The death of J.D. Salinger left me thinking about my favorite of his stories, “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” in his collection 9 Stories. The short story is about a young artist who gets a job at a Montreal correspondence art academy based on a contrived professional reputation. The story devolves into typically Salinger-esque mysticism as De Daumier-Smith’s one talented student – a cloistered nun – provokes his redemption with her religious paintings. But the part of the story I found most striking was De Daumier-Smith’s relationship with the Yoshotos, the married couple that runs Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres, the Canadian correspondence school. The 19 year old is clearly scamming the old couple with his forged relationship with Picasso, but the Yoshotos are in turn scammning their students with false promises and forged accreditation to match the imaginative resume of their employee. With his characters, Salinger illustrates the interlocking cons that seem to comprise so many contemporary work environments.
At every job I’ve ever held there has been a feeling that everyone, on every day they’re not fired, is getting away with something. The knowledge that your boss and your boss’s boss are doing the same thing does some work in allaying the guilt. Contemporary representations of work environments, from “The Office” to Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to The End, contain universal incompetence and irrelevance. No one is good at their jobs and the ones who are still don’t seem to be producing anything. Hamsters get off their wheels and look guiltily over their shoulders to make sure no one saw they spent the day just running, and not even fast the whole time. And to think they feed us for this stuff! Increasingly precarious labor and withered unions have made layoffs a common management cost-cutting technique, which makes each day like a game of hide-and-seek with employees snickering under beds while bosses smile to themselves about how much they’re getting paid to look half-heartedly around for derelict employees. Ultimately of course, all this conning filters to the shareholders, customers or taxpayers. In a con, even with interlocking cons, someone loses.
The notion of interlocking cons describes no current societal institution better than the Republican Party. Perhaps one of the consequences of building a group out of a common love of capitalism is you attract a lot of people trying to make a buck. Sarah Palin might be the dominant (at least media) personality in the Party and yet she still seems like nothing more than a bumbling scam artist. Everything about Palin from the notes on her palm to the circuitous and empty speeches indicates that she is in far over her head, and yet she seems to be getting away with it. Most importantly, she is still cashing in, through book sales and speaking fees. Her daughter Bristol even started a political consulting firm as a fairly obvious precursor to money laundering. The all-American narrative of the Alaskan hockey mom is more American than we could have originally imagined – she’s a small-town con putting one over on the big-shots who run national politics and media. They think she’s a legitimate voice on foreign policy, what suckers!
But of course the upper levels of the Republican party or what’s left of the conservative movement don’t take Palin seriously as a foreign policy expert – except possibly Bill Kristol who is either running his own ridiculous scam or is the single biggest mark in the world. The Party itself is the larger con, whereby corporate elites convince working-class people that they care about God and America in order to further their own narrow class interests. While Palin must be giddy that they seem not to realize she has no idea what she’s talking about, the party overlords are positively ecstatic that she has convinced so many people that the G.O.P. gives a crap about them. Scams within scams, cons on top of cons. And that’s not even including Michael Steele who has turned his own incompetence into a selling point, daring the elders to fire him for making money off speaking engagements and writing a book without telling anyone. Glenn Beck and the rest of the conservative media cadre are possibly the best cons in the group; they do the dirty work of convincing the working-class base to listen to and trust political elites who have only the thinnest veneer of populist appeal. (For the best description of this particular scam, check out David Foster Wallace’s essay “Host,” it’s the last one in Consider the Lobster). Think of famous con man with a heart of gold Harold Hill in The Music Man who denounces the sin of billiards to sell the town on a band – the classic Republican threat of impending immorality. In the group of clever knaves – the economics term for people who cheat or cut corners without facing the regulating consequences – that is the Republican party, the prominent people all find a way to profit off the structure, which consists definitionally in taking out more than one puts in. No wonder the Party is crumbling. Ezra Klein recently called the Republicans a “party without grown-ups,” but isn’t the problem that they have too many grown-ups? There’s no shred of child-like idealism in the G.O.P., just the very adult knowledge of how to get yours.
The Democrats do not have nearly the same enduring operation as the Republicans, and the left-wing funding conspiracy is considerably smaller than its counterpart. Democrats largely lack the ability to con and as a result rely on not being completely delusional and suggesting possibly useful policy to get votes. Sometimes this works, but it rarely reaches people on the populist gut-level that the scammers on the other side rely on. As a result, the Democrats find themselves constantly responding to stories concocted by amateurs only a few rungs up from Nigerian princes e-mailing you about an exciting offer. In the case of Glenn Beck selling gold, we’re talking very few rungs up.
Something that is so clearly a scam to get people to panic and buy a product has a real effect on politics. People not only buy gold, they call their representatives and want to know what they’re doing about the government’s plot to pay off its debts with inflation. The Democrats end up compromising on a stimulus plan, partly due to worries it would yield runaway inflation. All this happens while the inflation rate hovers around zero percent. If the Republicans are the con man Hill in The Music Man, then the Democrats are Marian, the librarian who tries to tell the townspeople that Hill lacks credentials, but is interrupted by the arrival of shiny new band instruments. A good con is so distracting that it doesn’t matter that someone has figured it out, no one will listen to them anyway. Since the Republicans have appropriated the image of working-class respectability, Democrats can’t call them liars without being in turn called elitists. Technocrats might be hard to scam, but no one wants to believe them when they tell you to ignore the fantastic calls of carnival barkers. The Republicans make governing sound really easy and no one wants to be told that it’s actually so Byzantine that they can’t possibly understand it, never mind come to a well-reasoned policy position. This strategy works because the Democrats are technocratic elites with a dominating and unreasonable faith in their ability to solve structural social problems with policy tinkering. The Republicans acknowledge that they have to pretend that our society is based on the people’s desires, while the Democrats do no such thing. That said, the vast majority of Democrats are willing to engage in the same sorts of scams as Republicans, especially when it comes to convincing people to support massive government bailouts for their backers on Wall Street.
The Tea Party is really the Republican Party par excellence, the overriding principle taken to its extreme bound. Nixon and his cronies would be ashamed at how blatant and inartful the backers of the “grassroots” movement have been. It’s no secret that the people who buy Palin’s book or pay the exorbitant Tea Party Convention registration fee are the ones being scammed and that the backing organizations’ resolutely pro-corporate agenda is out of harmony with the “movement’s” populist tenor. The ultimate political con is a crusade against letting the people get conned by politicians – think about the recurring cosmetic fights over earmark spending.
What Salinger gives us are the insights that respectability can always be bought and that institutions are ultimately the people that they contain. Post-industrial capitalism in which production is more difficult to measure than in tons of steel or number of cars provides the conditions for interlocking cons like the one at play in Salinger’s story. With no good metric to measure how an advertising copy-writer is producing, as in Ferris’s novel, s/he has an incentive to try to profit by putting less into the job than s/he takes home in pay. There’s no reason to think that parties, which are at the same time paying out a lot of money to a lot of people and profoundly impacting our political culture, would operate differently. The result is a political culture in which institutional respectability hides profound and petty corruption alike. The current gridlock makes a lot more sense in light of these institutional factors, and until people throw out the con artists and the structures that create them, I don’t know that we can hope for much better.