We all know the familiar refrains: “If it seems too good to be true … it probably is.” Or this one: “You can’t get something for nothing.” Even though we know these statements are true, it is amazing how often people will disregard the warnings. And, when they do, what do they find? Of course, that they should have known all along and heeded the warnings. But they did not.
Apparently there’s something that is buried deep in the genes of humanity that causes us to interpret these warnings with our hearts, rather than our brains. This allows us to believe that – contrary to reality – some things can be better than logic portends. It lures us to believe, in our hearts, that it is actually possible to get something for nothing. And because there’s a sucker born every minute who ignores reality, there has never been a shortage of scamsters ready to prey on their weak-mindedness.
The Scam Artists are Everywhere
What could be a more classic example of this wishful thinking than the ubiquitous “Ponzi” scheme? Were it not for our willingness to suspend our belief that we can actually get something for nothing, we would likely think “Ponzi” was some type of pizza.
It is quite impossible to list all the examples of financial chicanery that have succeeded due to those willing to believe the unbelievable. But take a closer at the marks in these schemes. When we read about Madoff and others of his ilk, we might like to think that the folks who fall prey to these financial frauds are the uneducated, unsophisticated and aged, yet the opposite is true. Madoff preyed on the educated, the sophisticated and the most successful among us, to the tune of $50 billion. People who should have known – maybe even did know – that what Madoff offered was too good to be true, fell the hardest. Sure, some used their brains to avoid or whistleblow Madoff and his scheme, but these were voices in the wildernesss and universally ignored. Why? Because the victims wanted to believe – with all their hearts – that this time, they would get something for nothing. When the truth was exposed, the victims bemoaned their losses and Madoff was sent off to jail for 13,000 years, but the reality is that most of the victims should blame themselves just as much, perhaps even more so, than Madoff.
Madoff Victims Aren’t Alone: You are at times Victim of this Shallow Thinking, Too
Advertisers have long predicated their campaigns on our willingness to suspend our belief in reality. Drink the right beer and capture the prettiest girls. Brush on wrinkle remover and you get the hottest guys. Wear push-up bras and guys will follow you like bees to honey. (Well, that might be true.) Take a pill made up of ground-up cactus pulp and protect against colon cancer. (You have never seen a cactus with colon cancer, have you?) You get the point. Advertising would not be nearly as successful without our willingness to believe what we want to believe – no matter how ludicrous the claim.
As egregious as the actions of the Madoffs and advertisers may be, the pièce dé resistance for taking advantage of our willingness to suspend belief in reality clearly goes to politicians. They are schooled in how to effectively make promises that are too good to be true and suggesting these promises can be had for nothing – but our vote. And, we believe them! Not only do we believe them, but we want them to feed us such blather. Is it any wonder that the shelf life of a politician who is candid, seeks to explain the reality of what is possible and transparent about the costs and benefits of government actions is about as short as a dish of ice cream in a microwave.
George H. W. Bush (the father) was elected (as were many others) on a bushelful of promises as to what government would do for people. This was coupled with the famous quote, “Read my lips. No new taxes” and you all know what what happened (Mondale had acknowledged that in order to give the people what they were asking for, then taxes would have to be raised.) Obama promised, “Change you can believe in!” He did not explain that change would mean more government and that we would have to pay for change. (Of course, McCain did not explain anything and wanted to put Sarah Palin a heart-beat away from the Presidency.) When Obama offered change he basically appealed to our desire to get something for nothing.
Now, it’s the Tea Party-supported candidates who are making promises too good to be true – and at no apparent cost – and many are buying into their pitch. Their words are a raw appeal to our frustrated emotions caused by the very guileful politicians we elected, based on their promises of something too good to be true and then raising our ire by not delivering.
The approach of the Tea Party candidates is even more dishonest than the promises made by traditional politicians. They want us to believe that if we simply eliminate Social Security, Medicare, Health Care, Federal funding for education, government regulation of business and combine two or three of the Cabinet level agencies into one, then virtually all taxes can be eliminated, we can once again be totally responsible for our lives and all will be wonderful. Even Bernie Madoff – as good as he was – would never have considered making such outlandish claims.
This reminds me of the politics in Key West. Frustrated by the intrusions, frustrations and challenges of an economy based on transient tourism, many of the “locals” respond to the politicians who promise to eradicate tourism. These politicos promise to return Key West to the romanticized “way it was.” It is a promise too good to be true and would come with great cost. What they don’t mention is that the Key West of the past was an economically depressed backwater of mosquito-infested mangroves; with no jobs (except for a thriving pirate industry) and no future. And yet, despite the reality that what they promise is neither possible nor desired, those politicians making such promises of “no growth” invariably win.
On the national stage, there is no doubt that Tea Party followers are passionate, sincere and committed to what the politicians promise to deliver. However, if forced to think about these promises logically, it would be obvious to all that the pledge to eviscerate key government services will allow for the elimination of taxes and make all things better, is a promise that is too good to be true and in the long run will cost more for all of us. Yet, in their heart, voters want to believe that the promises are not too good to believe, and it is to the heart, not the mind that Tea Party politicians and others appeal.
There is no doubt that many of the Tea Party supported politicians will be elected. Then, when the idealism and cost for what they propose is exposed to the reality of practicality and cost, the voters will be only further deceived and frustrated. They might have been better off believing the promises of Madoff.
And the Moral of the Story …
So long as we remain willing to suspend our belief in reality, continue to be susceptible to promises that are too good to be true and believe that we can actually get something for nothing, we will be easy prey for financial scammers, advertising hacks and – worst of all – politicians who know the way to winning elections is through our hearts, not our minds
And, as frustrating as that may be, we will have no one to blame but ourselves. Albert Einstein, when he wasn’t developing his theory of relativity, got it right when he said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Now, go to the polls and vote with your head—not your heart.