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Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff

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The United States has always proved an inviting home for boosters, sharp dealers, and outright swindlers. Worship of entrepreneurial freedom has complicated the task of distinguishing aggressive salesmanship from unacceptable deceit, especially on the frontiers of innovation. At the same time, competitive pressures have often nudged respectable firms to embrace deception. As a result, fraud has been a key feature of American business since its beginnings. In this sweeping narrative, Edward Balleisen traces the history of fraud in America--and the evolving efforts to combat it--from the age of P. T. Barnum through the eras of Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff.

Starting with an early nineteenth-century American legal world of "buyer beware," this unprecedented account describes the slow, piecemeal construction of modern regulatory institutions to protect consumers and investors, from the Gilded Age through the New Deal and the Great Society. It concludes with the more recent era of deregulation, which has brought with it a spate of costly frauds, including the savings and loan crisis, corporate accounting scandals, and the recent mortgage-marketing debacle.

By tracing how Americans have struggled to foster a vibrant economy without enabling a corrosive level of fraud, this book reminds us that American capitalism rests on an uneasy foundation of social trust.

496 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2017

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Edward J. Balleisen

6 books4 followers

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5 stars
3 (3%)
4 stars
13 (14%)
3 stars
33 (37%)
2 stars
24 (27%)
1 star
15 (17%)
Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews
Profile Image for Ailith Twinning.
649 reviews35 followers
June 6, 2017
Eh, more 2.5 than 3, but read it anyway, it's good for you.

This book is just damn boring. It's written, I really don't know -- it's almost like a stream of news headlines. It's just fact after disjointed fact, that gains some cohesion towards the very very end, but eschews any investigation at all.

Here's just one problem, but it bothers me a lot: The attempt to be unbiased is, in fact, bias. Like Fox News saying the jury is still out on Climate Change, here's two scientists to discuss it -- when often one or both parties are literally being bribed for the appearance and anyway the "jury" is currently 97/3, so presenting it as 50/50 is just inherently dishonest.. . . . The reality is that no stew of interpretations are ever equally valid, that's just damn nonsense, there is objective fact and there is probable truth, and refusing to engage either is just pseudo-intellectual bullshit.

To credit the author; I'm pretty sure he has a distinct opinion, pretty sure I know what it is too, and would absolutely believe (not that I am suggesting) he was told to purge it from his work -- but no matter the reason, because the reason doesn't matter so much as the result, the result is that the book is boring as hell and offers almost no actual arguments just "He said, they said, she did, he did" statements from history.

Basically, the book should have embraced the argument at hand, and been interesting -- rather than provide exactly the arguments as preserved, and no more. As just one example -- the book provides many claims of the possible value, and of the possible corruption, of the BBB -- but never makes judgement on any of it except to acknowledge what the BBB said in response.

I know investigative history is hard, and often outright impossible, so an iron-clad proof of the truth of any argument for or against the BBB is damn hard to make -- but not trying is not a useful compromise.

Morever -- historians have this weird idea that they shouldn't comment on things that happened within a generation or two. That's also just damn stupid -- why in the hell would you wait for the best documentation and proof of historical fact to disappear before you start talking about it? It's stupid as hell at best, and suspicious as shit otherwise.
Profile Image for Popup-ch.
760 reviews15 followers
June 4, 2017
The book is explicitly American, which means that it misses out on the earlier history, such as the South Sea bubble, but given the connection with America, I would have expected to see at least a mention of John Law's Mississippi project.

It also explicitly excludes individuals defrauding each other (con-men) and corporations (e.g. insurance fraud).

Given the fairly narrow scope (American frauds committed on a large scale by companies or company-like structures), the book is surprisingly long. The audiobook runs for almost 20 hours, and it sounds like a long laundry-list of mail fraud and bogus investment companies.

I gave up at about the half-way point, by which time I already knew much more than I would ever have imagined possible about the competitive state of the 19th century mail-order market.
Profile Image for Robin Jose.
152 reviews2 followers
November 9, 2018
How can a book talking about fraud be so unexciting? It comes across as comprehensive and thoughtful, but is handled in a pure historian style of literature. There’re lots of facts, serious analysis, and complex connections of business, law, ethics, politics and more. But there’s no spark, no style.  

It’s not a bad book by any means. You need to be invested in the subject to appreciate it. It just seems like a book intended for professors and students studying fraud as a class book topic. Clearly, not my cup of tea.
Profile Image for Andrew Breza.
372 reviews24 followers
December 16, 2020
An overview of different approaches the United States has taken towards combating fraud. They can generally be broken into caveat emptor, industry self-regulation (e.g. the Better Business Bureau), administrative bodies (FTC, FDA, CFPB), and judicial action. It's interesting to see how the country has moved between these different approaches over the years. The author gives a straightforward history with only a little opinion (which is clearly marked as such). This book is worth reading for students of the history of American business and government.
1,759 reviews11 followers
May 9, 2017
(Audiobook). I found myself split on what to rate this book. If this rating scheme offered 1/2s, then I would give this a 2.5 rating. The topic is timely, especially with the Great Recession and all the stories of financial and internet fraud. What this work highlights is that for the entire history of America, especially in business and financial transactions, there is always fraud in tow. The issues that faced individuals in the past, such as the inherent weaknesses of people to fall for such schemes, the ability of those who propagate these schemes usually find ways to keep at it, and that legal enforcement is always seemingly behind the curve in fighting these crimes. Whether it is old-school mail order fraud or internet crimes involving stocks and investments, fraud is a constant. However, the presentation of the material, while detailed, is not engaging, and the work does bog down in legal details, which will turn off many readers. Perhaps not the best audiobook to try if looking for engaging material. The subject and facts are good, but the presentation (content organization, etc) leaves something to be desired.
Profile Image for Erick.
558 reviews3 followers
July 11, 2018
This book reads like a history of fraud regulations. Candy for lawyers maybe, but for everyone else? Sooooooo boring. I literally said that to myself over and over as I tried to trudge through the endless droll text. I kept stopping and starting and eventually just turned in the towel before the end because I figured not finishing would add several happy hours onto my life that I would've otherwise spent banging my head against this book.
Profile Image for Gwen.
65 reviews
June 4, 2020
The subtitle, An American History from Barnum to Madoff, is somewhat misleading. Balleisen certainly covers various types of fraud and many colorful perpetrators throughout history, but the main aim of this book is to document how government and industry have attempted to curtail fraud and reckon with those who commit it. The value of the book is in the detailed exploration of the back-and-forth between those who want to look out for consumers (the caveat venditor crowd), and those in the caveat emptor contingent who believe, as did Barnum, that consumers are capable of looking after themselves, and if they fall victim to fraud, they have only themselves to blame.

Unfortunately, although Balleisen’s research is impeccable, his writing style is very academic, which makes for a tedious reading experience. The audiobook, soullessly narrated by Tom Perkins, makes this a long, drawn-out affair.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,165 reviews27 followers
September 23, 2022
This book seems to have a lot of bad reviews on here and lower stars than it probably should have. It is not quite what I thought it would be — it is less about obvious frauds and more of a semi-academic look at the continuum between marketing and fraud. The first half of the book is fairly interesting in that regard, as it goes into a lot of detail about how, as advertising and marketing started to professionalize, the US culture and government started grappling with the issue of what counts as fraud.

It gets fuzzier and unfortunately a bit more political as it gets towards the end of the book, which I found less useful to be honest. I think this would be good source material for a more interesting book that treats the same topic not as a history but as a philosophical and practical question of what it means to be fraudulent.

2.5 of 5 stars
Profile Image for Chase.
29 reviews1 follower
June 9, 2023
Contains tons of info and seems to be incredibly well-researched. But it’s written in one of the most inaccessible dry styles I think I’ve ever seen in a book. It almost comes across like every third word or phrase got the thesaurus treatment, and each sentence got dragged out to hit a word count.
Also, I would be very curious if anyone has a count on the number of times the author uses the word “duplicity.”

It’s a real shame, as this could have been a fantastic source for people to get a solid historical overview of American fraud. Instead, it’s an unnecessarily difficult and dry read that does nothing but get in its own way.
Profile Image for Charles E..
Author 1 book16 followers
March 11, 2018
I liked the book but the writing style is a bit dense and feels more like a textbook. I liked the historical description of past frauds and the relationship between new market development and the arrival of fraud. It also has a good perspective about the relationship between caveat emptor and govern regulation.

My one complaint is that there is very little treatment of Madoff despite the title.
Profile Image for Casey.
1 review2 followers
October 1, 2018
I am not sure why this book is marketed towards non-academic readers. It is written (well, considering) for an audience of legal scholars and historians, tracking the evolution (or continuity) of laws, regulations and attitudes towards fraud from the nineteenth century to present. If you want a popular history with stories of scams, look elsewhere.
34 reviews
January 4, 2020
One of the few books I've tapped out on in recent years. Maybe I burned out on this topic, but this just kind of meandered through broad overviews too much. Kind of a like a cheap TV show about serial killers in general: too much listing of generally bad events without enough discussion, conclusions, or reason to keep reading about them.
Profile Image for Lari.
193 reviews20 followers
March 3, 2021
Very dense reading, but also contains so much information on fraud through American History.
Profile Image for Phaedra.
14 reviews
Want to read
February 6, 2017
There are few fraudsters who aren’t worthy of American admiration in some sense of the word, Edward J. Balleisen reminds us in his new book, "Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff." Career grifters like P.T. Barnum, Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff are heroes so long as they are in the game; we only turn on them when they become goats. After all, the American Revolution was won by cleverness, with a dependence on spycraft, smuggling, and guerrilla warfare. The least extraordinary thing about the early republic was its ambivalence toward fraud, and the most extraordinary thing about our current, late republic is that this ambivalence still widely holds. “Corruption, embezzlement, fraud. These are all characteristics which exist everywhere,” said Alan Greenspan in 2007 on the radio program "Democracy Now!" “What successful economies do is keep it to a minimum.”

Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews

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