Bamboozling hucksters. They seem to be everywhere. I recently wrote a piece on Medium about Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos — a Silicon Valley startup that promised to revolutionize medical testing. Holmes has been exposed as a fraud, and while hindsight is 20/20, I find it quite extraordinary that anyone fell for her hoodwink, much less to the tune of $700 million. My story on Holmes did much better than I thought it would, and I’ve been thinking about grifters ever since.
There’s a British TV show I used to watch called Hustle about a gang of slick, eminently likeable con artists. The tagline of the crew was, “You can’t cheat an honest man.” The philosophy behind choosing their marks was finding someone who wanted something for nothing and giving them nothing for something. It’s exactly the self-exculpating, slippery talk you’d expect from people who’d spent their entire adult lives on the grift. Nevertheless, I always thought there was something beyond “you deserve what you got” victim-blaming going on (the show did feature some truly odious marks deservingly getting fleeced).
I’ve been talking about narcissism more and more in my writing. Most con artists are narcissists at their core, I think. Ironically, it makes other narcissists among their most gullible targets. Overweening entitlement underpins much of a narcissist’s decisionmaking. They believe they are special and shouldn’t have merely good lives, but “tremendous” lives. It makes them particularly susceptible to falling for financial schemes. Self-reflection and admitting they’re wrong aren’t strong points for narcissists. So, they’re more likely to ignore red flags and continue to throw good money after bad. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover this was the dynamic between Holmes and some of her investors.
It’s difficult for me to muster sympathy for Silicon Valley venture capitalists who didn’t perform basic due diligence or insist someone with a medical research background sit on the board of Theranos. How fast and loose they played with all that money is staggering, and I’m not going to shed any tears over them losing it. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity cost to Holmes’s schemes. That $700 million could have been spent shepherding useful technology into being. It also demonstrates that the “something for nothing” framing of the crew from Hustle is too stark. Holmes’s investors did want something, something they were willing to pay quite handsomely for: a cut of the profits from the sale of machines that could reliably test for a multitude of diseases using only the blood from a finger stick. In hindsight, they were depending on Rumpelstiltskin turning up to spin straw into gold. Grifters’ marks wanting “something fantastical for the price of something ordinary” may be closer to the truth.
Televangelism has always been a grotesque hustle, but it’s morphed into something particularly odious. The pretense of it being about faith healing or moral support and guidance has all but evaporated. Prosperity gospel is all the rage. The promise isn’t to heal your aliments or protect you from evil doers anymore — it’s to turn your money into more money. “Plant a seed,” they cajole, while literally sitting on replica golden thrones. It’s quite fascinating and horrifying to watch the nakedness of the avarice. It’s also a bit depressing. It’s nothing but a scam. And it couldn’t be any more obvious. I had a family member who used to follow televangelists religiously, and I often wondered how this educated person who should have known better couldn’t see through it. I often wonder how so many people don’t. What sort of person becomes a member of a church that demands your pay stubs and tax filings to make sure they can get enough tithes out of you?
There’s no clear psychological profile for people who are susceptible to joining and being indoctrinated by cults. Similarly, it’s harder than you might think to predict who will fall for the okey doke. I think most of us sympathize with people who have undergone immense personal suffering who are taken in by people pretending to care about them. That’s often not what happens, though. Those upper middle class people with stable lives and healthy families joining shady megachurches whose pastors openly aspire to own private jets aren’t on the psychological brink. There’s something else going on. The key to figuring this all out might be in the smarminess and our response to it.
There’s something offputting about grinning schemers like Joel Osteen. At least there is to me. It was no surprise to me that he had to be strongarmed into opening his church to hurricane victims. His whole demeanor, self-presentation, and (most importantly) his spiel telegraph self-centerdness. It’s not particularly well-hidden. It’s oily and obvious. It attracts torrents of people, though, and I don’t think it’s entirely to do with naivety. It’s the trappings of success that do it. That’s something else the crew from Hustle understood and mastered — the importance of getting things to look right to spark the instinct to covet. I think that’s why there’s some truth to the “you can’t cheat an honest man” line. You can’t cheat an honest man using certain tactics. Willingness to cut corners is a big part of most cons, and it’s more difficult to convince honest people to participate.
Nevertheless, at its heart, every scam is about exploiting the mark’s aspiration. The things we aspire to matter. The things we’ve been indoctrinated to aspire to are particularly important. Part of what pulls marks into a con is the feeling of wanting to belong to the group that’s doing the conning. The con artists need to have something the mark wants. Sometimes wanting to belong somewhere is enough — that’s what cults prey on. Social capital is a particularly powerful fulcrum. People want to be trusted, liked, and admired. They want to be respected. That nearly always takes money. It buys the other signifiers that friends and neighbors respond to. There’s a real argument to be made that capitalism and all the endless advertising that comes along with it have primed us almost from birth to be receptive to scams. Social media and everyone’s heavily curated Instagram feeds have levered up the envy quotient. Add all the misinformation swirling around on top of that, and we’ve entered the age of the scammer. It’s never been so easy to reach us, to befriend us, to pretend to care about us, to manipulate and exploit us. If it’s the age of the scammer, it’s also the age of the scammed. I’m not sure it’s always clear what side of the line we’re on.
The thing about long cons is that after a while the marks function as part of the team running the grift. The do quite a lot of the heavy lifting. It can almost get into Stockholm Syndrome territory. Similarly, low-level members of cults are often the most devoted and fanatical. We’ve been conned into believing we can consume and waste without consequence, that a post-World War II American suburban life is not only desirable but attainable. We believe that ending poverty means that these trappings of 20th century “success” become the norm. It’s becoming clearer by the day that this thinking has led to catastrophe. The Earth is rejecting capitalism’s proposal and violently flinging it back into our faces with megastorms; extended droughts; and volatile, unpredictable weather. Nevertheless, I don’t think enough people will be convinced quickly enough to give up their aspirations. The con will keep running until it implodes even further. As with all cons, the marks are never the only ones harmed. There is always collateral damage, innocent bystanders. And the scammers? They often get away scot free.
Originally published on my Patreon.