Is Frank Abagnale Still Conning Us?

Frank AbagnaleIf you know the name Frank Abagnale, it is probably from the film Catch Me If You Can or his autobiography of the same name. He’s one of those colorful characters that we Americans love. And as portrayed in the film, what’s not to like? It is the only movie in which I’ve actually liked Leonardo DiCaprio. In the film, Abagnale seems immature and lost and very much alone. We can forgive him for his trespasses. The real Abagnale is not so lovable. The thing you should know about him is that he’s a con man.

Abagnale started off defrauding his father and then worked his way into check fraud. Far from being immature, he managed to pull off many of his cons because he was large and looked old for his age. He ripped off a lot of people over the course of his criminal career. Hooray! But he is best known for having impersonated airline pilots, doctors, and lawyers. The problem is that there is very little documentation of many of his exploits. The primary documentation is from Frank Abagnale himself — a con man.

I remember watching some feature about the making of the film Catch Me If You Can. In it, someone mentioned how when Abagnale was on the set, he was the center of attention with everyone hanging on every word of his stories. And that makes sense because being charismatic and a good storyteller are critical to the con artist. So I wonder just what we are to make of Frank Abagnale. I tend to think that his story is not one of redemption, but rather just the extended story of a con artist who found a better way to pitch his con.

In 2002, Abagnale released a statement on his website claiming that his book was never meant to be an accurate autobiography. It was just his ghostwriter who “over dramatized and exaggerated some of the story.” He’s not willing to come out and say what is exaggerated. Instead, he immediately discussed some matters of fact that have nothing to do with the allegations people have made against him. In other words: he used the standard con man’s trick of misdirection.

Another aspect of Abagnale is the white privilege that he demonstrates. In his statement, he wrote:

In the U.S Federal Court, I was sentenced as a youthful offender because of my age at the time the crimes were committed. Even so, I was given 12 years of which I served a total of five years. This was considered harsh punishment then and almost unheard of today.

Not really. Just a week before he made his statement, Texas executed a young man for a murder he committed as a minor. But the truth is that after getting out of jail, far from suffering for the rest of his life under a felony conviction, Abagnale was able to use his criminal past to his benefit. I just don’t see that happening for him if he had been black or brown. Of course, his original crimes were likely only possible because he was white.

I have no doubt that Abagnale is a brilliant man. And I don’t begrudge him his life and his $10 million net worth. But it does bother me that he is held up as a hero. It’s very much like Jack Abramoff, but over a very long time. And no one ever mistook Abramoff for someone interesting. At least Abagnale — regardless of how much of a liar he may be — has interesting stories to tell.

“New Economy” Humbug

One Market Under GodThe new era came with a real-world price tag, and the things we permitted to happen just so that we could live in its brilliant light for a few years are things we may never be able to undo or escape. In other lands where the advance of free trade is cheered on by our columnists as the greatest sort of empowerment, the battle to make the world safe for outsourcing has turned as bloody as any of our own nineteenth-century labor wars. In Colombia, recipient of a billion-dollar Clinton administration military aid package, union organizers have been assassinated every year in such numbers (around three thousand overall since 1987) that in 1997 they accounted for fully 50 percent of the trade union activists murdered worldwide. Our political thinkers imagined our money frolicking open-mindedly through the economies of the world, chasing the best return without regard to color or creed. But what ensured those returns was not the “inevitability” of the microchip but the guns and the muscle and the hard unanswering face of economic power. Wherever one turned, old-fashioned coercion was the silent partner of “New Economy” ebullience.

Here at home the price was the destruction of the social contract of mid-century; the middle-class republic itself. Our portfolios may have appreciated graciously, but they did so only to the extent that we countenanced the reduction of millions to lives of casual employment without healthcare or the most elementary sort of workplace rights. We caught the tail end of the Qualcomm wave and pretended not to notice as sweatshops reappeared on our shores. We wondered like tots at the majesty of Cisco, at the generosity of Gates, and we stood by as the price of a good education for our kids ascended out of our reach.

The less tangible cost of consensus was the atrophy of the idea of conflict. Economic fairness, many of us came to believe, was something that just happened, that materialized at the mall like a new line of Pokémon products. Democracy was a thing served up to us like a Happy Meal; it required no effort on our part. To be sure, it had a mysterious, counterintuitive quality to it: if we unilaterally gave up our power to compell humane treatment from the boss, like magic there would come some karmic payoff, some show of money from heaven, some ten-bagger in Yahoo! If we acquiesced to the holy process of deregulation, to the tossing of millions of single mothers out into the labor force, we would one day stumble upon some vast picnic spread out just for our gratification by the Archer Daniels Midland Company or JDS Uniphase. Someday we, too, would be invited to help ourselfs to the complimentary after-dinner mints. To board at our leisure.

But for others of us — the ones with no access to the Senator’s ear or the hip ad agencies or the prime commercial time on CNBC — the nineties only sharpened the sense that something had gone drastically wrong. To the casualization of work, to the destruction of the social “safety net,” to the massive prison roundup, the powers of commerce added the staggering claim of having done it all on our behalf. Out of the roaring chaos of everyday speech, they told us, they could hear the affirmations rolling up; from the chirped warning of the car alarms to the screeching of the modems they could hear America singing. But the great euphoria of the late nineties was never as much about the return of good times as it was the giddy triumph of one America over another, of their “New Economy” over our New Deal. Though they banged the drum with a fervor almost maniacal, the language of the euphoria still rang so patently false, sounded so transparently self-serving that it threatened to collapse in on itself almost as quickly as it bubbled up from the talk shows and the celebrated think thanks. And in the streets and the union halls and the truck stops and the three-flats and the office blocks there remained all along a vocabulary of fact and knowing and memory, of wit and of everyday doubt, a vernacular that could not be extinguished no matter how it was cursed for “cynicism,” a dialect that the focus group could never quite reflect, the resilient language of democracy.

—Thomas Frank
One Market Under God

Conservative States Want Working Poor Punished

Michael HiltzikOn Friday, Michael Hiltzik wrote, In Obamacare Case, These Politicians Are Firing at Their Neediest Residents. It is about how people like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are big proponents of the King v Burwell case, even though it is going to hurt huge numbers of the people they nominally represent. In Florida, for example, the average Obamacare subsidy people get is more than 75% — changing premiums from $376 to $82. If the Supreme Court find for the plaintiffs King, it will cost Florida more than $5 billion per year. He ended the article by asking them a rhetorical question, “Who in the world do you think you represent?”

More interesting to me is that “the attorneys general of Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska, South Carolina and West Virginia” filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the plaintiffs. These are people who really should care about the practical side of governing. But ideology trumps all for these people, it would seem. Notice that they are running their states in exactly the opposite way that their beloved private sector would. This is a simple matter: the federal government is offering free money to the people of these states. And these ideologues think it is better to deprive them.

If they wanted to, people like Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who was apparently the guy who pushed this whole thing, could make the case that conservative Social Security recipients always make, “We paid for this!” Oklahoma could just say that they are already taxed and so it just makes sense for them to take the benefits. There is a strange kind of irrationality in all of this. Just the same, Pruitt isn’t directly affected: he will still get his government provided healthcare. He’s only screwing the people of Oklahoma. But it does bring us back to Hiltzik’s question: who does he think he represents?

Georgia, which was also part of this brief, has 90% of the people buying insurance on the individual market getting subsidies. Oklahoma has the lowest percentage at 81%. These are just not numbers that politicians would push against if we lived in an actual democracy. The areas that most need Obamacare are the ones most likely to be harmed by the wishes of their politicians. And notice: these are not those hated welfare recipients; these are the working poor. And they are the ones who Republicans throughout the country think need extra hardships lest they start feeling too good about their multiple minimum wage jobs and subsidized healthcare.

Meanwhile, these are the politicians who Scalia and Alito think will come to the rescue if the Supreme Court guts the healthcare law. Of course, I discussed this last week, Conservatives Want Obamacare Do-Over. Effectively, they want to require that Obamacare be passed twice — knowing full well that it was a herculean task the first time. But having politicians put “kick me” signs on the backs of their people shows that this is all about giving the Supreme Court political cover — and nothing more.

All of this goes a long way past people “voting against their interests.” I fully understand why a woman would vote against her economic interests in the name of stopping abortion. But this goes beyond that. Similarly, Sam Brownback totally screwed over his state’s economy, yet the “people” voted him back in by almost 4 percentage points. It seems that there is no level of incompetence or mindless ideology that can hurt you some places if you have an “R” after your name on the ballot. How bad will it have to get before things change? Is there a bottom? I’m beginning to think that there isn’t.

Zero Tolerance Used to Oppressed 11-Year-Old

Dan CaseyOne of the best things that John Belushi ever did on Saturday Night Live was a commentary about voting on Weekend Edition. The joke was, as always, that Belushi got totally carried away. But his reasoning was valid: the drug laws are ridiculously harsh. And he mentioned that there were people doing a decades in Texas prisons because someone found a cannabis seed on them. That’s still largely true. But nowhere is the total overreaction to drug use so extreme as it is in our schools where “educators” are only too proud of the “zero tolerance” programs.

To get a good idea of just how ridiculous such programs are, consider Bedford Middle School in Virginia. They aren’t messing around! That’s why they had to destroy an 11-year-old’s life. You see, he brought what looked like a cannabis leaf to school. He showed it to some of his fellow students. Someone ratted him out. Or at least, that’s what the school maintains; the boy claims this isn’t true; but that is the worst case for what he did: he was pretending that he had a tiny leaf from a plant that has been wrongly vilified in this country for decades. He was not only suspended for a year from school, but the administration handed the kid over to the police so that they too could bring their power to bear on destroying the young boy’s life. There was just one problem: it wasn’t a cannabis leaf. As you are probably aware, there are a lot of plants with leaves that look like cannabis. In fact, people joke about it all the time.

When a police officer came out to the school, she did a field test on the leaf — three times. It indicated that the leaf was not, in fact, cannabis — three times. But she arrested the boy anyway. She also swore to a magistrate that the boy was in possession of the illegal plant. And the school, of course, never thought twice — much less three times. The boy had to go. I’m sure in their mind, the very idea that the boy would claim that the leaf was cannabis is enough to damn the rest of his life. Zero tolerance! Am I right?!

After the police dropped the charges for lack of evidence, the boy’s parents, Linda and Bruce Bays, asked the school to rehear the case. But the school wouldn’t do it, claiming, “The court system and the school system were two different entities.” They don’t need no stinkin’ evidence! The school also required that this 11-year-old be evaluated for a substance abuse problem. It’s funny that our society has totally bought into the 12-step cult as a “cure” for drug addiction. But the founders of the 12-step movement would have thought the idea of an 11-year-old drug addict ridiculous.

Regardless, a pediatric psychiatrist found that the boy didn’t have a drug problem, but he was suffering from depression and anxiety as a result of the humane approach of this school’s “zero tolerance” program. After the psychiatrist recommended that the best thing was for the boy to go back to school, the administration relented and he was scheduled to return this week. But he will be on probation until the year is up on the suspension that they gave to him. Meanwhile, the Bays are suing the school and the sheriff’s department.

As expected, the school is arguing that even if the leaf wasn’t the real thing, just the idea that it was justified their actions. The Bays’ lawyer had a very good, although not necessarily legally powerful counter to that, “If the school argues now that they were justified in suspending him for possession of lookalike marijuana, that’s disingenuous because they’ve never argued that prior to the suit being filed.” Indeed. And regardless, the school is supposed to protect children, not abuse them.

The Bays think that their son was set up by a couple of boys who don’t like him. That’s certainly possible. But even if the kid is totally guilty, so what? In his report in The Roanoke Times, Dan Casey added a personal experience of his own:

Back when I was in the sixth grade, I did something similar. I scratched the raised letters BAYER off an aspirin and told another student it was LSD. I think my parents ended up getting a phone call from the school. When they asked me about it later, I told them it was a joke. That was true.

There were no consequences because this happened in 1969, long before an anti-drug fervor had gripped this nation to such an extent that school drug policies covered schoolboy pranks.

Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. How is the behavior of the school — regardless of its guidelines that were not developed in a rational manner, anyway — helpful to the process of protecting all the children at Bedford Middle School, much less the Bays’ son? Clearly, it doesn’t. They not only thought a year’s suspension was appropriate, they thought that giving an 11-year-old a felony was a good idea. And for what? Because he brought to school a single non-dried leaf of something that looked like Cannabis sativa? It’s outrageous. They should all be fired and never allowed around a child again. But of course that won’t happen.

Morning Music: J Cole

J ColeI was listening to a recent episode of Democracy Now! and they used a bit of this amazing song and so I had to find it. It was “Be Free” by J Cole. I had never heard of him before, of course. He was only born in 1985 and I don’t listen to much music that was even produced after that, so it isn’t surprising. But I get assaulted with so many American Idol shouters that I forget that there are a lot of people out there doing amazing work.

I will have to check out more of this work. From the little that I’ve listened to, it hearkens back to that old R&B music that we old white people like so much. I’m not surprised that he’s so popular.

Birthday Post: William Gibson

William Gibson“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” That’s the first sentence in William Gibson‘s iconic first novel, Neuromancer. And it is brilliant. It slams the reader into the world of virtual reality where the background is the pseudo-random noise of UHF on an old television. And today is Gibson’s 67th birthday.

I think that Gibson gets too much credit for being an innovator. The truth is that he didn’t move much past Philip K Dick. What’s more, Blade Runner came out right before Neuromancer was to be published, and Gibson went in and made changes to make the novel more distinct from the film. The point is: the concepts and that way of looking at the world were in the air.

But here’s the thing: as much as I love Dick’s work, he wasn’t nearly as good or interesting a writer as Gibson. As many people know, I am a pimp for films and books and music that I love. And one of those things I’m always pimping is what I think is Gibson’s first published short story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.” It is such a great story. In fact, it is the best thing he ever wrote. But short stories are like that. It is impossible to make novels perfect, and that’s most of what Gibson has written. But “Rose” is perfect. And it’s his birthday. It’s only 2,000 words — even I could read it in about five minutes! What are you waiting for? It’s online:

There was a film made based on what I think is Gibson’s worst work, Johnny Mnemonic. I actually think the film is pretty good. And I especially like this scene:

Anyway, happy birthday William Gibson!


After you read the story, you can check out my thoughts on it, Fragments of Reality.