Helaine Olen looks at the career of Glenn W. Turner, who popularized the phrase “fake it until you make it.” Great advice if you need a shot of confidence — but not so much if you’re scamming your customers, which Olen argues has become increasingly prevalent since the 1980s began to exult that “greed is good”: “As we transitioned from a society that manufactured things to one whose products were intangible, reality was increasingly in the eye of the beholder — or the pitchman.”
That kind of thinking could explain bald-faced lies such as Keebler claiming a cookie made with high fructose corn syrup has no high-fructose corn syrup, but it’s often bigger in scope than that kind of old-school snake oil. Case in point, the way the Sackler’s opioid empire relentlessly pushed oxycontin and willfully pretended they were helping people in pain, not catering to millions of addicts. More recently, some doctors made bank by prescribing ivermectin to treat covid; now that fear of covid is, however unreasonably, fading (it’s still killing a lot of people), they’ve discovered it’s also wonderful for treating the flu.
Or Marc Tessier-Levigne, now Stanford University president. In his former life as a Genentech executive he authored a paper that proclaimed a breakthrough in identifying the genetic roots of Alzheimer’s. The Stanford Daily reports the research was bogus.
Or consider the NYT is willing to write about Sam Bankman-Fried, crypto conman, and discuss how lots of people in the Bahamas like him.
Part of the problem is that snake oil is horribly easy to sell. It’s not just mountebank doctors selling fake cures to gullible targets; J.P. Morgan gave $175 million for access to a company’s non-existent client email lists. Charlie Javice founded the company, Frank, which supposedly helped five million students at 6,000 colleges negotiate the financial-aid maze. That shouldn’t have passed the smell test given there aren’t that many colleges that receive financial aid. Yet it did.
One of the commenters on this LGM post suggested that both Javice and Elizabeth Holmes benefited from the same classism that creates the glass floor: they come from white, upper-class backgrounds which meant they grew up learning to present themselves as someone you can trust to run a business (see Pedigree for more discussion of this). Much like British traitor Kim Philby, they could present themselves as the “right sort” which goes a long way to ensuring success. Lest you think I’m singling out women, you can say the same about Jared Kushner’s undistinguished business career.
I’m reminded of one prominent economist — I can’t remember which one — who lobbied hard to loosen the restrictions in the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated banks’ commercial and investment branches. When the government loosened regulations banks promptly started making very unwise decisions. Said economist insisted that had never occurred to him. That was idiotic. As I’ve quoted before, “The only security which we can have that men will be honest, is to make it their interest to be honest; and the best defence which we can have against their being knaves, is to make it terrible to them to be knaves.” Or as someone put it in comments here, ” without regulation there are often zero adults in the room.” Maybe J.P. Morgan was no different from any victim of the big con: they thought they saw a chance for a big, big score and turned off their brain.
I’ll end with an other quote from the same thread about the nature of business, that Henry Ford and the other automotive pioneers “may have been scumbags but they were actually interested in making and selling cars. The people who want to be in the business world for the sake of being in the business world are suspect in every possible way: there is literally nothing anchoring them but greed.
To use two modern examples Steve Jobs was AFAICT a piece of shit, but he really did have a vision about the future of computing and some of his attention was actually spent trying to accomplish that vision. Elon Musk doesn’t actually care about electric cars, as can be seen by decision after decision he’s made to do what he wants (play edgelord on the Twits, for example) rather than devote R&D money to Tesla.”