Glen W. Turner was an American con man. Helaine Olen writes in The Washington Post:
Turner, the son of a sharecropper, told people they could all be rich and successful like him — if, that is, they made an investment in his multi-level marketing company. They would peddle “mink oil” makeup and his “Dare to Be Great” motivational tapes, and collect more money by recruiting others and taking a percentage on their sales.
When newly minted salespeople found it impossible to make a go of it, they were told to “fake it until you make it,” by wearing expensive clothes and waving around $100 bills to lure in others, a disillusioned Oregon recruit testified in court in 1972. A few months later, another seller would tell a Florida courtroom that he, too, had been instructed to “fake it till you make it.” When the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against Turner’s company, a judge cited the phrase as evidence of malfeasance.
Turner has long been forgotten. But his motto lives on. In fact, it has become the conventional wisdom:
Today, the phrase is also a way to push back on the feelings of self-doubt we call impostor syndrome, or to put forward an advantageous personal or professional confidence we might not entirely feel.
But faking it in matters of money is another matter entirely. Traditionally, businesses have had to state their returns using metrics that can only be faked by lying. Martha Stewart sparked headlines in 2005 when she fired a contestant on “The Apprentice” who embraced the phrase. “In my business, there’s just no faking it,” Stewart said.
Stewart was behind the societal curve. Even as she spoke, the housing bubble — riven with fraud committed (and invited) by banks, ratings agencies, mortgage brokers and appraisers — was growing bigger. And the Wells Fargo C-suite was looking the other way as employees, desperate to meet unrealistic sales quotas, opened millions of fake bank and credit card accounts. (As for “The Apprentice’s” more famous host — Donald Trump, a nepo baby who cosplayed a successful mogul on the show — we all know how that turned out.)
The election of Ronald Reagan marked the beginning of an era of worshiping wealth, one in which more and more people came to believe that anything that made money was by definition a success. As inequality grew, almost all gains went to those already at the top, leaving many convinced that pretending to be on top already was the best way to make it so. Corporate shareholders began to prioritize quarterly profits over long-term results. At the same time, the federal government became less likely to prosecute obvious malfeasance. As we transitioned from a society that manufactured things to one whose products were intangible, reality was increasingly in the eye of thebeholder — or the pitchman.
These circumstances have led us into a society that is both more cynical and more predatory, both more receptive to and encouraging of outright fakers. “The con artist became a business model,” says Micki McGee, author of “Self-Help, Inc.” “It’s only in a market-worshiping economy that you can say defrauding people in the interest of profit would somehow be okay.”
And so here we are. Are we having fun?
Image: Inova Consultancy