Grifter Nation

Griftopia by Matt Taibbi

In The Beginning

There are two scams in the 1990 movie The Grifters that reveal everything there is to know about how things work–and not just in America but in the whole western world. The first scam I want to worst-write about this day, dear worst-reader, is actually shown twice in this film. I reckon the producers wanted to make sure that this scam was very clear to the audience. The second scam, though, is a bit more complicated and you have to put some effort into the movie if you really want to get what it’s about. With that in mind, let’s start, dear worst-reader, with the first scam.

It all begins at a typical corporate restaurant in what looks to be 1980s LA. In this scene Roy, played by the brilliant John Cusak, shows the audience how to trick a bartender. Using honed eye contact and taking advantage of the busy environment, Roy presents to the bartender a twenty dollar bill and at the same time requests a beer. The twenty dollar bill is lodged but clearly visible between Roy’s fingers. The bartender turns to get Roy his drink. Roy quickly, almost like a magician, switches the twenty dollar bill for a ten dollar bill that was lodged/hidden in the palm of the same hand. When the bartender delivers the drink, Roy maintains eye contact and pushing the ten dollar bill to the bartender who then grabs it and immediately goes to the register to make change. The bartender returns to Roy with change for a twenty.

The second iteration of the same scam happens a few moments later when Roy has gone to another bar. This time it’s not a corporate restaurant but a real dive where the lights are dim and the clientele isn’t so yuppie. Immediately Roy tries to employ the same scam on the bartender. Clearly Roy has lost the edge on this one as he doesn’t maintain the same eye contact as with the previous bartender. Still, he orders the drink and does the switch with the bills. The bartender delivers the drink, pauses and the camera shows us that Roy has been caught in the act. The bartender proceeds to immobilize Roy’s hand, thereby turning it over and revealing the second bill lodged in his palm. Panicking, Roy cannot free himself from the burly bartender’s grasp even though he has let go of both the ten and twenty dollar bills, as if to indicate: here, take it, I’m finished. Then we see the baseball bat and hear a thud as it violently rams into Roy’s sternum.

Matt Taibbi

Before I get to the second scam, allow me to address the fellow that has helped motivate all this worst-writing today. Matt Taibbi got me thinking about my life, the things I’ve seen and experienced and about all the bullshit that I’ve had to consume-to-survive. That, in turn, reminded me of The Grifters. Hence, to me, Matt Taibbi picked the perfect title for his book “Griftopia”. For one thing, the title is like displaying a mirror in front of America. The only problem is, like most things political, social and demographic in my grand united mistakes, actually getting American’s to look in that mirror will require more than a book title. And while I’m picking at the title (which I also tended to do in another post here), I think most American’s have had enough with the “opia” stuff. In fact, I’ll bet a coin that since at least two if not three American generations, having been bombarded with the ignorance of talk radio, infotainment news, and pharmaceutical addiction, they cannot tell the difference between the words utopia and opiate, no matter how you prefix it.

So. I finished Griftopia last night and after a few hours of post-read contemplation, including glasses of red wine, studying all the notes and highlighted text (I read it on my Kindle), I realized that I had just read something unique.  And that says a lot since this is the fifth book on the financial crisis I’ve read in less than two years. Indeed. The difference this book has to all the others is the simple fact that it was written by a badass. In fact, it’s written by not just any badass, this is the work of a rock-n-roll badass journalist that America needs more of. Heck, the guy even writes for Rolling Stone magazine. With that in mind, baby, praise be to thumbs-up-yahweh, Marshall and Fender, and music lovin’ motherfuckers! Or. Thank goodness Rolling Stone was able to elevate this dude to where he belongs—especially when one considers where most news comes from these days. Put that together with the frank and no-holds barred way Taibbi writes, and you’re off to the informed races, baby. With that in mind, America, stop being afraid of all the mirrors it’s time to face. Taibbi can help you.


As I said, this book got me thinking—especially about the world I grew up in. For it was indeed a world full of … . So as I was reading this book I got to thinking about those that raised me—or perhaps those I wished raised me. Nomatter. Where are they now? What have they been doing? Are they all still the fun and happy-go-lucky guys that they were then? Are they all still obsessed with coke? Pussy? Making fun of those who are less fortunate? Oh, wait. A grifter is different than a con-man.

According to Taibbi, grifters are now a class of their own. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Grifting is considered, by its perpetrators, a calling. And it is a calling that is above most thievery conventions. Luckily, my heart never beat at the sight of a dollar and so early on the grifters (and con-men) that I met, saw through me. I guess, in a way, I was lucky. Seeing through me meant that I was something like a court jester or a clown. That gave way to me being able, at times, to be tolerated and when I was on a lucky streak, some of the grifters even hired me. (Yes, the new class(es) of grifters also includes employer and employee relations.) Anywho. Out of my experience with grifters I offer the following explanation and/or definition. Please hold your salt shaker near.

A grifter is a person that takes advantage of another person by gaining trust. It’s that simple. In that definition also lies the difference to being just a con-man. Surprisingly (or maybe not) when I looked up grifter in the book of knowledge (wiki) I was re-routed to “confidence trick”, which might be a bit confusing because that can also include the term con-man. A grifter is not just a con-man. Let me try to clarify more.

For one thing, a con-man can either steal directly from you (your wallet) or sell you something you don’t need. (Say, I have a this great piece of land in southern Florida). A con-man can also indirectly steal from you. (Praise the lord! Would you like to join my church?) The thing to remember about a con-man is that he usually ends up poor, in jail, lynched or shot. A grifter, on the other hand, will always get away with what ever it is he steals. A grifter fears nothing because the thing he’s after is ultimately not just the act of stealing but also the process of getting in your soul. So keep in mind, modern humanity, the world you and I live in, is the result of the work of a few very special grifters. And this worst-definition… ain’t done just yet.

One of the ways grifters are able to survive as they do is because they have a unique gift. On the one hand, they are really smart. On the other, they do most of their work on the backs of others. Hence, con-men. Now get this. Grifters can see through the bipolar quilt that western society has comfortably wrapped itself in. (Remember, metaphors are smart.) This quilt is made up of two basic peoples. One is the con-man—who we covered already. The other is a bit more complicated to explain, and I’ll try to touch on the issue more in the next section titled “History”. The thing to remember is this: a grifter cannot make it if it can’t get to the soul of its victim. A con-man cannot lick a grifter but a grifter can own a con-man. A con-man is only in it for the doe! Grifters are after something completely different. That secret is basically this: human beings will fill their souls with anything when they are forced to do so. To that there are no exceptions. Grifters know this more than any other because grifters have no soul.


I’ll get back to Taibbi’s book in a sec. I’m kinda on a roll, so how ‘bout this for a bit of worst-history on grifters. Let’s check out exactly where this whole grifter thing started. Grifting was perfected in Eurowasteland during the age of enlightenment. In fact, grifting culminated in the over-throw of things like monarchies, aristocratic rule, incestuous hereditary privilege, etc. Because of this, the kings and queens and the ruling inbreds of Eurowasteland quickly caught wind of how power and wealth were shifting—without them. Subsequently the kings and queens faced for the first time existential questions they never faced before. For these questions they had no answers. They tried to fight back but there was something in the souls of the masses that they couldn’t defeat. Every time a king or queen thought they had captured one of the leaders of this new-soul movement, it turns out that all they got were one of the many con-men. Hence, we can thank grifters for the term: throw them to the wolves.

After a few monarchies fell and others were weakened in Europe, the remaining inbred filth turned to compromise to save their asses. Since grifters aren’t about governing, politics and status, when word got to them that they would be granted privileges and support for taking their business to new shores, they laughed. I guess the idear among those same kings and queens was that maybe, if they got grifters out of the way for a while, it would buy the monarchies some time to recuperate from all the revolutionary damage. Of course, the grifters, being somewhat bored with having brought down so much power, were already on their way to new horizons. And so. America was founded by turning the British monarchy into an invalid and ugly step sister. The French Revolution rid Eurowasteland of the rule of useless eating blue bloods. Others followed. The grifter classes came to be. Welcome to your future, souls. Democracy awaits you! Freedom wraps around you–like a comfy quilt!

The Book

Griftopia is another seething exposé that breaks down the impending doom of American’t and its willingness to rely on financial speculation—as opposed to actual productivity—to maintain its status in the world. Of all the books I’ve read while trying to figure out what a CDO is or what a subprime mortgage is or how it came to be that with all its power and wealth, America suddenly had to rely on the whims of idiot politicians and krapp-eating bureaucrats to literally save its ass from a financial meltdown that would have made the great depression look like a picnic, this one takes the cake. Taibbi has figured it out and he’s even provided a bit of insight into to what a grifter nation is. The real shocker of this book is its subtext—which deals with the souls the grifters prey on with so much success. These souls are just like the doomed and defeated monarchists who once could never see the future. Indeed, Taibbi manages to put what must have been a huge amount of research in a few hundred pages and for that alone this book should be read. Taibbi’s style is a winded and he could learn a from the likes of Michael Lewis when it comes to story telling, but perhaps that’s not what Taibbi should be doing at all. What he should be doing is writing more rock-n-roll, kick-ass books about impending doom. I especially enjoyed Taibbi’s explanation of AIG and how they insured mortgage securities and derivatives. The details revealed about AIG are even more intriguing as they involve so much of  Goldman Sachs’ everyday business, a company that is so intertwined with the US govt. And Taibbi, in this book, comes through loud and clear about how much contempt he has for the likes of Goldman Sachs, rich-shit bankers and useless, drone bureaucrats. The end of the book did kind of disappoint me though, almost as though Taibbi ran out of gas or something. He tries to end it all by talking about a congressional meeting that took place where grifter bankers were accusing the American poor of facilitating the mortgage crisis. In my opinion, the behavior of Americans and their belief that credit and borrowing is a right, is something that has not been addressed much in any book (I’ve read). Taibbi just wants to bat that issue away. Shame really. And with that, I digress.

The Second Scam

Oh, before I forget. I should probably get back to the second of the two scams from the movie The Grifters (1990) that I mentioned at the beginning. As I said, this second scam is a bit more complicated than hiding and switching dollar notes in the palm of your hand— which does not deserve to be belittled, btw, for it too is part of the making of American’t. No, this second scam has more in common with what the bankers of the too-big-to-fail banks have done to the oh-so willing souls that think they are, even today, still part of the American dream.

In the film, Roy’s mother, Lilly, played by the beautiful and lovely Angelica Huston, is not a grifter. Lilly is a con-man. Since I’m not really into gambling (and my eyes never lit up at the sight of a dollar), I’ll let wiki provide the explanation of what Lilly does as a con-man in the movie The Grifters. “Lilly works for a bookmaker handling playback at horse racing tracks — that is, she makes large cash bets to lower the odds of longshots.” When she’s supposed to be placing those cash bets to lower odds, she gets caught up with her son Roy. Remember the baseball bat incident? Well that incident has caused Roy to require medical attention for internal bleeding. Helping Roy causes her to miss a race. To cover up for not placing the bets at the race, Lilly goes to the track and collects the stubs of those who did place such bets. In short, she tries to cover her ass. The problem is, the odds of longshots were not lowered. Oh, the way she tries to worm her way out of it. Oh, the voices of whining individuals all raised to believe the lie that achievement can be yours, that you can be anything you want, that freedom reigns. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the cry of the wild in the form of demanding (and getting) a society of entitlements which amount to nothing more than the right to gamble on the backs of others and welfare for the rich only.

The thing to keep in mind here isn’t the mechanics of what Lilly does or the selfishness she considers her right, thereby using her child as her crutch. What one should consider is the truth and how never facing the truth gets people in this kind of a mess. Lilly and Roy represent a large part of the baby-boomers and their children. Neither parent or child can see the truth in anything they do. These are not complicated people, they do not live in complicated places, glamor is their enemy and not their friend and yet they live on the backs of others in a comfort unseen elsewhere on this earth. And I suppose there lies the truth that only a few worst-readers can face. The truth is Roy and Lilly are our own sad ending. We are a grifter nation.

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Rant on.