The Honorable Racketeers


By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review contributor


You thought Al Capone and his gangland mobsters were  some of the worst folks to come down the pike.  Well, you probably never heard of Soapy Smith, King of the Frontier Conmen.

Starting in the 1880s, Smith and his gang of crooks and grifters took whatever they wanted, with his biggest scores coming in the gold-mining towns of Creede, Colorado, Skagway, Alaska, and in Denver, where in his heyday he was reputed to be one of the most powerful  crime bosses west of the Mississippi.  Politicians and policemen were on his payroll, and Smith eventually became America's first racketeer. He started off heckling miners and selling them soap.  It was a simple scam: at a small table he would have bars of soap, some wrapped in large bills--$20, $50, $100--some wrapped in a dollar, but all then wrapped again in plain paper.  His clients would then bid on the soap, but only his handpicked shills would win the large bills.

Then Soapy moved up the ladder, swindling fortunes from those with the deepest pockets. After ripping them off, he might feel generous and give them just enough to get back home.

Today, our government does the same thing that Smith and his cronies did back in the boom and bust days: they take our money, then dole it back out in small pieces. They choose who gets what, giving the most to the interests of those who donate freely to their election campaigns.  They also tell us how the money will be used, and they'll take it back if you decide it needs to be used differently. 

The only things that have changed are the names and amounts of money being handed back and forth.  It’s a bait-and-switch sometimes remarkably similar to Soapy’s street-corner con jobs.

As a taxpayer, you paid for (among other things) a congressman's apartment so his boyfriend could run a whorehouse from it. You also pay for free cars, junkets for congressmen and their girlfriends or wives, and frequent flights home on weekends so they don't have stay in Washington, D.C. for extended periods of time.  You paid an abominable fee so that high powered guns and automatic weapons could be used in a Mexican sting operation, only to have those very weapons end up in the hands of drug lords.  One of the guns was used to kill an American border patrol agent.

Pointless bridges, unneeded military bases and riderless commuter rail systems are just a few of the jewels handed out when you agree to vote for the leader and his pet pork projects.  Power and money exert enormous influence on this country’s institutions, with the result that billions of dollars are spent on absurdities.  When the obscene cost of all of this becomes a factor, the Fed can simply print more money.  In large part, that's why we owe the world; the dollar is devalued, and our credit rating—once the most sterling in the world—remains second tier or worse.

The third world runs on bribery and the long con; why do you think these wars cost the United States so much? It’s not a coincidence that bin Laden’s hideout was finally found only a few thousand yards from an elite military school in Pakistan. The rest of the world plays by a different set of rules.

In the United States, school administrators often insist that teachers pass the children to the next grade no matter what.  When they graduate from high school and can't read, society inherits the problem.  Then, a variety of entitlement programs provide the mechanisms to carry that individual along the path of life.  Everyone pays--repeatedly--for the failure of schools and teachers.  In many countries, parents demand their children be educated, sometimes moving to another country for years to earn enough money to pay tuition  American high schools are among some of the worst in the world, yet American colleges and universities attract students from every nation and every corner of the globe.  Slowly but surely, the rest of the world is leaving us behind in education.

Meanwhile, the American taxpayer--thinking that eventually we'll get that soap with the $100 bill--keeps getting swindled. Its a short con, but we keep coming back for more.

Soapy had it all figured out 130 years ago. He once told a newspaper reporter that he considered his con operations and grifts to be a more honorable pursuit than politics or government service.  The king of bunco discovered that if you're versatile, articulate and convincing, all you need is a knack for organization.  The marks will keep coming back time after time.