The Big Con

I’ve always been fascinated by con artists. These folks flourish in a free market economy. In capitalism everything is for sale because everything is a commodity. You can sell your soul. You can buy love. You can sell your house. You can buy crypto-currency, and so on.

Con artists sell you back to yourself. They play on your vanity, your sense of importance. They exploit your fear of missing out. They encourage you to open your wallet so that you can fulfill your wishes and buy your dreams.

We’ve all heard P.T. Barnum’s “there’s a sucker born every minute.” And we’ve all heard some version of caveat emptor (buyer beware) from our elders.

But we still get suckered. Bernie Madoff showed the world that you can bilk famous, highly accomplished celebrity-type people, and do it for years before they’ll catch on. It was just too cool to be one of his special clients and it was just too easy to believe in his impossible investment returns. After all, when you are a famous, highly accomplished celebrity you won’t get suckered by a common huckster. Madoff was a huckster, that’s for sure, and good thing he seems to have a been an uncommon one.

L. Ron Hubbard created a religion for rich people and other famous, highly accomplished celebrities. It was a stroke of genius to target people with lots of money. I’ve thrown money at nonsense, but I don’t have the means to do it on the scale the Scientologists work on. Rich people do and it doesn’t hurt them—financially, that is—to swallow that nonsense.

Recently we’ve had the Power Poop Couple. Zachary Schulz Apte and Jessica Sunshine Richman created uBiome, which was breathlessly promoted on a TED talk (among other places), and it turned out to be a fraud. These two phonies are now fugitives and face federal fraud and money laundering charges. The scary part of this disaster was how easily they conned their way to fame and fortune. People were falling over themselves to give them money and praise them for their supposedly revolutionary approach to health care.

It was all jive. But they knew the con artists greatest trick which is “tell people what they want to hear.”

And then there’s Elon Musk. He literally robs Peter to pay Paul, raiding one company to pay off the debts of another. He talks constantly and relentlessly assures his fanbase that the next big breakthrough is just around the corner and it will be even better than the last one. I’m still waiting for the first one! Like a Musk company that makes a profit, for example. Or pays a dividend. Or does not depend on government contracts, handouts, subsidies, or tax incentives.

I’ll give Musk his due. He gets more free money than anyone. Venture capital flows into his gaping corporate maws. When he spends it he asks for more and more flows in. It’s the greatest of all capitalist acts: selling nothing!

I suppose he’s selling dreams. Dreams of hyperloops and Martian colonies and neural links or whatever. Those dreams DON’T COST ANYTHING. They are already FREE! You don’t need Elon to dream, and if you do you might think about watching less TV or eating fewer potato chips or something because your mind has been poisoned.

America is the home of the con artist. Upward mobility and dreams of riches are essential to the American character. We all believe we will find our own land of milk and honey. And those of us who don’t will have plenty of schemes to choose from. The con artist will come into our lives with his (or her) charm and effortless grace and convince us that we are SO IMPORTANT we have to open our wallets to them.

And then they will take us for a ride. And if you don’t want to go on that ride, watch out for the bilkers, fleecers, and grifters of the world. Some are low-lifes. Some are rich and glamorous. But they are easy to spot. Here’s the rule: if it is too good to be true, then it (most likely) isn’t true. Anything that promises the moon (like Musk) is lying. All you get out of that is an airless rock!

It would be great if some of the bullshit was actually true, but that just doesn’t happen. Real life has a way of barging in and writing all the rules. That sucks, I know, but it’s the reality we inhabit so we might as well get used to it. And real life is in fact much better than any fantasy these hustlers and tricksters can try to sell us. And if it isn’t, you need a new life, not a new sales pitch.

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