You have a hundred million dollars? You can stop right there, I know you’re a crook

The title of this article is a challenge: “I’m a corporate fraud investigator. You wouldn’t believe the hubris of the super-rich.” Oh yeah? Try me. You’d be hard-pressed to tell me about an excess of the wealthy that I wouldn’t believe. And I’m sorry, but the rest of the article is the expected litany of banal privilege: expensive cars, jets, and yachts, tax fraud, organized crime, lies, threats, growing corruption. Ho hum. There’s no such thing as an ethical multi-millionaire, as I expect we’ve all learned.

I did appreciate the core message, though.

There is something unique to our era that encourages the charlatan. As well as investigating corporations, I am also a novelist, and I think we live in the age of the corporate fairy-tale: a magical land of unicorns and eternal growth. “What’s the story?” investors like to ask about the latest hot start-up, willing the narrative to be true even as they live the myth of their own absolute rationality.

Elon Musk once said: “Brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time.” Put another way, if the emperor believes he is wearing wonderful clothes, others will start to believe it too. When I was researching my debut novel, in which a tyrant’s wife stands trial for her husband’s corruption, I found someone else making an eerily similar point to Musk. It wasn’t from another business leader; it was Imelda Marcos. “Perception is real,” the wife of the former Philippines dictator said. “And the truth is not.”

The ultra-rich are all in the business of selling an illusion. All the criminality and corruption is leaving the illusion in tatters, though, let’s hope that more people will see through the game.


  1. robro says

    There’s no such thing as an ethical multi-millionaire, as I expect we’ve all learned.

    I’ve learned to be a little cautious about terms like “multi-millionaire” and passing judgement on people based on sweeping generalization about those terms.

    Needless to say, depending on the local economy, “multi-millionaire” is not the same a “super-rich” or “ultra-rich”. I know quite a few people who are multi-millionaires, and possibly one that might qualify as pretty-high-up-there-rich, who are as ethical as you or anyone else. They have worked hard (see Note). They are modest and generally recognize that they have been lucky. They are not egotistical or mean-spirited.

    I don’t think it’s ethical to paint these folks with the same brush we might paint a charlatan like Elon Musk or Chump, who would be unethical even if they were suddenly poor.

    Note: One friend worked for many years for PG&E in repair services, but he owns a couple of houses (one of which he inherited) in an area where houses typically run a million dollars or more. So, I think it’s safe to say he’s technically a multi-millionaire but certainly not super/ultra-rich. He’s very generous, drives a small electric car, tends his kitchen garden with his wife, rides his bike a lot (at almost 80), goes to church on Sunday but is never preachy with his friends (like me) who are openly not Christian.

  2. says

    “We had, uh…a wee trapeze, a merry-go— carousel. Heh. And a see-saw. They all moved, motorized, of course, but people would say they could see the fleas. ‘No, I can see the fleas. Mummy, can’t you see the fleas?’ Clown fleas, highwire fleas and fleas on parade…”
    –John Hammond

  3. birgerjohansson says

    Sweden has generated a surprising number of billionaries and in the context of innovation.
    I don’t think all of them are crooks.
    But they emerged in an environment of regulations that does not favor psychopaths.

  4. whywhywhy says

    How much hope for the current times should we have, given that Imelda’s son is now President of the Philippines?

  5. tbp1 says


    Agreed. “Multi-millionaire” doesn’t mean what it used to. Technically my wife and are multi-millionaires, but that includes everything that is in our retirement account, plus our life insurance policies, plus our equity in the house. We don’t have anywhere near $1,000,000 liquid, although we are not cash poor either. I think we succeed at being reasonably ethical.

  6. Rich Woods says

    I’m technically a demi-millionaire, but if I don’t keep a close eye on my outgoings each week then before long I’d be homeless, hungry and my life expectancy would be halved. A lifetime of inflation has made the numbers on the scraps of paper look more impressive but in fact life is still a balancing act just like it was when I was in my 20s, but back then the tightrope was 25ft above the concrete and now it’s more like 10ft. That’s what all those decades of work has earned me: 15ft of grace.

  7. karellen says

    Elon Musk once said: “Brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time.” Put another way, if the emperor believes he is wearing wonderful clothes, others will start to believe it too.

    That’s… not how I would have interpreted that quote.

    And, in fact, the examples that the author uses as an example of that interpretation – FTX, Theranos and Wirecard – actually refute it. Perception has matched reality over time – because everyone now correctly perceives those companies as, in reality, being giant frauds!

    I am reminded of Feynman’s Appendix F “Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle” to the Rogers Commission Report on the Challenger accident:

    NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.
    For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

  8. Kagehi says

    My thought, having explored nudism, on the Emperor’s New Clothes is that ironically its a case of the con going the right direction. He waists money on something that doesn’t exist, presumably that money finds its way into the hands of people that need it more, and since he is not “buying” real clothes, so does the materials that other people actually need, or merely want. I imagine, in some small way, it actually reduces inflation, since the inflated ego isn’t buying everything themselves, and stuffing it in a closet, after wearing it only once, while someone else can’t even afford a new pair of pants.

    Sadly, in the real world, the scam always goes the other way – case in point, the “Emperor’s New Health Supplements”, sold to idiots and rubes, most of whom are poor, by a certain, now thankfully bankrupt, but still probably going to con his way out of it, right wing talking conspiracy theorist. People are still buying his bullshit, even as he is seemingly going down in flames.

  9. guerillasurgeon says

    Some years ago for a degree I was doing in my dotage I wrote an assignment about the “super rich”. I learned all sorts of things about how they manage to corrupt governments, including the government of Singapore of all places. I also learnt there was a phrase for people with a hundred million dollars – the “merely rich”.