CONS AND SCAMS: THEIR PLACE IN AMERICAN CULTURE / Vol. 85, No. 4 (Winter 2018)
Arien Mack, Journal Editor
Endangered Scholars Worldwide
Cons and con men have long been present in American culture and are represented as romantic figures. Cons abound—from Bernie Madoff's billion-dollar Ponzi scheme to street-corner crooks and their games of three-card monte; from art forgeries to fraudulent scientific articles; from predatory universities and pseudoacdemic journals to magical cures for incurable diseases.
PART I: CONS AND SCAMS IN AMERICAN CULTURE
The sucker list–registers of individuals who have attributes of gullible consumers or investors–offers instruction in the wider history of American cons and scams. Emerging in the late nineteenth-century as part of a more general process of learning to market effectively in a national marketplace, the sucker list illuminates some key themes in American business fraud, including close connections between fraud and capitalist innovation; the cut and thrust between fraudsters and a growing corps of antifraud professionals; and the ambivalence Americans have often had toward victims of rip-offs and swindles, as cultural depictions of them swing between ridicule and sympathy.
David Maurer's study, The Big Con, is a pioneering linguist's encapsulation of the methods, argot, and mores of the American grifters who flourished in the first half of the twentieth century, and has been a standard reference on classic techniques of deception. Maurer's fascination with the type of criminal he describes as an "aristocrat" is evident; the question remains what to make of the legacy of these criminal aristocrats and their aura of myth in an era when grift has taken new and ever more invasive forms. A rereading of Maurer's work offers an opportunity to rethink the archetypes he catalogued.
PART II: CASE STUDIES: FINANCE, EDUCATION, AND LAW
In December 2008, Bernard L. Madoff, a respected Wall Street statesman, confessed to his adult sons that he had been running a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme for years. His arrest exposed one of the most remarkable financial frauds of modern times, with victims scattered around the world and up and down the socioeconomic ladder. But the Madoff story also showed that most of what we thought was true about Ponzi schemes and their victims is simply wrong. Those mistaken assumptions, unless they are corrected, will leave new generations of investors vulnerable to the “trusted criminals” epitomized by Bernie Madoff.
Trump University’s predatory approach to education was remarkably similar to contemporaneous for-profit college scandals, and abuses in prior decades. Evidence suggests that the management of Trump U—and likely that of other for-profit colleges—did not commit fraud with a malicious intent. Instead, the harms they caused were more like business decisions made with profit as the goal but nothing to prevent harm other than compliance with bright-line laws and regulations. This finding—that simply rooting out malicious liars will not stop the damage done by for-profit higher education—has important implications for future government oversight intended to promote excellence and protect consumers.
Confidence games (“cons”) are schemes intending to induce and exploit judgment errors to advance voluntary exchanges that are not mutually beneficial. They benefit con men and their enablers at the expense of their victims. We study the anatomy of confidence games and examine why efforts to fight cons are controversial and often ineffective. We argue that the present understanding of cons, as reflected through the legal system, political debates, and the literature, is impaired and that the prevalence of cons warrants the attention of lawmakers, courts, and scholars.
PART III: CASE STUDIES: ART
Forgeries have been done over the centuries for a variety of reasons, including greed. With today’s multi-million dollar hammer prices, the overheated industry is particularly ripe for talented painters with a criminal bent. Experts suspect about 50 percent of the art circulating the market is fake, and while these fakes pose a danger to scholarship, the public is conflicted about the crime. The increasingly rarified and expensive world of art has alienated many from its pleasures, and forgers are seen as romantic figures who expose the questionable practices of the market and bring the establishment down a notch.
The most counterfeited artist in American history is not whom you might expect. Now largely forgotten, Ralph Blakelock was legendary around 1900, when the record-setting prices of his landscapes made the artist a target of sophisticated cons. Blakelock’s fate occupies the intersection of artistic and economic duplicity at a time of financial volatility, when debates surrounding the trustworthiness of paper money relied upon an aesthetic vocabulary of illusionism, imitation, surfaces and depths. This richly layered history of artistic fraud poignantly and humorously reveals the visual and material anxieties surrounding economic uncertainty at the turn of the twentieth century.
PART IV: CASE STUDIES: SCIENCE AND MEDICINE
In the nineteenth century, scientist warned the public against hucksters who sought to defraud individuals or make unwarranted claims on federal funds or policy. In 1863, the National Academy of Sciences pointed to deep flaws in the oceanographic charts of Matthew Fontaine Maury and persuaded the Navy to halt their publication. In 1879, the geologist John Wesley Powell attacked the theory that “rain follows the plow,” insisting that much of the West was too arid to support standard homestead farming. His calls for reform of public-land policy in the region were defeated. The episode was the first in the nation’s history to pit an authoritative theory of climate against economic aspirations.
When it comes to our health, hope springs eternal that there are miraculous cures, quick fixes, sequestered treatments, and unconventional interventions. While the medical huckster has existed for eons, as medicine and healthcare become more sophisticated, more complicated, and more accessible to the lay public, the distinction between groundbreaker and charlatan becomes ever more nebulous. With increasing access to internet health sites, non-peer-reviewed medical advice, celebrities hawking treatments, and our desperation for tangential approaches to prevention and cure, patient-centered medicine has become an overflowing melting pot of scientific advancement and wizardry.