Charlatanry... nowadays as American as apple pie

It’s been a decade since my interest in the stock market was surgically removed from my investment system. And just as some people consider themselves cancer survivors, I, too, consider myself a Wall Street survivor. That, of course, hasn’t stopped me from tuning in now and then to that cable channel of bullishly ticker-happy telecapitalism, CNBC, a place of worship without bell towers or minarets which renders cult to our sacred economic system with more fervor than that expressed by those televangelists ebulliently getting rich, as they perform “miracles” in the name of Jesus of Nazareth – the very same Jesus who reputedly had thrown the moneychangers out of the Temple.

And it is this charlatanry of both lay and religious that takes me back many, many years.

During my enlistment stint in the Air Force, and while on an overseas tour of duty at an air base in Europe, I developed a friendship with a barracks mate we all called Luigi – one would guess because of his Italian accent, although it didn’t resemble by a long shot J. Carroll Naish’s twang in those “Life with Luigi” episodes of a decade earlier. But since he hailed from Italy, it’s safe to assume some fellow airman personally decided he looked more like a Luigi than a Pasquale, or a Tony, or even his true baptismal names of Mario Angelo which appeared in his USAF personnel records and roll call lists.

During our off-duty socializing, Luigi had spoken to me about his childhood days in the Perugian countryside – in the Umbrian region – always reminiscing about the incredible greenery of its landscape and the even more incredible local bella ragazze; but never mentioned any specific city, town or village. It was only after a TDY (temporary duty) trip together to the air base in Brindisi, to which we tagged on a week’s vacation to visit his family and roam through Central Italy, that I discovered beautiful Spoleto, then a small city of fewer than 20,000 people – several dozen of them introduced to me as Luigi’s relatives – to be my friend’s home, or at least his luogo di nascita.

What I recall most vividly about Spoleto is neither the city’s distinct agri-urban character nor any beautiful cugina that I might have been introduced to, but the day-hike which Luigi and I took to Cerreto di Spoleto, a small village within the municipality, a few miles out and maybe one-third mile higher, nestled in a mountain. And it was those historical accounts of Cerreto, or rather of the Cerretans of four centuries before, that received my undivided attention. Here, in this colorful hamlet, you could almost sense being at the main altar of the basilica of charlatanry, the sanctum sanctorum of the con game! And I was also reminded that a Cerretan or cerretano is also often referred to as a Charlatan or ciarlatano. These people had perambulated the Italian peninsula and adjacent lands peddling ointments, drugs, and magic elixirs as well as practicing medicine and dentistry “without license”; an entire career-tribe of people who had “earned” their living, or so it’s claimed in reliable historical sources, by cheating ignorant or naïve people.

But that was centuries ago, and now their descendants have found their way to the New World together with Cerretans-emulators from elsewhere in the globe. Nowadays these sophisticated - or not - cheaters wander around America, laptops in hand, plugging us all to their 2007.0 Thieving version of their PC (Predatory Charlatanry) operating system.

Unlike their predecessors of years back, these charlatans have graduated from their medicine man status, to that of performers of kaleidoscopic variations of the Ponzi scheme, or as the motivational “enrapturers” of the greedy for quick-riches – and the voguish multi-level marketing of the past few years – all born in the USA. In this America of ours, many of those “philosophically” descendents of that tribe from Cerreto di Spoleto have morphed into our lives as preachers, businessmen, economists, journalists, military brass, and most definitely as politicians.

What makes our situation sad is that these charlatans in their new disguises cannot be told apart from the bona fide holders of similar jobs; and so it is that demonic preachers, unscrupulous business people, pseudo-economists, tamed-journalists, psycho generals, and crooked politicians have come to paint our lives with psychedelic colors, blinding us and preventing us from making an honest evaluation of the reality around us.

So in the last two days we are finally told by the Charlatan-In-Chief, George W. Bush, that we’ll be in Iraq indefinitely… although expressed in softer lying tones; and then the “great maestro,” Alan Greenspan, who’s been disharmonizing our economy for an entire generation now admits to a peccadillo of underestimating the effect of sub-prime lending, as if that was his only con; and the “patriot” Petraeus is just turning into another prospective politician, an ideal war presidential candidate for 2012 from the GOP’s well entrenched officer corps that rule America’s military. A never-ending political and economic farce: Ciarlatani one and all!

A friend and retired economics’ professor made a comment three years ago as we were watching together a segment of “Kudlow and Cramer” on CNBC: “This ‘infomercial’ channel promoting Wall Street is perfectly represented by this Don Quixote and Sancho Panza duo,” after which he went on to tell me about Kudlow’s ignorance of economics summarized by Kudlow’s constant envious-criticism of a true economist, Paul Krugman, and a love affair for a Laffer curve he didn’t even fully comprehend. Well, in the world of business and economics no place represents charlatanry better than CNBC, one must agree. Of course, in this never-ending-borrowing world, these charlatans can appear to be experts, but they have already climbed all the undeserved rope and reached the top. And the upcoming recession-plus will soon dislodge them from those incredible heights.

For now, charlatans in religion, business, economics, news media, the military and our two parties are on safe ground in America. But we are coming to the end of an era, and we must ask… then what? Exile them all to Cerreto di Spoleto? I have the feeling that modern Cerretans won’t accept any of these cheaters (or far worse) in their exile.