Does Big Franchising at least legitimize The Big Con?

September 7, 2008

I have been reading a neat book called The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by a dead American linguistics professor called David Warren Maurer.

This is what Wikipedia has to say that is catching my eye:

Maurer spent his career recording the argot of moonshiners and pickpockets, but The Big Con is his masterwork. …The Big Con reeks of 10,000 conversations in poolrooms and Pullman cars; its sentences ring with the raffish patois of ’20s and ’30s Americans on the move. “I’d sooner be a lamster any day than be tied up to a lop-eared mark,” grouses one sharpie stuck with simpleminded prey.

While working on his magnum opus, Maurer won the trust of hundreds of swindlers, who let him in on not simply their language, but their folk-ways and the astonishing complex and elaborate schemes whereby unsuspecting marks, hooked by their own greed and dishonesty, were “taken off” – i.e. cheated – of thousands upon thousands of dollars. The products of amazing ingenuity, crack timing, and attention to every last detail, these “big cons” richly deserve Maurer’s description as “the most effective swindling device which man has ever invented.”. The Big Con is a treasure trove of American lingo (the write, the rag, the payoff, ropers, shills, the cold poke, the convincer, to put on the send) and indelible characters (Yellow Kid Weil, Barney the Patch, the Seldom Seen Kid, Limehouse Chappie, Larry the Lug). It served as the source for the Oscar-winning film The Sting and will delight fans of such writers as David Mamet, Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, and William Burroughs for its droll, utterly authoritative look at the timeless pursuit of relieving one’s fellow man on his surplus cash.

And an except of a book review from the Mad Professor:

If you’ve seen The Sting, then you have the basic idea of how a big con works. It’s basically a theatrical production with elaborate sets and costumed actors for an audience of one. But the audience member thinks the production is real, and ends up losing his life savings by the time the curtain closes. The two most surprising things I learned from reading this book: one, the con men, who work so hard to set up a con and take the mark’s money, usually blow their cut immediately by gambling it away, and two, the victims of cons often return to the con men to get fleeced again, even when they know they were conned the first time.

To me, the second point is crucial: Maurer says the swindlers tell him that over 50% of victims get taken at least 2 times. Many get taken several times…by the same play [versions of the big con].

Another review which ends with the following question:

…where is the big con today?

Fueled with SBA or other easy credit, almost anyone can be roped into the next half-assed, unproven franchise scheme. They don’t just take your current dough and leave you with a warm feeling for the inside man, they take your future life savings, labour and often your health. And your spouse’s too.

  • You end up broke, gagged, shamed and most dangerous of all, unaware of how to learn from these experiences.

Big Franchising acts [alone or as a tag team: see Australia lawmaking] to protect their legitimate business interests which is fair in a market-driven democracy. But by doing so, they create a legal  and political influence umbrella that nourishes a commercial cancer called mom and pop franchise opportunism.

Economics classifies this out-of-control negative growth (cancer) an externality,


The Philosophy of taking a Loss

March 28, 2008

The Sting, 1973 movie, 7 Academy awardsThis is a very interesting article picked up by an excellent law weblog. In Cooling the Mark Out, sociologist Erving Goffman says:

The confidence of the mark is won, and he is given an opportunity to invest his money in a gambling venture which he understands to have been fixed in his favor The venture, of course, is fixed, but not in his favor.

The mark is permitted to win some money and then persuaded to invest more. There is an “accident” or “mistake,” and the mark loses his total investment.

The operators then depart in a ceremony that is called the blowoff or sting. They leave the mark but take his money.

The mark is expected to go on his way, a little wiser and a lot poorer.

Of course, sometimes something wises the victim:

In order to avoid this adverse publicity, an additional phase is sometimes added at the end of the play.

It is called cooling the mark out.

After the blowoff has occurred, one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his teammates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation.

An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss. [my emphasis]

Brilliant. Check out the rest of Michael Webster’s excellent weblog, The Bizop News. It is a must read if you want to understand the psychology and law of fraud.

The original article, On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure, University of Chicago.

Fascinating and very applicable whenever the fraud sausage explodes, to use one of Michael’s vivid expressions.


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