The Art of the Con

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Is any one really surprised that Donald Trump conned a journalist into including him on the Forbes 400 list of the nation’s wealthiest people? There were always nagging questions about how much money Trump really had—the bankruptcies, the unpaid contractors, and so on—and, as it turns out his companies and personal wealth were hemorrhaging money at the time. You might think you could tell the difference between someone with several billion dollars and someone with several hundred million (no one said he was broke) and the ability to generate debt, but you can’t. Even the most conspicuous consumers can’t spend it fast enough when you are in that league.

But why would he bother? Super rich or mega rich is still beyond most people’s dreams of avarice. But to a con man, reality is the real dream and appearance is everything. Appearing rich has always been more important to Trump than actually being rich. Which explains the gold (or at least gold-plated) tub fixtures and the obsession with having the biggest this or the largest that. You can draw your own conclusions about that.

But what is the appeal of a liar, a cheat and a phony—because there is no question that the man remains appealing to a significant portion of the American public? On a side note, the second favorite American President in Africa is Donald Trump. Maybe 70 years of being ruled by Big Men authoritarians who spent fortunes on appearances while their people starved has something to do with that. The devil you know and all that…

They say you can’t con an honest person. The con works because the one being taken is a little bit greedy, a little bit shady, a little bit criminal. I don’t suppose that America is any more dishonest than most countries but combine a modicum of corruption with the intense stigma of being poor, it might explain a lot about what’s going on in the USA (and Canada) these days. When most chronically indebted or outright impoverished Americans think of themselves as “disappointed millionaires” and are sure that, even after a lifetime of contrary experiences, that tax cuts for the rich will someday apply to them, you have to wonder if they too have slipped from reality into a dream-like state.

Capitalism is about everyone pursuing their own best interests. That’s how markets are supposed to work—maximizing utility through personal choice. But when the evidence shows that white Americans are willing to sacrifice their own health to ensure that black Americans can’t get decent medical care, you have to start to wonder if there is a single scrap of truth in any mainstream economic theory.

If capitalism is a giant con—as most of my left-wing friends would readily agree—what is the alternative? Collectivism sounds good in theory but in practice it hasn’t always worked out for those who value even a minimum of personal liberty. And the egalitarianism of Marxist-Leninist theory has almost always led to the empowerment (and enrichment) of the elite in the vanguard of the revolution. Human perfectibility is as much of a con under communism as it ever was under any religious system that believed in saints and holy men.

So what are poor flawed humans to do? I remember being told by a Swede that the reason they have chosen democratic market-based socialism so often is not because they believe in the goodness of their fellowman but because they don’t trust anyone at all. Democratic socialism is less about making people better than about keeping the worst of us out of power. Something to ponder.

And that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm

 

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