A couple of days ago I finally put my finger on something I’ve been sensing but not grasping—you know, one of those itchy back-of-the-brain apprehensions that there’s a pattern here, only you can’t quite see what it is. Somehow it’s felt like literary analysis. The question is, why do these scams—inheritance cons, MLMs, tax dodges, Make Money Fast, hot stock tip swindles, et cetera—take the forms they do?
What did it was looking at my list of basic scams and observing that what they have in common is the promise of lucrative, risk-free investments. Lord knows the things exist, I thought, but nobody ever gives them away. In theory, high rates of return are the investor’s payoff for taking on higher-risk investments. Achieving that happy state of all payoff and no risk is the main reason the wealthy and powerful manipulate the system.
These scams take the forms they do because they’re parodies—no, a better way to put it: they’re cargo-cult effigies—of the deals the ruling class cut for themselves. If you’re an insider, if you have the secret, you can have a job where you make heaps of money for very little work. You can avoid paying your taxes. You can inherit a pile of money because an ancestor of yours left a moderate fortune that’s been appreciating ever since. You can be your own boss. You can have other people working for you, who have other people working for them, who all pay you a percentage of the take.Which, when applied to get-rich-quick schemes, from scams and frauds to perfectly honest (if dumber than a sack of hammers) ideas based on visualisation, prayer, ritual or other forms of magical thinking (such as "the Secret", as found in the self-help sections of bookshops across the US), makes perfect sense. The original cargo cults consisted of Melanesian islanders who, upon witnessing American airmen arrive during World War 2 with food rations, clothing and other useful goods (whose provenance their culture had not equipped them to understand), reasoned that these goods must be boons from the gods and that, if they carried out the same rituals as the Americans (i.e., parading in handmade US Army uniforms, building makeshift runways and control towers), they would reap the same benefits. Could it not be that this magical mode of thinking is not purely the province of "primitive" cultures, but is an idiosyncracy of the human mind's irrational pattern-matching tendencies, the same tendencies that attribute misfortune to elaborate (and unfalsifiable) conspiracies over mere chance? After all, our instincts say, there must be a man behind the curtain.
Elsewhere in the article, there is the following observation about one persistent category of frauds: the ever-thriving business of telling people that they don't really need to pay taxes, and that, for a fee, they can know the secret of how to get away with not paying it (which, unsurprisingly, seldom works):
Somewhat humorously, in several cases where the IRS has gone after promoters of “Don’t File” schemes, it was determined that the promoter—while advocating not filing returns—had been filing their returns all along. This really isn’t surprising, since most of the promoters will secretly confide that they really don’t believe these theories either, but it makes them good money.
Please keep comments on topic and to the point. Inappropriate comments may be deleted.
Note that markup is stripped from comments; URLs will be automatically converted into links.