The Greatest Showman and the Deceptions of American Capitalism

by Edward J. Balleisen

BalleisenPerhaps unsurprisingly, The Greatest Showman, the new cinematic musical about the nineteenth-century American impresario of entertainment P. T. Barnum, unabashedly takes liberties with the historical record. As reviewers have already documented (Richard Brody in the New Yorker, Bruce Chadwick for History News Network), it fabricates matters large and small, as is the wont of Hollywood screenwriters and directors who work on biopics, while ignoring a host of truthful vignettes that cry out for cinematic treatment. As a historian of business fraud, I found myself especially disappointed that the musical steered clear of many aspects of Barnum’s career that speak powerfully to elements of our own moment, including the rise of a Barnum-esque publicity hound and conductor of media misdirection from the White House, and the constant turmoil swirling over allegations of fake news. And yet, The Greatest Showman does get some of the larger implications of Barnum’s life right—especially his injection of a democratic style of hullabaloo into American capitalism.

A full inventory of the film’s flights of fancy would require catalogue length. But a sampling conveys the minimal concern for fidelity to historical detail. The movie portrays the young Barnum as the poorly-clad son of an impoverished Connecticut tailor, rather than the child of a respectable proprietor who had a number of well-to-do relatives and also owned a store and inn. It gives Barnum experiences that he never had (begging and stealing food as an orphaned New York City street urchin; clerking for an insurance company). It depicts his move into the world of entertainment as occurring sometime well after the establishment of the railroad, perhaps even after the Civil War, rather than in the 1830s.

The Greatest Showman ignores Barnum’s earliest promotions of lotteries, curiosities and hoaxes, including his cruel exhibition of the elderly African-American slave woman Joice Heth as supposedly the 161-year old former wet-nurse of George Washington, and his willingness to profit further after her death through a public autopsy, experiences that laid the groundwork for his management of the American Museum. The screenwriters (Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks) have Barnum buy the museum on a wholly fictional mix of frustration, fantasy, and fraud, made possible by his fraudulent provision of fake collateral to a New York City bank that lends him the necessary $10,000. Instead of coming to grips with the actual Barnum’s vociferous advocacy of temperance, the film conjures up a hard-drinking man who makes deals over whiskeys in saloons. Rather than showing how Barnum consistently found new performers over the years, it brings together the midget Charles Stratton (known on stage as Tom Thumb), the Siamese twins Change and Eng, and the other members of the troupe within weeks of Barnum’s purchase of the American Museum.

The historical Barnum had a falling out with the famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind not because he refused her amorous advances in the middle of their American tour (the musical’s explanation), but because she tired of his relentless focus on maximizing the returns from her concerts. A key antagonist for Barnum in The Greatest Showman is one “Bennett,” portrayed as a stiff-collared, high-toned theatre critic of the New York Herald. The actual James Gordon Bennett was the publisher of that paper, who proved more than happy to go along with hoaxes and sensationalism himself, using both to help cement his newspaper’s position as the first penny newspaper that catered to the broad masses. The character of Barnum’s high society sidekick Philip Carlyle is entirely fictional, as in his relationship with Anne Wheeler, an African-American female trapeze artist. One last illustration—the film attributes the fire that destroyed Barnum’s New York City Museum to neighborhood toughs who did not like his business, rather than the actual arsonist, a Confederate sympathizer who wished toward the end of the Civil War to strike a blow against the Union.

Of course, by indulging a willingness to elide facts or push outright lies in the service of a hokey story, the makers of The Greatest Showman adopt Barnum’s own modus operandi as a purveyor of entertainment. And the movie does a creditable job of engaging with some of Barnum’s larger cultural significance—his recognition that publicity and HYPE of any kind was often a marketing asset; his understanding that the public would be forgiving of misrepresentations and humbug if they, on balance, enjoyed the eventual show; his embrace of difference and variation within the human condition as worthy of celebration (if also exploitation); his compulsion to expand operations to take advantage of new opportunities, even at the cost of incurring gargantuan debts; his relentless focus on the American mythos of democratic opportunity, whether through his own experience (as carefully narrated in his autobiographies) or those of the stars in his shows. As the film implies, there was indeed deep-seated antagonism to Barnum’s business practices and willingness to engage in fakery, though the complaints came overwhelmingly from pulpits and the pages of evangelical newspapers, rather than protesters who made their presence known outside the Museum. And Barnum did in fact seek to defuse those critiques through the promotion of respectable performers such as Jenny Lind, alongside his curiosities, penchant for misdirection, and outright fakery.

Nonetheless, The Greatest Showman also missed many opportunities to explore episodes in Barnum’s life that have renewed resonance in the early twenty-first century. One crucial theme here concerns Barnum’s engagement with American race relations, both as promoter and in his post-Civil War forays in Connecticut politics and public service. Barnum’s often dehumanizing treatment of people of color and his evolving political views on race will surely occasion much commentary amid the current dramatic growth in ethnocentric nationalism and racially-grounded politics, as in a recent Smithsonian Magazine piece by Jackie Mansky. Other contemporary developments that suggest the value of reconsidering Barnum’s historical significance, closer to my own expertise, include the reoccurrence of massive business frauds, the emergence of enduring conflict over the appropriate role of government in consumer and investor protection, and diminished faith in institutions of all sorts.

The musical, for example, overlooks Barnum’s own bankruptcy in 1855, brought about because of his misplaced faith in the promises of a clock manufacturer who was willing to relocate his operation to Barnum’s adopted home town of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as part of an industrial development scheme. Barnum freely endorsed the Jerome Clock Company’s loans, opening himself up to devastating losses when the company failed, losses made worse by the firm’s eventual forging of Barnum’s endorsement on many additional notes. Yet he also sidestepped the worst consequences of that failure by illegally transferring assets into his wife’s name, a move that greatly facilitated his ability to get back on his financial feet, and for which he never faced public condemnation or legal penalty. Barnum’s insolvency thus speaks to the reality that even the savviest operators can be victims of imposition; and that well-connected perpetrators of commercial deceit have often been able to sidestep the most damaging fallout from their actions.

Another fascinating episode that The Greatest Showman ignores is Barnum’s growing focus on debunking the deceit of other purveyors of rhetorical (or actual) snake oil. By the 1860s, the promoter sought to legitimize his own brand of hokum and bluster not only by adding unquestionably respectable acts to his museum and eventual circus, but also by exposing frauds in many sectors of American life.  Compiled in his 1866 volume, Humbugs of the World, these endeavors targeted misrepresentations in retail trade, medicine, and religion (especially in the realm of spiritualism). Here Barnum intuited the great power associated with well-constructed strategies of deflection—that one could gain trust in part by setting oneself up as an arbiter of untrustworthiness. Perhaps there is no greater contemporary practitioner of this particular form of showmanship than the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump has rarely hesitated to get out ahead of critiques of his own business and political practices by casting the first stones, as through his allegations of malfeasance by political opponents (the pleas during the 2016 general election campaign to investigate Hillary Clinton and “Lock Her Up”) or representatives of the media (the incessant allegations of FAKE NEWS.) In addition to muddying factual waters, such strategies can shore up support among the faithful, sustaining the conviction that their champion is fighting the good fight, and could not possibly be engaging in duplicitous behavior of his own.

In the end, The Greatest Showman cares most about exploring fictionalized or wholly fictional romantic tensions—those between Barnum and his wife Charity and between the Philip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler—as well as the degree to which Barnum lives up to his purported insistence on an inclusive respect for his socially marginalized performers. These choices constrain the musical’s capacity to engage deeply with Barnum’s historical significance as an entrepreneur who played an outsized role in creating modern mass entertainment. And so a multitude of opportunities go begging. Barnum’s many legacies, however, continue to reverberate in contemporary America, whether one focuses on the the dynamics of social media saturation, the process of invented celebrity, the sources of abiding racial tensions,  the implications of pervasive commercial dissembling, or the nature of popular skepticism about expert appraisals of reality. And so the ground remains open for cultural reinterpretations of the Great Showman’s life and times.  If the twentieth-century is any guide, we won’t have to wait too long for another cinematic treatment—every generation or so, some movie-maker finds the resources to put Barnum back on the screen.[1]

[1] Previous films include “The Mighty Barnum” (1934), “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), “Barnum” (1986), and “P. T. Barnum” (1999).

Edward J. Balleisen is professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Edward Balleisen on the long history of fraud in America

BalleisenDuplicitous business dealings and scandal may seem like manifestations of contemporary America gone awry, but fraud has been a key feature of American business since its beginnings. 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. In Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff, Edward Balleisen traces the history of fraud in America—and the evolving efforts to combat it. Recently, he took the time to answer some questions about his book.

Can you explain what brought you to write this book?

EB: For more than two decades, I have been fascinated by the role of trust in modern American capitalism and the challenges posed by businesses that break their promises. My first book, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, addressed this question by examining institutional responses to insolvency in the mid-nineteenth-century. This book widens my angle of vision, considering the problem of intentional deceit in the United States across a full two centuries.

In part, my research was motivated by the dramatic American fraud scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which demonstrated how badly duplicitous business practices could hurt investors, consumers, and general confidence in capitalism. I wanted to understand how American society had developed strategies to constrain such behavior, and why they had increasingly proved unequal to the task since the 1970s.

In part, I was gripped by all the compelling stories suggested by historical episodes of fraud, which often involve charismatic business-owners, and often raise complex questions about how to distinguish enthusiastic exaggeration from unscrupulous misrepresentation.

In part, I wanted to tackle the challenges of reconstructing a history over the longer term. Many of the best historians during the last generation have turned to microhistory – detailed studies of specific events or moments. But there is also an important place for macro-history that traces continuity and change over several generations.

In addition, my research was shaped by increasingly heated debates about the costs and benefits of governmental regulation, the extent to which the social legitimacy of market economies rest on regulatory foundations, and the best ways to structure regulatory policy. The history of American anti-fraud policy offers compelling evidence about these issues, and shows that smart government can achieve important policy goals.

What are the basic types of fraud?

EB: One important distinction involves the targets of intentional economic deceit. Sometimes individual consumers defraud businesses, as when they lie on applications for credit or life insurance. Sometimes taxpayers defraud governments, by hiding income. Sometimes employees defraud employers, by misappropriating funds, which sociologists call “occupational fraud.” I focus mostly on deceit committed by firms against their counterparties (other businesses, consumers, investors, the government), or “organizational fraud.”

Then there are the major techniques of deception by businesses. Within the realm of consumer fraud, most misrepresentations take the form of a bait and switch – making big promises about goods or services, but then delivering something of lesser or even no quality.

Investment fraud can take this form as well. But it also may depend on market manipulations – spreading rumors, engaging in sham trades, or falsifying corporate financial reports in order to influence price movements, and so the willingness of investors to buy or sell; or taking advantage of inside information to trade ahead of market reactions to that news.

One crucial type of corporate fraud involves managerial looting. That is, executives engage in self-dealing. They give themselves outsized compensation despite financial difficulties, direct corporate resources to outside firms that they control in order to skim off profits, or even drive their firms into bankruptcy, and then take advantage of inside information to buy up assets on the cheap.

Why does business fraud occur?

EB: Modern economic life presents consumers, investors, and businesses with never-ending challenges of assessing information. What is the quality of goods and services on offer, some of which may depend on newfangled technologies or complex financial arrangements? How should we distinguish good investment opportunities from poor ones?

In many situations, sellers and buyers do not possess the same access to evidence about such issues. Economists refer to this state of affairs as “information asymmetry.” Then there is the problem of information overload, which leads many economic actors to rely on mental short-cuts – rules of thumb about the sorts of businesses or offers that they can trust. Almost all deceptive firms seek to look and sound like successful enterprises, taking advantage of the tendency of consumers and investors to rely on such rules of thumb. Some of the most sophisticated financial scams even try to build confidence by warning investors about other frauds.

A number of common psychological tendencies leave most people susceptible to economic misrepresentations at least some of the time. Often we can be taken in by strategies of “framing” – the promise of a big discount from an inflated base price may entice us to get out our wallets, even though the actual price is not much of a bargain. Or a high-pressure stock promoter may convince us to invest by convincing us that we have to avoid the regret that will dog us if we hold back and then lose out on massive gains.

How has government policy toward business fraud changed since the early nineteenth century?

EB: In the nineteenth century, Anglo-American law tended to err on the side of leniency toward self-promotion by businesses. In most situations, the key legal standard was caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware. For the judges and legislators who embraced this way of thinking, markets worked best when consumers and investors knew that they had to look out for themselves. As a result, they adopted legal rules that often made it difficult for economic actors to substantiate allegations of illegal deceit.

For more than a century after the American Civil War, however, there was a strong trend to make anti-fraud policies less forgiving of companies that shade the truth in their business dealings. As industrialization and the emergence of complex national markets produced wider information asymmetries, economic deceit became a bigger problem. The private sector responded through new types of businesses (accounting services, credit reporting) and self-regulatory bodies to certify trustworthiness. But from the late nineteenth century into the 1970s, policy-makers periodically enacted anti-fraud regulations that required truthful disclosures from businesses, and that made it easier for investors and consumers to receive relief when they were taken for a ride.

More recently, the conservative turn in American politics since the 1970s led to significant policy reversals. Convinced that markets would police fraudulent businesses by damaging their reputations, elected officials cut back on budgets for anti-fraud enforcement, and rejected the extension of anti-fraud regulations to new financial markets like debt securitization.

Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, which was triggered in part by widespread duplicity in the mortgage markets, Americans have again seen economic deceit as a worrisome threat to confidence in capitalist institutions. That concern has prompted the adoption of some important anti-fraud policies, like the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But it remains unclear whether we have an entered a new era of greater faith in government to be able to constrain the most harmful forms of business fraud.

Many journalists and pundits have characterized the last several decades as generating epidemics of business fraud. What if anything is distinctive about the incidence of business fraud since the 1970s?

EB: Fraud episodes have occurred in every era of American history. During the nineteenth century, railroad contracting frauds abounded, as did duplicity related to land companies and patent medicine advertising. Deception in the marketing of mining stocks became so common that a prevalent joke defined “mine” as “a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.” From the 1850s through the 1920s, Wall Street was notorious for the ruthless manner in which dodgy operators fleeced unsuspecting investors.

Business frauds hardly disappeared in mid-twentieth-century America. Indeed, bait and switch marketing existed in every urban retailing sector, and especially in poor urban neighborhoods. Within the world of investing, scams continued to target new-fangled industries, such as uranium mines and electronics. As Americans moved to the suburbs, fraudulent pitchmen followed right behind, with duplicitous franchising schemes and shoddy home improvement projects.

The last forty years have also produced a regular stream of major fraud scandals, including the Savings & Loan frauds of the 1980s and early 1990s, contracting frauds in military procurement and healthcare reimbursement during the 1980s and 1990s, corporate accounting scandals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and frauds associated with the collapse of the mortgage market in 2007-2008.

Unlike in the period from the 1930s through the 1970s, however, business fraud during the more recent four decades have attained a different scale and scope. The costs of the worst episodes have reached into the billions of dollars (an order of magnitude greater than their counterparts in the mid-twentieth century, taking account of inflation and the overall growth in the economy), and have far more frequently involved leading corporations.

Why is business fraud so hard to stamp out through government policy?

EB: One big challenge is presented by the task of defining fraud in legal terms. In ordinary language, people often refer to any rip-off as a “fraud.” But how should the law distinguish between enthusiastic exaggerations, so common among entrepreneurs who just know that their business is offering the best thing ever, and unacceptable lies? Drawing that line has never been easy, especially if one wants to give some leeway to new firms seeking to gain a hearing through initial promotions.

Then there are several enduring obstacles to enforcement of American anti-fraud regulations. Often specific instances of business fraud impose relatively small harms on individuals, even if overall losses may be great. That fact, along with embarrassment at having been duped, has historically led many American victims of fraud to remain “silent suckers.” Proving that misrepresentations were intentional is often difficult; as is explaining the nature of deception to juries in complex cases of financial fraud.

The most effective modes of anti-fraud regulation often have been administrative in character. They either require truthful disclosure of crucial information to consumers and investors, at the right time and incomprehensible language, or they cut off access to the marketplace to fraudulent businesses. Postal fraud orders constitute one example of the latter sort of policy. When the post office determines that a business has engaged in fraudulent practices, it can deny it the use of the mails, a very effective means of policing mail-order firms. Such draconian steps, however, have always raised questions about fairness and often lead to the adoption of procedural safeguards that can blunt their impact.

How does this book help us better understand on contemporary frauds, such as the Madoff pyramid scheme or the Volkswagen emissions scandal?  

EB: One key insight is that so long as economic transactions depend on trust, and so long as there are asymmetries of information between economic counterparties, there will be significant incentives to cheat. Some economists and legal thinkers argue that the best counter to these incentives are reputational counterweights. Established firms, on this view, will not take actions that threaten their goodwill; newer enterprises will focus on earning the trust of creditors, suppliers, and customers. And heavy-handed efforts to police deceptive practices remove the incentive for economic actors to exercise due diligence, while raising barriers to entry, and so limiting the scope for new commercial ideas. This way of thinking shares much in common with the philosophy of caveat emptor that structured most American markets in the nineteenth-century.

But as instances like the Madoff investment frauds and Volkswagen’s reliance on deceptive emissions overrides suggest, reputational considerations have significant limits. Even firms with sterling reputations are susceptible to fraud. This is especially the case when regulatory supports, and wider social norms against commercial dishonesty, are weak.

The title of this book is Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. What do you see as uniquely American about this history of fraud?  

EB: The basic psychological patterns of economic deception have not changed much in the United States. Indeed, these patterns mirror experimental findings regarding vulnerabilities that appear to be common across societies. Thus I would be skeptical that the tactics of an investment “pump and dump” or marketing “bait and switch” would look very different in 1920s France or the Japan of the early 21st century than in the U.S. at those times.

That said, dimensions of American culture have created welcome ground for fraudulent schemes and schemers. American policy-makers have tended to accord great respect to entrepreneurs, which helps to explain the adoption of a legal baseline of caveat emptor in the nineteenth century, and the partial return to that baseline in the last quarter of the twentieth-century.

The growth of the antifraud state, however, likely narrowed the differences between American policies and those in other industrialized countries. One hope of mine for this book is that it prompts more historical analysis of antifraud regulation elsewhere – in continental Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We need more detailed histories in other societies before we can draw firmer comparative conclusions.

What do you see as the most important implications of this book for policy-makers charged with furthering consumer or investor protection?

EB: Business fraud is a truly complex regulatory problem. No modern society can hope to eliminate it without adopting such restrictive rules as to strangle economic activity. But if governments rely too heavily on the market forces associated with reputation, business fraud can become sufficiently common and sufficiently costly to threaten public confidence in capitalist institutions. As a result, policy-makers would do well to focus on strategies of fraud containment.

That approach calls for:

• well-designed campaigns of public education for consumers and investors;
• empowering consumers and investors through contractual defaults, like cooling off periods that allow consumers to back out of purchases;
• cultivating social norms that stigmatize businesses that take the deceptive road;
• building regulatory networks to share information across agencies and levels of government, and between government bodies and the large number of antifraud NGOs; and
• a determination to shut down the most unscrupulous firms, not only to curb their activities, but also to persuade everyone that the state is serious about combating fraud.

Edward Balleisen talks about his new book:

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 and Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.