The Real Victims of Fraud
It’s closer to home than you might think
“The poor man is ruined as soon as he begins to ape the rich.”— Publilius Syrus, c. 50 BC
When we talk about “the innocence of babes,” we tend to assign children an honorable persona, as if corruption doesn’t reach their angelic souls until some time later in life.
Most children begin to form full sentences when they’re two or three years old, and recent studies have shown that this is the same time they start to lie — usually to avoid punishment.
“When grown people speak of the innocence of children, they don’t really know what they mean. Pressed, they will go a step further and say, Well, ignorance then. The child is neither. There is no crime which a boy of eleven had not envisaged long ago. His only innocence is, he may not yet be old enough to desire the fruits of it, which is not innocence but appetite; his ignorance is, he does not know how to commit it, which is not ignorance but size.” — William Faulkner, 1962
We tend to be surprised about deception beginning so early in life, but most origin stories of humanity are what the ancient Greeks called the “noble lie.”
In The Republic, Plato explains that by introducing a lie about humanity’s beginnings, it was more likely to bring harmony among the citizens if they thought they had a common bond. It was for the greater good of society.
Yes, it was a series of stories and myths, but it was tied to long-held traditions and beliefs, and it legitimized his position. It made for a happy and satisfied public that needed to heal after years of conflict.
“Corruption’s not of modern date;
It hath been tried in every state.” ― John Gay, 1731
But the noble lie is a far cry from self-serving deception — the kind of swindle and fraud we see highlighted in certain wealthy and powerful individuals.
While they don’t have a monopoly on it, the American power set managed to establish a “genius for the artful dodge”:
“the sales pitch, the résumé, the cost overrun, the subprime loan, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the credit default swap, the derivative, the balloon mortgage, the missile gap, the housing bubble, the annual report, the Laffer curve, the Facebook page, the campaign promise, the 2003 invasion of Iraq…” — Lewis H. Lapham, 2015
And in certain cases, the man-children who make use of these ruses make headlines for their perfidy.
The wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried is a great example. So confident in his ability to pull the wool over investors’ eyes for so long, in an interview on Monday the founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX boldly stated, “I don’t think I will be arrested.”
He was arrested the next morning by authorities in the Bahamas (although he should have been taken into custody by the Dunning–Kruger Sittenpolizei Verein).
This young Bernie Madoff had undertaken a years-long fraud effort under the complex guise of cryptocurrency, losing billions of dollars of his clients’ money in the process.
“Here’s the rule for bargains—‘Do other men, for they would do you.’ That’s the true business precept.” — Charles Dickens, 1844
Our examples aren’t exclusive to the smoke and mirrors of financial instruments. Sometimes, successful executives with track records use their power to intimidate — or simply to play by their own set of rules.
Because they seem to think that there are Jonas Chuzzlewits and Seth Pecksniffs lurking around every corner waiting to use guile and deceit to outplay them, they strike first.
Donald Trump’s secret to success has been simple and consistent: don’t pay your bills. Along the way, he has stiffed municipal police public safety costs for his rallies; bilked a vendor for Truth Social platform out of more than $1 million; he even had a fraudulent “university.”
It’s almost incredible, but he still owes money to contractors for his Taj Mahal casino, built in 1990.
And now there’s a similar pattern beginning to take root at Twitter: to cut costs, Twitter has not paid rent at its San Francisco headquarters for weeks, Elon Musk and his legal team have instructed employees not to pay vendors, and are considering withholding severance pay from former employees.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!” — Walter Scott, 1808
The Bottom Line
If we put SBF, Trump, and Musk on a ledger, what would our calculations find? And what would decent leaders do in their place?
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