Reflections on the known universe… Cher has spoken.
by Kurt True


Cher, New York City, 20 January 2017

Cher, New York City, 20 January 2017

Have you ever had the experience where you feel like you're noticing a trend, and you say to yourself "Is this a trend? I'm not sure. It feels like a trend."

Well, I've had that feeling the past week or so. I've felt as if I'm seeing a trend. The trend I'm seeing is this: a growing interest in stories of charismatic figures who rise to power only to be exposed as charlatans and then cast aside by their disillusioned followers.

So I've been asking myself "Is this a trend? It feels like a trend, but is it really a trend? I dunno."

And then yesterday I was listening to Cher on MSNBC, and Cher, speaking of the incoming President, said this:

If 'Network' married 'Face in the Crowd' and you've got I don't even know what you got out of that. You know, he's he's that kind of Joseph McCarthy kind of person.

And I said to myself "Well, that settles it. It's definitely a trend."

Because for someone who came of age in this country in the era when I came of age, Cher is the Arbiter of All Trends. If Cher's doing it, it's a trend.

So allow me to jump on this trend before it gains such momentum as to sink my humble efforts under the force of its looming wake. I'm going to recommend a biography originally published in 2003, Drake's Fortune, by Richard Rayner. It is the story of a con artist.

Not just any con artist. A con artist who managed to keep the same con going for years, collecting millions of dollars from tens of thousands of marks who organized themselves into groups, and attended regular meetings where they lent encouragement to one another and sang the praises of their hero, him being the afore-mentioned con artist.

The con artist's name was Oscar Hartzell, and the con he practiced was not his own invention. It was an old con that he had refined and improved upon. Here's how the con worked: the marks would make donations to a fund whose aim was to recover and restore to its rightful heir the estate of Sir Francis Drake, British explorer, privateer and all-around swashbuckling opportunist.

The donation would then entitle the mark to a share of the estate, once recovered. The scam promised a return on investment somewhere in the neighborhood of ten-thousand-to-one. Give Hartzell a hundred dollars, and you could expect a million-dollar payout, more or less, once the British courts settled all claims on the Drake estate, valued by Hartzell in 1924 at some $20 billion.

Of course, there was no Drake estate. Well, maybe there was a Drake estate in the sense that Sir Francis Drake, who died off the coast of Panama on 28 January 1596, had heirs, and those heirs had heirs and so on through the generations, but there was no disputed Sir Francis Drake estate that you could stake a claim to.

As you might expect, Hartzell's scam attracted the attention of journalists and public figures who expressed profound skepticism. Hartzell, who worked his scam largely out of the London Western Union office, reacted to bad press and unfriendly official inquiry by lashing out with angry telegrams, remarkable for their vitriolic incoherence.

And the marks kept believing, right to the bitter end. And beyond. Even after Hartzell had been exposed and prosecuted, his victims were pleading for his release and acquittal. They were desperate people, for the most part, small town Midwesterners, largely bypassed by the boom of the 1920s and generally pauperized by the Great Depression. Hartzell represented for them a last hope. He was, in their view, a financial wizard who would rescue his believers from the devastation wrought by Washington insiders, Wall Street swindlers and other powerful, shadowy forces.

I wonder if you could make the Sir Francis Drake scam work in another country. I don't think you could. I think there's something about the American character that makes us want to believe that there exists some vast unclaimed fortune that the vast majority of us have been snookered out of, and if we can only figure out how to make the right connections and negotiate the right deals, we can grab our fair share of that fortune.

After all, we know we live in a land of limitless resources, right? Because even if you weren't paying attention in school when the teacher told you you lived in a land of limitless resources, you can't help but notice. All you have to do is get in your car and drive from one major population center to another, and that's all you see is resources-- timber, fisheries, arable land, oil wells, freight trains loaded with ore, lumbering towards some distant navigable waterway.

For those of us who grew up in humble circumstances, or who live in humble circumstances, how do we reconcile our awareness of all that abundance with our own personal experience, shabby and disappointing as it might be?

Well, we could study economic theory, but that can be a tedious and time consuming practice. It's far less tedious, and, I suppose, far more comforting, to embrace a hopeful narrative about a hero who will reward us with a rational and just distribution of our nation's resources.

But that hero doesn't exist. Such a hero has never existed, as far as we know, in any nation at any point in human history. What exists, what has always existed, is all of us. All of us workers, all of us consumers, all of us makers of things and doers of stuff. Us. Millions of us. We, the people.

We are the economic force that creates all fortunes, that allocates all resources. We decide what kinds of fortunes to create, what kind of economic system to live in. We can decide to live in a system based on greed, deception, exploitation and artificial scarcity, or we can decide to live in a system based on cooperation, kindness, mercy and compassion.

So you make your decision, and I'll make mine, and who knows? Maybe we'll start a trend.

Kurt True
21 jan 2017
Helpful links…

Drake's Fortune

Drake's Fortune, by Richard Rayner, on Goodreads.



Cher's MSNBC interview on the youtube.