron? Don’t politicize the energy market or the worst will get on top.”
In a radio speech in June, President Barack Obama insisted that the energy bill would create jobs, make renewable energy profitable, and decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil: “Don’t believe the misinformation out there that suggests there is somehow a contradiction between investing in clean energy and economic growth.”
Bradley, however, is dubious that there is an energy crisis at all (“I’d call it an energy problem, not a crisis,”) and certainly believes the doomsayers have it wrong on global warming. He calls the view alarmist, falsely creating a sense of urgency about the environment to spur rapid legislation. He draws parallels between the Obama energy plan and that of former President Jimmy Carter, which he characterizes as government intervention making things in the ’70s worse, not better.
Bradley understands his views are unpopular with some, but he believes there is great risk in ignoring legitimate criticism. He actually founded IER when he was still employed at Enron, as a reaction to the company’s “greenwashing.” He was criticized at his day job for not being a team player—but Bradley has always done things a little differently, even as a young kid fresh from Texas. “I never claimed to be one of the ‘smartest guys in the room,’” he said, referring to the famous book and movie about Enron. “I have been a blue-collar scholar. I know I was a pain to some of my professors at Rollins, but I think they appreciated the debate even if they didn’t agree with my views.”
“I can hardly think of a student I taught over three decades at Rollins with whom I disagreed philosophically more completely, but with whom I more thoroughly enjoyed jousting intellectually,” said Gary Williams, professor emeritus of history. Williams said he was intent on changing Bradley’s ideas about free market economics and Bradley was equally determined, at 19 years old, to “correct” Williams’ view of American history and economics.
In the end, it was an amiable stalemate, with no loss of respect on either side. “Though I mistook Rob for a conservative instead of a libertarian, which surely he would describe himself as,” Williams said, “I will give him credit for making me think more about, and more highly of, his philosophy.”
The two might never have met, however, if Bradley, a nationally ranked junior tennis star, had succeeded in earning a spot on the court for the University of Texas at Austin. When he failed to get a tennis scholarship there, he visited his sister, Liz Bradley ’75, who was a student at Rollins. As fate would have it, it was a sunny day in January. “The tennis courts and the whole campus was the most beautiful scene imaginable,” he said. “I accepted Norm Copeland’s offer of a tennis scholarship right on the spot.”
A four-year tennis letterman, MVP, and team captain, Bradley also received the S. Truman Olin Award for economics and graduated with honors. He received his master’s degree in economics from the University of Houston and doctorate from International College, under libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard.
Bradley lives in Houston, traveling to Washington as necessary.
Although it appears his career has skyrocketed despite the Enron debacle, Bradley says his success came in part because of the scandal. Enron’s collapse propelled him to the front lines of the energy and environmental debate, something he never anticipated when he was part of the mass Enron layoff that netted him only $4,500 in severance pay.
“You need setbacks for humility,” he said. “Not getting a scholarship to the University of Texas got me to Rollins where I had small classes and a liberal arts education, which has benefited me in ways I couldn’t have realized at the time. And Enron was sort of a godsend. I never would have had the experiences I’ve had if I hadn’t had a few setbacks along the way.”