Streetcorner MBA

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_D5C5045brianby Brian Clarey

We’re out front of the record store, trying to get noticed by passing cyclists and soaking in a little midafternoon sun, when the conversation wanders towards the nature of the grift.

Anthony knows about the grift: He saw a whole army of practitioners flood San Francisco during the first dotcom boom, watched the tide recede as the short con played out and bore witness to the next encroachment, a magnificent reload that has by now ensnared much of the American Northwest.

Anthony’s never going back. Even Winston-Salem, he admits, is getting a little too saturated for his tastes, gesturing to all the new people in his neighborhood who wear ID badges everywhere they go.

But back to the grift….

For all their reliance on deception, most grifts are pretty straightforward: You give me this now, and I will not give you the thing I said you would get for it.

But it’s the intricacies that make each grift special. I once watched a man who called himself “Dixie Brown” walk out of town after a few months with five figures of other people’s money by spinning the most beautiful set of lies you ever saw. Each stood just fine on its own, but as a body of work they were spectacular, dovetailing into each other and weaving without friction through inconsistencies. He got me for a hundred bucks there near the end, and I feel like he earned it.

For it to be a true grift, Anthony and I agree, someone’s got to get the shaft.

But I tell Anthony that it’s not really a grift, no matter how raw a deal, if both parties genuinely feel, even after the smoke clears, that they got something out of it, like with a timeshare or a leased sports car or a benevolent cult.

“I guess so,” he says. “When both sides get something, that’s just business. And it can get a little greasy, but it’s legit.”

And we hold that a true grift must incorporate some sort of fraud: a big lie, like Bernie Madoff’s bogus stock portfolios, Enron’s cooked books or even a bunch of Facebook fans who don’t exist.

But just as crucial to the game as the action of the perpetrator is the motivation of the mark.

They have to want to believe.

That’s how my generation — Generation X, that is — bilked the corporate squares and suits back in the 1990s: by convincing them that the game was about to change.

Make no mistake: It was. But between the foosball tables and stock options, most of corporate American still got caught flatfooted. And now we have Mark Cuban.

Regretfully, neither Anthony nor I got our beaks wet on that particular scheme. Had we been involved in that great liberation of wealth, perhaps we might not be sitting on a streetcorner in front of a record store in the middle of the day.