The Flim-Flam Men - With Artwork by Banzai7 Labs

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The Flim-Flam Men

By

Cognitive Dissonance 

 

Artwork by WilliamBanzai7

 

I suspect if average Joe or Jane were asked to identify modern examples of ‘Flim-Flam Men’ most would point to Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford. Or even to a long list of Too Big To Fail bank CEO’s past and present plus various corporate, government and Fed officials who have graced our lives over the last ten or more years. And you know what? I wouldn’t argue with them for a second because they’d be correct. But do those examples really illustrate the deeper, more mundane meaning of the common street hustle or financial confidence game? And are we in denial of our own critical role in The Big Con?

Madoff and Stanford (and the Fed of course) would fall into the category of ‘The Big Con’ since they successfully roped hundreds, even thousands, of people into their web of deceit. More importantly they fleeced their ‘marks’ for years, decades even, and every single mark was smiling right up until the end. Why? Because everyone thought they were on the inside track to a sweet heart deal that paid better than average returns. In other words, they were ‘chosen’ (usually because of their own self described brilliance) and thus they had a leg up on everyone else. Something for nothing and the chicks were free. That is until reality rushed in to fill the vacuum left when their glorious illusion imploded.

What I wish to explore here is some of the emotional and psychological components of the common confidence game (professional money management subdivision, three-card Monte category) perpetrated on the public by the political and financial ‘industry’ in general and some of our local money managers/financial advisors in particular. It’s one thing to run a onetime financial con on an individual or small group of people and another entirely to do so consistently, ‘professionally’ and as an accepted member of society.

You really can’t fool all the people all the time, regardless of how dumb they may be or how brilliant the con man is. Yet many of us claim precisely this, that we were hoodwinked by Congress, the Fed, corporations and the bankers, all of whom are still busy screwing the fast asleep sheep. While this explanation may please us because it leaves all of us blameless, it simply doesn’t hold water and deep down we know it. Let’s spend a few minutes thinking about this and see what we come up with.

To pull off a financial con of this (global) magnitude many conditions must be met, not the least of which is the common desire of the mark to acquire something the Flim-Flam Man promises s/he can deliver. This of course would be the financial savvy to ply the dark waters of the rigged financial markets using inside info or just a better mouse trap for the benefit of the mark. But the active ingredient in any successful con is the mark’s desire to get an edge up on the herd and make ‘easy money’ or at least to stay even with the rest of the herd in their pursuit of the Promised Land of Milk and Honey.

The thing is that greed works both ways, something I see all the time in my clients. On the one hand, everyone loves to own the high flying stock or the 5 star mutual fund that killed it last year…..both of which will probably disappoint this year. When the champagne’s flowing, everyone wants to join the party and make it big. I can’t tell you how many times during my long career a client has come in waving the latest copy of ‘Money’ or ‘Forbes’ wanting to jump on the latest bandwagon. Pets.com stands out in my memory as a particularly egregious example of herd mentality driven by greed, though it’s most certainly not the only one.

But greed also compels people to become nervous, upset and even angry if they think they’re underperforming the rest of the herd and falling behind. Think of this as reverse greed. If we know or even suspect the next door neighbor or coworker is making more on their investments, regardless of the risk involved, we feel cheated. The golden rule of greed is that there is no such thing as risk until it bites you in the butt, then suddenly you have way too much on your hands. Our greed always tilts the playing field to the advantage of the Flim-Flam Men.

 

 1

 

For those who have seen the obscure 1967 movie classic ‘The Flim-Flam Man’, who could forget the performance of George C Scott as the wily Mordecai C. Jones, a rural con man roaming Cape Fear County, North Carolina with a young protégée named Curley. Part comedy, part love story, forever a study in our own self destructive greed, I highly recommend the reader take a walk down memory lane via YouTube where the movie is posted in 10 parts. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ue0vqeQSG5w

Soon after bumping into Curley (who is laying low as an Army deserter) Mordecai Jones begins to school Curley in the way things really work in the big bad world of greed. Asked what he does for a living, Jones explains that “Greed’s my line lad, greed. And 14 carat ignorance, they’ll never let you down.” Thus we begin to understand that the confidence game is very similar to Judo in that you use your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses against him to take what he clearly wants to give you in exchange for even more.

Curley is both fascinated by this strangely attractive character and wary at the same time. He’s heard of men like Jones before so he knows he’d better check to see if his wallet and wrist watch are still in his possession on an hourly basis. But still he’s drawn to the seductive Mordecai Jones and wants to hear more. The number one rule in running the con is to never let the mark think you need him, but rather the other way around. Never let them see you sweat or worry.

Flim-Flam Men (and increasingly today Flim-Flam Women) almost universally exhibit a high energy level along with charisma and disarming charm. Above all else they are easy going and unfailingly happy (at least in public) almost as if they haven’t a worry in the world. They prey on our openness, kindness and our tendency to trust well dressed self confident men and women who appear to have ‘made it’ in what can only be described as celebrity worship junior grade.

Mordecai begins to entice Curley into the life of the con man, carefully explaining that working as a team is much more effective than working alone. We all know that deliciously naughty feeling Curley is beginning to feel as he rationalizes his way into doing something he should not. In an effort to diminish his pangs of guilt, Curley feebly tries to ward Jones off, claiming he won’t get involved in anything dishonest. “I don’t hold with cheating Mr. Jones.”

But of course Jones has rationalized away his antisocial behavior a long time ago and has a ready answer to Curley’s protestation that he would harm no innocents. Mordecai assures him “Only the cheaters Curley, you can’t cheat an honest man”. With just a few words Mordecai has magically transformed himself into a slayer of evil dragons and the local bringer of truth and justice.

We can almost see the gears turning inside Curley’s head as he lies to himself “Well, I guess it’s OK if all we’re doing is cheating the cheaters”. It’s right about here that the brain releases natural endorphins into the blood stream which serves to reinforce our self deception by stimulating our brain’s pleasure centers. Naturally Mordecai Jones isn’t talking about you or me when he identifies the marks as cheaters because we’re honest…..for the most part.

 

2 

 

At least that’s what we tell ourselves as we steal the stapler from the office supply closet or fail to inform the cashier when the item rings up $20 lower than it should. After all, what I’m doing is peanuts compared to the stuff those bastards are pulling down. Besides, everyone does it now and then so what’s the big deal? They’ll never miss it anyway. I’m just taking care of my own in this dog eat dog world. The justifications and excuses we use to do as we please are endless and ultimately immaterial.

Who among us hasn’t been offered a great deal on a TV, jewelry or whatever only to find out its ‘hot’, meaning its stolen merchandise? For many of us knowing its stolen actually makes the item that much more attractive, particularly if it’s new. Instantly we think ‘on sale’ at 70% off. Who doesn’t want to make a killing and pick up something of value for a steal? If we really want to look under the covers of our own self deception, all we need do is consider the language we use when discussing this subject.

A little later on in the movie, Curley objects to the method used in a scam Jones just pulled off with Curley’s help. “Diamonds? They’re just glass” he complains to Mordecai, clearly not happy to be involved in such a blatant subterfuge. Jones becomes indignant, claiming the high ground by parsing words. “I never said they wasn’t. Just signified they’s stolen, that’s all. You can sell anything on God’s green earth if the customer believes it’s stolen.” Notice how he sees the mark as a “customer”, making Mordecai just a simple salesman filling a person’s needs and desires, a wonderfully enabling lie that justifies his continuing to con.

We all justify and rationalize away our misdeeds and petty crimes in order to live with ourselves. Aside from the true sociopaths walking among us, the average Flim-Flam Man needs to do so as well. However, once started down this path there really is no crime too big that can’t be explained away. At one point in the movie, Jones pretends to be a “man of the cloth” and talks his way into the home of Curley’s future love interest. They proceed to steal a car with a reluctant Curley forced to choose between going along or staying behind and trying to explain to the authorities what happened.

Remember that Curley is an Army deserter and thus severely compromised, making him just another mark for Mordecai to use. By his own hand Curley is conflicted and vulnerable to exploitation, making it that much easier for Jones to manipulate him since Curley has something even bigger to fear if his complicity in the con is exposed, the very Army brig he was originally running from. That’s all the more reason for Curley to stop resisting (as if he ever really tried to begin with) and just go with the flow and take what he wants anyway. Well…..if you insist.

This is very similar to how we are all compromised by our need to live and work, not to mention maintain what we have already accumulated, within the very corrupt system we essentially allow to be perpetrated and (secretly) hope flourishes. Or should I say our parents allowed to be created because we certainly didn’t have anything to do with it. We are all just victims of circumstances and thereby blameless. It’s them, not me, who are responsible for this mess. Since we allow our own self interest to crowd out everything else of importance and the system encourages our own selfish behavior, who are we to resist or even question what is “natural” or even fair.

 

3

 

After leading the police on a mad automobile chase and thoroughly wrecking the car, Curley confronts Jones as he once again soft peddles the massive damage he’s done to people and property. Curley angrily shouts “What are you talking about? You walk into someone’s house and you steal their car.” Jones plays the wounded soul and immediately seeks the high ground by becoming indignant. “Nonsense, I’m not stealing anything.” Curley snaps back “Then what do you call it?” Jones has the ready answer. “Borrowing, that’s all. Just to get us some place where we can borrow another one.”

I assure you that this type of thinking is shared by some in the financial industry who have little regard for their clients and a very high regard for their life style and the need for a substantial income to maintain it. I can’t tell you how many times during my career, whether it was in the glass towers of big money management or inside the local bank where the financial advisors were running small money, that I’ve heard the so-called professionals speak in the same manner as Mordecai Jones, though with much more polish and a better vocabulary. After all, that’s what the Ivy League criminal finishing schools are for…..right?

Some of these well dressed professional Flim-Flam Men might never have taken this path under different life conditions. For some it was laid out at birth by family, for others it was a career they made a conscious decision to pursue, for still others they stumbled into it and saw the potential for self enrichment. While we can debate the “nature-nurture” argument until we are blue in the face, even though each Flim-Flam Man is uniquely different nearly all arrive at the same destination using similar self-deception and denial techniques. And so do us ‘victims’.

The principal commonality among the thieves is that each and every one of them, again excluding the true sociopaths, has at some point or another (and usually on a continuous basis) excused and explained away their behavior. The more egregious among them are borderline sociopathic, for while they still retain the capacity to care about certain individuals, essentially everyone within striking distance is considered a potential mark.

 

Flim Flam Street

 

While on a small local ferry crossing a river, Mordecai tells Curley about his own early moral development. “Well, that’s the whole point Curley. The world is full of them. Ours is an avaricious society.” Curley erupts in protest. “Everybody’s not like that.” Jones rationalizes again, dismissing Curley’s protestation with practiced ease. “Matter of degree. Every thermometer gotta register something.” Since I’m nowhere near as bad as those banking bastards I’m not responsible for any of this mess.

Curley asks about Jones and his early life. “What about you Mordecai?” Mordecai contemplates before answering. “Me? I was idealistic as they come. More so than most. But it didn’t take me long to appreciate what really makes the world go around. And contrary to what the poet says, it ain’t love. And when I learnt that, it done something to me. I commenced to turn inside on myself, sour with resentment. Couldn’t enjoy nothing. Got mean. Terrible thing. Terrible.”

“One day it come to me. If everybody’s so determined to be greedy and to being ignorant, maybe what they need is a little liberalized education. So in order to teach them I qualified myself with an honorary degree. Mordecai Jones, M.B.S., C.S., D.D.” Curley jumps in. “What’s all that mean?” A big self satisfied smile crosses Mordecai’s face as he quickly abandons his self reflection. “Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing and Dirty-Dealing. Hahaha. Ours is a society of goods and services and I think I’m performing a service. ‘Cause after meeting up with me….maybe they ain’t so eager for the edge next time. Son, you’d be amazed at the hundreds of satisfied students I’ve matriculated over the last 50 years.”

Mordecai’s monologue almost brought tears to my eyes and I’m not being completely sarcastic. At its basic level all con men and women are actors, telling you and me exactly what we want to hear so we will do exactly what they want us to do. But Mordecai Jones is still a good case study in how a person becomes the distorted and twisted antisocial bastard we all love to hate.

In his monologue Jones claims he really did wish to be a good boy early on. But after being savaged by both his idealistic and sensitive nature and bloodied by the world, he bravely decides to harden his heart and jump onto the gravy train to get all he can while the getting’s good. Rather than do the really difficult work of self reflection and introspection when the world slaps you side the head, the coward’s way out is to join in the rape and pillage. It certainly makes the pain go away for some and helps the pocketbook as well.

Can you say ‘Buy the fucking dip’ right about here? Hey, if you can’t beat them you might as well join them. This applies to non professionals as well folks. Anyone playing in this cesspool of a market can’t claim to be pure of heart and deed including myself. It all comes down to how we rationalize playing the game. Most of us defend our actions as purely defensive. I need to protect myself from those savages. Sounds a little like Mordecai Jones, doesn’t it? After all, we aren’t hurting anyone else except the (other) crooks, liars and thieves, right?

Once again Jones takes the cheaply bought high ‘moral’ ground by claiming he’s doing honest work by wising people up and helping his flock of sheep learn their life lessons. Once we understand what’s going on here we begin to see that Lloyd Blankfein really does believe he’s doing God’s work. Who knew God’s work paid so well? Will someone please inform those priests they’re on the wrong path to salvation? Never underestimate the lengths to which we can and will take our own denial and rationalization when it serves our self interest.

If you listen carefully to Jones and believe in his methods, then having a moral and social conscious is a total disability that should be covered by Social Security. Thankfully all he’s doing is placing a healing hand in each marks pocket and spreading the intellectual wealth his way. Of course, it takes two to tango and the fact that greedy self centered people help Mordecai educate themselves exonerates Jones from direct blame, at least when it comes down to the fact that Jones has already learned his own life lesson perfectly well. Do unto others before they do unto you and live well in the process.

 

The Family Reunion

 

Near the movies climax Curley back slides a bit and begins to question his short life of crime, asking Mordecai where it all leads to and how one can live a life without something to believe in. Curley makes an impassioned plea to Jones, saying in effect that what may work for Mordecai just doesn’t for Curley. In essence he wishes to save his soul from the disease of unbridled greed and self interest.   

Curley says it all in just a few sentences. “It’s just that lately I’ve been wondering if there’s such a thing left in this whole world as one plain honest man. I’d of said that I was and I know I ain’t. I’d say most people were honest enough. And every single time you show me what they is really like. Mordecai, I gotta believe in something. Something better than greed.” It sounds like Curley isn’t graduating any time soon from the Mordecai Jones University of Hard Knocks with a PhD in Flim-Flam. And he looked so promising.

Alas we find that poor Mordecai does have a bit of a conscious after all when he worries about Curley........which in the real world is not a liability to a con man as long as they don’t let it run wild. In fact, if the con man lets it peek out a bit now and then it actually helps endear the mark even further to him. This pays off near the end when Curley actually commits a major crime in order to free Mordecai from jail. I suspect Curley was just doing some penance to free himself from his guilt. There’s nothing quite like a little Christian guilt to free us from our Christian guilt.

If you want to know how the movie ends, fire up the YouTube link. If you want to know how our modern day version of the Flim-Flam Men ends, well........that’s gonna be a bit more difficult. There’s no video of the end game as of yet, though I can assure you real time viewing is more exciting. The facts about our present day global confidence game remain too complex to ignore but very easy to deny.

We, you and I and me and us, are all complicit to some degree or another in The Flim-Flam Men’s confidence game. There simply cannot be a con without two opposing but cooperative parties involved. And both sides need to expect to get something out of the deal, regardless of whether it happens or not and despite all the facts not being known by one or more of the parties. While there may be varying degrees to our complicity, just as there are degrees of guilt, responsibility and intent in any other crime, no matter how much we diminish our role we are still involved in our own victimization.

 

Complicity

 

A little over two years ago I spent a Saturday afternoon listening to YouTube interviews and lectures by Catherine Austin Fitts. About half way through one of them Catherine said something that hit me like a ton of bricks. She was describing a talk she had given many years earlier to a group of concerned citizens in which she was trying to explain how intertwined the corruption was within our own individual decisions and lives. She said tough choices needed to be made and until we were ready to do so, we would make little progress towards throwing the bums out.

She then asked for a show of hands among those in attendance. Who wanted the corruption in Washington, on Wall Street and in corporate America to end here and now? Catherine reported that she received a unanimous affirmation to stop the insanity and begin to heal our communities. We all wish to believe there is some button to push or switch to flip that will end this insanity. Believing this allows us to remain on the sidelines and not take a stand.

Catherine then asked for a show of hands of people who were willing to risk the very real possibility that by ending the insanity everyone’s private and government pension, government benefits such as Social Security and Medicare, 401(k), IRA’s and even individual investments might be severely diminished and possibly even completely lost. If I remember correctly, Catherine said just a few people put their hands up. Based upon my personal experience talking to my clients I would say that’s about right.

I just described the confidence game as an agreement between two opposing but cooperative parties who expect to get something out of the deal, regardless of whether it happens or not or if all the details are known by both parties. In her interview, Catherine just described that deal in all its ugly simplicity. We are more than just dependent upon the corruption to maintain our daily lives. You and I are depending upon the corruption to fund our retirement and other self interests. This makes us complicit in the con because our own self interest depends upon and feeds The Big Con.

Our nest eggs, pensions and most of our personal wealth were amassed by way of involvement and cooperation with the con men that both run it and sell it to you and me. And as much as we don’t wish to admit it, we’ve known this for decades and have kept our mouths shut as long as the stock market went up, our IRA’s and 401(k)’s increased in value and our pensions continued to be paid out. Now that the system is coming apart at warp speed, we claim we were bamboozled or fooled. Nope, this little charade doesn’t wash with me.

For the last 20 or 30 years the public has been reading and hearing increasingly dire warnings about fiat currencies, unfunded Social Security, Medicare and government pensions promises, never ending wars of empire and expansion, resource exploitation, corruption and so on. While the entire picture might have been deliberately obscured, it could not have progressed to this point without the mostly silent, but most assuredly the willing, participation of you and me.

To say otherwise just kicks the responsibility can further down the road. Until we the people accept that we are part of the problem, that’s the only thing we’ll be kicking down the road. The Flim-Flam Men will not stop on their own volition. As long as we offer ourselves up as easy and complicit marks, they will continue to rape, rob and steal. It’s time we grew up and recognized that fact.

 

02-01-2011

Cognitive Dissonance

 



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