Tag Archives: con men

The Big Con

My husband and I were discussing the Council’s current standoff with the Ballard Administration–a dispute triggered by Ballard’s refusal to share budget information with the Council and other elected officials. That conversation brought back memories from our days in the Hudnut Administration; the then-Controller, Fred Armstrong, made himself available to Councilors, Department heads, the media….pretty much anyone who was interested in the intricacies of the budget. Fred would go on and on, explaining the numbers, funds, sources…

I don’t think anyone understood a word he said. I know I didn’t. It was the classic “bury them in bullshit,” and he was great at it. (He was also an incredibly competent public servant.)

Fred knew that most people don’t understand public finance. Our widespread fiscal ignorance is why Paul Ryan has been taken seriously, despite a budget that David Stockman, among others, has described as a “fantasy” and “devoid of credible math.” (Stockman, for those of you too young to remember, was Ronald Reagan’s very conservative Budget Director.)

Today’s candidates are counting on our ignorance of the most basic axioms of taxation and government revenue. It isn’t just that–as a colleague of mine put it recently–half of them clearly don’t know the difference between a marginal and effective tax rate. It’s that they engage in wishful, magical thinking.

Yesterday, I saw an ad for Mike Pence in which he promised to cut taxes “across the board,” and to establish an office of regulatory affairs that would resist federal regulations and return federal dollars.

I can’t decide if Pence is really that stupid, or he just thinks voters are.

There are legitimate issues around regulation–what is enough, what is too much. Reasonable people can differ over their assessments of particular rules. There is a pretty broad consensus that banking regulations were too lax, and that lack of oversight led to the Great Recession; there are certainly other areas where ham-handed regulatory policies have been distinctly unhelpful. But taking a position that all regulation is bad and must be resisted is insane. What about nursing home regulations that protect grandma from abuse? What about food and drug regulations that keep dog feces out of your beanie-weenies, or water purity standards, or building codes, or….Well, you get the point.

And how about that “cutting taxes across the board” and “sending the money back to the feds” promise?

Just how does our “I wanna be your governor” Pence propose to fund anything¬†Indiana needs? Federal dollars pay for our roads, augment our (increasingly inadequate) police forces, and provide medical care for the indigent. They feed schoolchildren and support special education programs. Federal dollars fund small businesses (yes, it turns out that even the angry guy in the anti-Obama commercial who insists that he and his sons built their business all by themselves had an 800,000 SBA loan). The federal government funds 33% of Indiana’s budget; if we sent that money back and cut taxes, Indiana’s government would come to a screeching halt.

The Ryans and the Pences of this world are counting on our ignorance. They are con men, hustlers secure in their (unfortunately reasonable) belief that voters don’t know where their tax dollars go, don’t recognize when they themselves benefit from government programs, and have no idea how their government works or what it does.

Con artists are successful because they tell us what we want to hear, because they promise us we can have something for nothing. The ugly truth is that the people who fall for the con are the people who want to believe they can get something for nothing.

Pence and Ryan are as reputable as that Nigerian banker who will send you a million dollars if you can just front him a few thousand.

The Persistence of Snake Oil

Morton Tavel, a well-known Indianapolis cardiologist, has previously confined his writing to medical journals and textbooks. Recently, however, he has written a very readable book intended to discomfit most of its readers. “Snake Oil is Alive and Well: the Clash Between Myths and Reality” takes on the logical fallacies and medical frauds so near and dear to the hearts of most Americans.

Full disclosure here: I would never have come across this e-book on my own; the author is my cousin. That said, I downloaded it from Amazon a few weeks ago and have now finished reading it. And my connection to the author is absolutely irrelevant to my recommendation–honestly!

For most readers, the value of the book will lie in its clear explanations, especially its exhaustive lists of medical/dietary hocus-pocus and distinction between good and bad science. Most of us have fallen for at least some of the identified quackery at one time or another.

For me, however, the central “take-away” was a meditation on the unquenchable desire of most of us humans for quick and easy solutions to our problems.

That desire is in tension with the scientific method, which is slow and painstaking and requires empirical observation and the accumulation of evidence over time before (inevitably conditional) conclusions are drawn. We want answers and we want them NOW!

If you would enjoy a brief jaunt through the history of folks who have preyed upon that all-too-human desire for instant gratification, a look at some of¬†the con men and quacks whose nostrums are usually intended to “cure” our solvency rather than our aches and pains, this is a good read.

Be warned, though: it won’t cure what ails you.