While Balleisen’s text is often rollicking and engaging, it leads readers to a rather bleak conclusion: Americans don’t really want cheaters and con artists punished, or driven out of national institutions. On the contrary, the historical record Balleisen reviews suggests that many Americans actually admire con artists and seek to emulate them.
Fraud is a phenomenon that knows no borders, but American exceptionalism, as Balleisen shows, includes a special vulnerability to fraudsters and con artists. As he points out, “Many of the world’s most expensive and ambitious frauds have occurred in America” because “openness to innovation has always meant openness to creative deception.” The country’s lionization of entrepreneurs and inventors creates tempting opportunities for those trafficking in highly implausible scenarios. It has made the U.S. home to genuine innovators, from Thomas Edison to Oprah Winfrey, but it has also facilitated the far-reaching deceptions and empty promises perpetrated by people like Bernie Madoff on Wall Street and Elizabeth Holmes in Silicon Valley. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was the largest known financial fraud in history, and Holmes’s biotech start-up Theranos faces multiple lawsuits and federal investigations after its products didn’t work as claimed. (Holmes and the company deny any wrongdoing.)
Misrepresentations are usually made possible by two factors: their complexity and their proponents’ social craftiness. Madoff and Holmes used both of these to their advantage. When it comes to complexity, the basic principle is that the less people understand of an underlying business proposition, the more vulnerable they are to being taken in by pretenders. Schemes involving science or math have been particularly successful because the knowledge needed to evaluate such proposals critically is not widely distributed in the population. This makes it easy to pass off nonsense as the next big thing. Balleisen’s book is littered with variations on this science-and-math theme, from lightning-rod scams to Americans’ passion for lotteries. These stories have a poignant edge, considering how many recent innovations originally were poorly understood and seemed totally fantastical, but worked anyway (such as paying for groceries with a mobile phone). Even for skeptical consumers, it can be difficult to distinguish between flimflam and genuine opportunities.
While complexity provides cover for con artists, it’s their social wiles that draw in their prey, known as “marks.” The scammers’ job is to make themselves seem not only trustworthy, but familiar: just like their marks, only more successful. The easiest way to perpetrate this deception is on members of one’s own demographic group—a phenomenon known as “affinity fraud.” In the 1920s, for example, Charles Ponzi, newly arrived from Italy, preyed on other immigrants through his eponymous pyramid scheme—a pattern repeated with other immigrant groups, including those from India, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, in the ensuing century. Immigrants, along with people from rural areas, have long been favored targets of fraud; as Balleisen writes, “demographic groups likely to suffer from informational gaps” are shut out, whether willfully or accidentally, from crucial knowledge about the world.