Tuesday, 28 October 2008

You can't knock a good mark

Shocking news from across the pond: US banks in receipt of their portion of the $700, 000, 000, 000 bailout may not put it to the good uses intended:

First, the $700 billion rescue for the economy was about buying devalued mortgage-backed securities from tottering banks to unclog frozen credit markets. Then it was about using $250 billion of it to buy stakes in banks. The idea was that banks would use the money to start making loans again.But reports surfaced that bankers might instead use the money to buy other banks, pay dividends, give employees a raise and executives a bonus, or just sit on it.

Those crazy bankers! Who could have predicted that they'd act irresponsibly with someone else's money? Among other people, David W Maurer, Professer Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Lousiville and author of "The Big Con". From his chapter on "The Mark", here's what he has to say about bankers:

Bankers, executors in charge of estates, trustees and guardians of trust funds sometimes succumb with surprising alacrity...Bankers, if they can be played at all, can be counted on to plunge heavily, for they can dip into bank funds with a view to reimbursing the bank once they have taken their profit.

Several instances of that ironical spectacle, one mark roping another, are reported by a mob operating in Florida. When a mark who is brought in expresses a desire to talk the matter over with his banker, he is (under certain circumstances) encouraged to do so. Sometimes the banker comes back with him, both of them well heeled for the play.

If you read Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling (and if you don't, you should) you might recognise some support for his low regard for the boss class here:

"Most marks come from the upper strata of society, which in America means they have made, married or inherited money. Because of this, they acquire status which in time they come to attribute to some inherent superiority, especially as regards matters of sound judgement in finance and investment. Friends and associates, themselves social climbers and sycophants, help to maintain this illusion of superiority. Eventually, the mark comes to regard himself as a person of vision and even genius...[he] easily forgets the part which luck and chicanery have played in his financial rise; he accepts his mantle of respectability without question; he naively attributes his success to sound business judgement."

Maurer's interest was the language of con-men*, but in the course of his studies he became so fascinated by the grift, and the insights it offered into human nature, that he wrote the definitive book. (Some scenes in The Sting, for example, are lifted pretty much intact.) The book was, of course, published in 1940 and is based on the golden age of the big con - c.1914-29. But we've all come a long way since then.

*"The best way to cool a heavy baby off is the cackle-bladder. Just plug the roper and watch the mark light a rag."

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