The Art of the Con
Sat, 11 Aug 2007 14:38 EDT
|Spell Game of Confidence|
Not one of the people getting on the I-35W Bridge on August 1st had any reason to suspect what was going to happen that night. The day before, and the day before that, the bridge had held just as much traffic as it did on the 1st. The bridge had help up just fine since its opening in 1967. It had a history of holding the weight of vehicles traveling across the Mississippi River without any problems.
If someone with knowledge of the bridge's lack of structural integrity stood at one end of the bridge trying to warn commuters of their imminent demise, he would've been laughed off as a nut case. Political cartoonists would have, if they had the time, probably drawn him as a long-haired, bearded, sandal-wearing lunatic carrying a sign reading "THE END IS NEAR!"
And yet, at 6:05pm on August 1st, the I-35W Bridge did collapse. The collapse was so sudden and catastrophic that some thought explosives had gone off. Cars plummeted into the water, below. A school bus full of children just managed to stop before going over the edge. Panic ensued.
Everyone on the bridge would've sworn it couldn't happen, yet it did. Even the engineers in charge of inspecting the bridge didn't see it coming. According to a report from WISN in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
"During all of my time on the I-35W Bridge, I did not notice any unusual or unexpected swaying or rumbling," said Steve Weston, a project manager with Progressive Contractors of St. Michael, Minn. "No one in my crew made any such report to me. Right up to the collapse, I had no reason to believe that my crew and I were in danger."
That is, of course, exactly the way we like to see the world. We need stability. Without stability, adrenaline pumps into our blood stream and our heart rates stay dangerously high. The stress of prolonged lack of stability has a detrimental effect on our health. So, if we don't find stability in reality, we make it up in our own heads. Lack of stability is just too much for most of us to handle.
In order to create this make-believe stability in our minds, we call on our recollection of history as justification of our fantasies. The bridge has never collapsed before. The country has always weathered the storm of hard times in the past. The system will correct itself and everything will soon go back to normal. Everything is under control, just as it has always been.
We, in the U.S., live in an empire, though some refuse to acknowledge it for what it really is. Being an empire means having control. Control equals stability, or, at least, it feels that way. Empires provide a special form of history that makes believing in their stability easy for anyone calming themselves with such a fantasy. They can point to the rise of the country from humble, agrarian roots and a bold political experiment in democracy to the economic and military superpower of the world.
How can anyone doubt, with a history like that, that the empire will continue to grow? It has always grown. Anyone who doubts its continued growth and prosperity is a long-haired, bearded, sandal-wearing lunatic carrying a sign that reads, "THE END IS NEAR!" And, no one in their right mind listens to such lunatics, do they?
It is easy to forget just how many empires have come and gone during the known history of humanity. They all end. That is the history we need to keep in our minds. Every empire that has ever existed has come to an end. But this empire has not ended yet, you might argue. The keyword is "yet." Every empire, up to its last day, could say the same thing.
The desire to believe that a history of success and growth means a future of the same is so strong that nearly every peddler of financial investments covers its legal butt with the disclaimer, "Past performance is not guarantee of future results." Without that disclaimer, you leave yourself wide open to being charged with running a confidence game.
We seem to love stories about confidence games, yet seem to learn nothing from them. The Sting won seven Oscars, The Usual Suspects won two and The Grifters was nominated for four. Ocean's Eleven (the original Rat Pack version) spawned an extremely popular remake which then spawned two popular sequels. The TV show Mission: Impossible spawned a movie franchise that was successful despite a growing dislike of its star, Tom Cruise. The list goes on and on. We go to the movies to watch them in droves, then rent the DVD's to watch them again, none the wiser two hours later.
The essence of a confidence game or, as it is usually called, the con, is exactly what the name implies: confidence. A con artist would convince their "mark" that a tremendous profit was to be made for very little effort. The success of the con is dependent on the ability of the con man to convince the mark that the proposition can't possibly lose and the desire of the mark to make the profit. Often, the proposition, or setup, is something illegal. For example, in the movie The Sting, the setup used is one called "the wire."
In the wire con the mark was made to believe that the con artist had someone on the inside at the telegraph office who was working the "gold wire." The gold wire was the telegraph wire that delivered the results of horse races. The alleged inside man would delay delivery of the results of one of the late races by a couple of minutes in order to get the con artist the results in time to place a bet at a local pool hall and make a killing.
Of course, the con man does not have anyone on the inside at the telegraph office. Instead, he sets up a phony pool hall, complete with actors, to simulate the event. In order to really suck the mark into the proposition, he is not allowed to make any large bets for a few days. Instead, he is cautioned to go easy for a few days and just make a few bucks on races that don't carry long odds so that suspicions are not raised. In one version of this con, carried out by the infamous con artist Joseph "The Yellow Kid" Wiel, the mark is actually lead to lose money on his first few bets.
For the first race he bets on, the results are delivered by phone. The "inside man" quickly blurts out twenty one then hangs up. The mark eagerly places his bet on the horse with the number twenty one to win and, lo and behold, horse twenty wins. When the mark later meets the "inside man" he is informed that he is an idiot for not being able to follow simple instructions. He was clearly told that horse twenty won.
A few more similar "miscommunications" and the mark is convinced there is a lot of money to be made and desperate to recoup his loses and make a profit. It is at that point that the sting happens. He places a ridiculously high bet that goes far beyond the house limits - not knowing, of course, that the "house" is phony and has no limits whatsoever. A show is put on for his benefit in which the bookie acts as if he simply cannot accept such a high bet. Finally, the "owner" of the operation steps in and, having seen the man consistently lose, tells the bookie to take the money.
Just as in the movie The Sting, the con might end with a faked raid by the police that sends everyone scrambling, including the mark who is forced to leave his large bet behind in order to escape jail. The con artists are safe from retribution because the mark can't openly admit that he was willingly taking part in illegal activities.
The con does not have to involve illegal activities, of course...at least on the part of the mark. The con artist might claim to be the owner of a sizable chunk of land, even producing convincing documentation to prove it. George C. Parker made a living selling famous New York landmarks to tourists. His favorite was selling the Brooklyn Bridge. These types of cons went so far as to open offices that the mark could visit in order to instill confidence in their legitimacy. In the end, the mark engages in what he considers to be a perfectly legal and upfront business transaction that amounts to nothing but loss of their money.
These cons make for great movies because they seem so unbelievable. The wire is so involved, requiring the setup of a fake pool hall, the hiring of lots of actors and several days of manipulation, we can't believe anyone could actually pull it off. Only in the movies, we tell ourselves. However, the wire was a real con, used many times in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Cons could be incredibly elaborate affairs that spanned weeks or months of setup.
In any type of con, confidence is the key. As every con man knows, confidence is one of the easiest things to instill in another person. They understand that confidence and stability are necessary to the human mind. Rather than look with suspicion on the man who presents a deal that is too good to be true, most people will welcome him with open arms and count their blessings.
So it was with the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis. Everyone had confidence in that bridge right up to the moment it collapsed. And, so it is with our little empire. We have confidence. We need to have confidence. It has built that confidence in us slowly and surely. Anything less and we might see the sting coming and bolt for the door. It has built that confidence through indoctrination in its history - it's rise from a lowly rebel nation to a global superpower.
But, past performance does not guarantee future results.
The stock market of the 1920's was making a lot of people rich. The easy money to be made there drew virtually everyone in. If you had money, you put some of it in stocks. It was just the prudent thing to do. Even if you didn't have money, you could buy into the game. The "beauty" of that market was that you could buy on margin.
You borrow some money to buy the stocks then put the stocks up as collateral for the loan. Since stocks were going up and up, it was a great deal. As a matter of fact, it was such a great deal that by 1929 the total debt on margin buying was six billion dollars. Yeah, that really is billion with a "b".
In early September of that year, the market took a bit of a tumble by dropping, then rising, then dropping again. No need to worry. The market fluctuates. It had dropped like that before, but it had a history - a history of rising up stronger after the dip. Investors had confidence in the stock market.
This time, however, the market didn't rebound as everyone thought it should. On October 24th, Black Thursday, investors began to panic. Selling orders overwhelmed the stock exchange's ability to process the transactions. Financiers attempt to rebuild confidence in the market by buying as much of the stock as they could. It didn't work. On October 29th, Black Tuesday, the floor of the stock exchange went chaotic. Traders on the floor (those guys you think of as staid and sober businessmen handling enormous sums of other people's money) were actually tearing at each other's throats like crazed animals. In the end, thirty billion dollars - more than twice the national debt - had been lost.
It happens just that fast. One day, you have confidence, the next day...nothing. You've been taken for a ride and you have no means of regaining what you have lost. It is simply gone. We don't want to believe that it happens, but it does happen, it has happened and it will happen again. Perhaps it will happen again very soon.
The warning signs are there. We are near the end of a very elaborate con game and we are the mark. But, we don't want to see the signs. We have been promised a payoff at the end and we are too heavily invested in the game to quit now. We've lost some in the past, so we are putting it all behind the game, now. We are going to recoup our losses and then some!
Except, we aren't. The mark never does. The only hope the mark has is to wake up to the fact of the con and end the game before it is too late. Letting the game play to its end is all the con artist wants. After that, you can have your regret for what could have been, what you should have done or what a fool you had been. The con artist has your valuables. That's all that matters.
Still, here we are at the end of the game. We've seen the movies. We should know the game by now, but our confidence holds firm. We tell ourselves this con is too big and elaborate. No one could carry it off. Only in the movies. Instead, we blindly place our bets, mortgage our future and the future of our children, all for the big payoff we've been promised. It will come. It must come, dammit! The stock market will continue to rise, democracy will spread across the face of the planet and we will be welcomed as liberators.
And that bridge...the bridge to our future...we have confidence in it. It got us to where we are today, so it will get us to where we have been promised for tomorrow.
If you believe that, I have another bridge I'd like to sell you.