My mother would have called it “keeping up with the Joneses,” the need to buy a new car when you couldn’t afford to furnish your living room because the people across the street bought a new car and you certainly didn’t want to appear less successful than them. That would be humiliating.
But like all things old that have long characterized humanity’s less admirable traits, the kids believe they’ve invented it, or at least refined it to a level of singular distinction.
Scammers and cheats are the paradigmatic figures of our age, and not just because a con man is president of the United States. Again and again in recent years, people who’ve scaled the cultural heights have been revealed as audacious frauds. The systems and institutions that confer status in our society keep being exposed as Ponzi schemes. Grift is turning into our central national narrative.
Putting aside Michelle Goldberg’s irresistible impulse to include a swipe at Trump in everything she writes, and the emergence of the word “grift” as the hipster epithet for those who’ve never heard the name Charles Ponzi, is this really turning into our “central national narrative”?
There are cons in every period — in the 2000s we had Enron, Bernie Madoff, and James Frey’s pseudo-memoir “A Million Little Pieces.” But there’s something distinct and era-defining about the current crop of high-profile scams. They hinge on the buying, selling and stealing of cultural capital, taking advantage of preconceived ideas of what success looks like. They’re made possible by the ephemerality of an economy where, to quote Ivanka Trump, heiress to a scamming dynasty, “If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true.”
Ironically, Goldberg hits upon a new truism via Ivanka Trump of all people. This, too, isn’t new, even if it’s new to Goldberg, as it was apparently omitted from the grievance studies syllabus.
According to Thompson, “Google creates the illusion that just ten search results reflect some meaningful judgment on a person’s life.” Via Scoresearcher, he notes that the first five results get 88% of the clicks.
A running “joke” around the blawgosphere is that you are what Google says you are. It didn’t start as a joke, but as a serious proposition by Adrianos Facchetti at one of the most ridiculous blogs around, Blog for Profit. Adrianos offered the proposition in support of his contention that any moron could create an internet persona of expertise by playing Google. Of course, he neglected to mention that creating the appearance of expertise isn’t exactly the same as having it, but then, that’s the nature of the beast.
When the Joneses bought that shiny new station wagon, you knew it because you saw it parked in their driveway. Today, your peer group is on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and you may never know whether a word they spew is true or just some persona they’ve create to be part of a group that will have them or collect validation that real life would never provide.
Goldberg, ironically no stranger to grift, uses what passes as an epiphany to those with an eight-second attention span to delve into the scam of bribing and cheating one’s children’s way into good colleges and mediocre. And as normal, misses the point.
The point is a very specific kind of exchange. Smart kids get to make connections with kids whose parents bought their way in, helpful since the rich kids are the ones who are likely to end up with power in the wider world. Rich kids learn to act smart. They all get a credential that entitles them to a higher place in the social hierarchy than they might have otherwise. In a highly stratified country, social mobility can be a confidence game.
Some parents will do what they can to help their children, to provide the pathway for a successful future. If money is their sharpest tool, they will use it. Other parents, who fail to see education as their path of social mobility, will use other means. Contrary to what is on the grievance study syllabus, there are some parents whose gift to their children is a street corner where they get to sell drugs. These aren’t necessarily poor parents, but they prefer to use their wealth in a less ephemeral economy.
But she misses an element of the “grift” committed by these moderately well-to-do parents who bought a side door to college because their kids weren’t getting in through the front door. Not only did Muffy get to go to Yale, but Mom and Dad got to tell the neighbors about their Yale-attending child. How humiliating it would be to have the neighbor’s little shit matriculating at Harvard when their baby was a star pupil at Busy Bee Junior College.
When the universe of people to impress was limited to those who lived on your block or worked in your office, it was a lot less costly and stressful. The “paradigmatic figures of our age” are motivated by the same nasty human need, but have to show they are Masters of the Universe to make a dent on a national, if not world, stage.
There have always been people running cons, grifters if you prefer, engaged in illegal conduct for financial gain at the expense of their marks. What’s different today is that we’re all marks for the con game, as well as players in the con game, trying to prove we’re not poseurs to our social media worlds, our ethereal peer group of pseudonyms who will follow us, like us, establish our one true value in the only universe we need to master.
After all, not everyone can write a column for the New York Times explaining why everything that existed long before we became woke is now new, special and different. There is something new, and it’s not that people lie, cheat and steal, but that the internet knows whether they have a shiny station wagon in the driveway. Or a child in Yale. Where will Goldberg’s child go? After all, it would reflect on her and could wreak havoc with her carefully-crafted social stature.