Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff

CREDIT SLIPS Email:

ej-fraudNot a moment too soon, Princeton University Press has just released Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff by historian & Duke University Vice Provost Ed Balleisen. (Some readers might be familiar with his earlier book on bankruptcy in Antibellum America).

As I learned when reviewing an earlier draft, Fraud is meticulously researched and completely fascinating, with plenty of careful attention to law and regulatory structures. The book’s other virtues are well encapsulated by Kirkus:

Balleisen casts a gimlet eye on the passing parade of hucksters and charlatans, peppering a narrative long on theory with juicy asides that build toward a comprehensive catalog of ‘Old Swindles in New Jargon’. . . . Ranging among the disciplines of history, economics, and psychology, Balleisen constructs a sturdy narrative of the many ways in which we have fallen prey to the swindler, and continue to do so, as well as of how American society and its institutions have tried to build protections against the con. But these protections eventually run up against accusations of violating ‘longstanding principles of due process,’ since the bigger the con, the more lawyers arrayed behind it.Kirkus

Although it starts in the 19th Century, the book’s breadth includes our recent “deregulatory” decades and the impact of that approach on fraud containment.  A book for our life and times for sure.

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

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.

Edward J. Balleisen is associate professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Reviews:

“Balleisen’s lucid, engagingly written mix of institutional and legal history, behavioral economics, and entertaining anecdotes illuminates this land of bilk and money.”Publishers Weekly

“Balleisen casts a gimlet eye on the passing parade of hucksters and charlatans, peppering a narrative long on theory with juicy asides that build toward a comprehensive catalog of ‘Old Swindles in New Jargon’. . . . Ranging among the disciplines of history, economics, and psychology, Balleisen constructs a sturdy narrative of the many ways in which we have fallen prey to the swindler, and continue to do so, as well as of how American society and its institutions have tried to build protections against the con. But these protections eventually run up against accusations of violating ‘longstanding principles of due process,’ since the bigger the con, the more lawyers arrayed behind it.”Kirkus

Endorsements:

“Not only is Fraud a careful and thoughtful exploration of the complicated relationship between business, the market, and policy. It is also a thought-provoking and engaging book.”–Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational

“In the end, capitalism is always a confidence game, so the problem of fraud is always with us. But the occurrence, perception, and regulation of fraud has a history, and Balleisen has now written the definitive account of it. A deeply researched and beautifully crafted book that follows the shape-shifting problem of deceit across the centuries, Fraud is nothing short of a new history of American capitalism.”–Jon Levy, University of Chicago

Buy FRAUD by Ed Balleisen HERE.

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