The Not-So-Great Pyramid

I need to be delicate with this one.

I have a thing I want to talk about, and I intend to be critical of that thing. But there are people involved, people I know (at least tangentially) and I don’t want to criticize them. Well, I do, but not terribly harshly; they are a product of our society. It’s our society I want to talk about. But there may be some people caught in the crossfire.

But then, I doubt they read my blog. So let’s just have at it.

I have recently had several encounters with pyramid schemes. Mostly through Facebook and Twitter posts, comments from the sorts of friends I feel I need to qualify as Facebook friends — my wife’s cousin, people associated with people I know but who have never met myself, or those I have met but am not necessarily friendly with. And at least one former student whom I would count as a friend even in a non-electronic sense.

I have no doubt there are others that I do not see, either because I do not see their posts, or because they do not post about this when they fall victim to it. I’m sure there are several. Because while pyramid schemes and get-rich-quick scams are as old as money, as old as sloth, as old as impatience — and that’s pretty goddamn old — I think there are more of them, now. I think we are seeing something of a perfect storm of influences and trends in our society that has thrown a great feast before this particular monster’s maw, and it is chuckling while it digs fatly into the mounds of fresh meat, chewing and swallowing and then crapping out greater quantities even than it takes in: because this beast expands, you see, and covers everything it touches with filth.

All right, that’s probably overstating it. But I like the image. I’m picturing a grossly fat Sphinx, its jowls dripping with blood, and it brings its head down and opens wide, and people — like my Facebook friends — just walk right in. And behind it? A Great Pyramid of shit.

Anyway, enough of the metaphors. A pyramid scheme is when a company sells a terrible product of some kind, generally water filters or kitchen knives or vacation condo timeshares, but it employs a particular trick: this company’s major profits do not come from customers; rather the profits come from new employees. Either the new employees need to pay for “training,” or “licensing,” or both; or the new employees need to purchase the goods they then have to resell. Or all of the above. It’s called a pyramid scheme for two reasons (at least it should be two reasons): because the flowchart has to expand with each level — the shmuck who starts the company has to find at least two suckers to pay him, and then they have to turn around and find two new suckers to recoup their losses, because the best way to make a profit at this company is to bring in new hires, and then those four suckers have to find eight, and so on down as far as it can go, and generally speaking, each level profits from all of the levels below it, so even if the guys in Level 3 do manage to get rich quick, they aren’t as rich as the people above them. That’s the first reason, the real reason. The other reason, the should-be-true reason, is because the pyramids were built by slave labor for the narcissistic pleasure of exactly one guy: the Pharaoh. For everyone else involved — and we’re talking tens of thousands of people — the Pyramids were nothing but shit, formed into blocks and stuck together with blood and sweat.

Yeah, there’s an image. Maybe I can use that on the poster for my Self-Actualization seminar.

Pyramid schemes are not illegal because their claims are true: if you can get two new people to come work for the company, you will get a bonus, and you will earn a piece of their income if they make any, just as part of your income gets kicked up to the people who brought you in; and if you spend $500 on crappy products that, in theory, you can sell for $5000, then you will make a tremendous profit. Never mind that the people above you already made their profit, because you spent $500 buying crap that isn’t worth $50. They don’t say that the crap almost certainly won’t sell — who the hell needs a water filter other than the one you have in the fridge already? Who buys a $500 knife set from a traveling salesman when you can buy everything at Costco, or online? — but then, they don’t need to; as long as they aren’t actively lying, they aren’t committing fraud, and if you’re foolish enough to think that paying out $500 to buy water filters that you have to sell door-to-door is a better way to earn money than working for minimum wage, then caveat emptor. Or rather, caveat venditor: let the salesman beware.

No, wait — I was right the first time. These people are buyers. They are consumers. They are at the bottom level of this pyramid of crap, with the weight of all that came before pressing them down into the mud.

But these companies are absurd. They’re absurd: I remember a student back twelve, thirteen years ago got into one of the water filter ones, and tried to sell me; I had bought cookies from students before, and boxes of fruit for the holidays, so I said I’d look at his catalog — but the freaking things started at $300. And needed to be installed. Okay, first, I rent my house, so there’s no way I’m donating a high-quality (I assume from the price. Right? Makes sense, right? Who’d charge that much for a piece of crap?) permanent water filter to my landlord; and secondly, have you not heard of Brita? I never bought anything. But he got a real job at a restaurant, and I tipped him when I ate there; honestly, he probably made more off of that than he would have from the water filter — though I’m sure the level above him was disappointed in both of us.

So why are there so many? Why am I seeing more and more of these?

Partly it’s because we live in a capitalist society. There have always been snake-oil salesmen. There have always been people who take advantage of others. Read Huck Finn and think about the Duke and the King, how they exploit both Huck and Jim, and each other, shamelessly from their first arrival on the raft until they finally get tarred and feathered — and when he sees that final justice, Huck feels sorry for them, and wishes he could help them. So this is nothing new.

But there are new elements. I think part of it is the Great Recession, especially when it was brought about largely by the last string of get-rich-quickers, the home loan industry. Ten, fifteen years ago, these people who now sell products for these companies probably worked for Joe Don Bob’s Big Home Howdy Howdy Mortgage Ranch Yee-Haw! Ltd. Same principle: pay the company for your “training,” and then work on commission, which in theory allows you to get rich, but actually makes those above you rich, and you only make money if you find people even more foolish than you were for taking the job in the first place; in 2004, that was people who believed they could get a home loan for a house they could not in any way afford, because they’d just flip it before the balloon payment came due. And it worked, at first — because there was the next group of suckers looking to get in on the action, and who were willing to buy the flipped houses, because they were going to flip those puppies, too.

Except for one thing: at some point, you run out of suckers. And since each new level is the new base of the pyramid, when the new level isn’t large enough or strong enough, the whole structure collapses. Though I’m not sure how the metaphor works that way: I guess if you imagine the whole pile of shi- I mean stone — being lifted up on thin struts, propped up by sticks and old rebar, so they can slide new stones in underneath before they jack those up along with everything atop them, until finally the jacks fail and it all comes down like the world’s worst game of Jenga — yeah, that works.

So we have an economically depressed society, one in which college is now too expensive for people to want to go at all, even if they know what they want to study and don’t need to get rich quick; one in which traditional sources of employment have almost entirely vanished, and everyone who lost their jobs in the collapse has had to jerry-rig a half-dozen different incomes — they teach an extension class, and sell beaded pillows on Etsy, and do aromatherapy consults, and throw Tupperware lingerie parties, and also, sell some water filters and timeshares (20% off if you buy both!). And since all of those people are college graduates, it makes education seem even less useful, even less worth the cost. Which just makes the problem worse: because that means that there are more and more people without education, so they aren’t perceptive enough to understand why this sweet new deal being offered them is too good to be true, and they can’t find a good job anyway, without a degree — so why not?

Enter the people I know who have bought into these schemes. They are all high school graduates, but none of them are college graduates. (To show that I know college is not a panacea nor always vital for success, one of the people who got hit up to join a pyramid scheme laughed at the whole thing, and he doesn’t have a college degree, either. What he has is a decent paying job he likes, and a clear and perceptive intelligence, so the get-rich-quick spiel bounced right off and slunk away into the gutter to find someone more desperate.) And here is the part that actually makes me angry, and was the impetus for this particular blog: those people, the ones who take these jobs, they work hard at those jobs. Harder than I do at mine, without a doubt — longer hours, certainly. They are proud of this, and their loved ones are proud of them for it. Hell, it’s even turned into memes:


Again, this is nothing new; the country was founded on that Puritan work ethic, which teaches that our role in life is to work, until we die and go to Hell. (Thanks, Puritans! Jesus, why couldn’t we have been founded by Taoists? Or Transcendentalists? Or free love hippies, or something? Why did it have to be freaking Puritans?)

And here’s my problem. If you’re that willing to work hard, if you understand that real effort is the only thing that brings success: THEN WHY THE HELL DIDN’T YOU WORK HARD IN SCHOOL?

Why wouldn’t you put your effort into something that is genuinely valuable, and not just because you make money from it, but in every way that something can be valuable? Education makes you a better person, living a better life, in a better world. Why did you pass that up in favor of cold-calling every phone number on a list to ask strangers if they want to buy your product — a product you don’t even really understand, if it’s, say, a timeshare, and which, I don’t doubt, your involvement with stops at, “You’re interested? Great, let me transfer you to my supervisor, who is actually a trained and licensed real estate broker, because he’s higher up the pyramid; but at least by transferring you, I made five bucks. Just fifty more buyers, and I’ll pay for my training certificate!”

If you’re willing to spend five, ten, twenty years building your business empire, why the hell wouldn’t you start with four years of college — studying, oh, I don’t know, maybe BUSINESS? Or even two years of trade school, so that you can have a good-paying job of some kind while you plan your entrepreneurial masterpiece? Maybe you can even base said magnum opus on something valuable, some genuine skill you acquired, instead of some bullshit like scammy real estate?

Maybe if these people had paid attention when the class read Huck Finn, they’d know that the We-Buy-Homes-Cheap company is the Duke and those water filter people are the King. So why didn’t they read the book?

Because they couldn’t see the value in something that genuinely has it: but they think they see value in a pyramid made of shit. I guess because the pyramid is tall.

There’s also this: our society has always believed that physical labor is harder, and therefore more Puritannically admirable, than mental labor. It isn’t necessarily enviable, because people who don’t have to spend eighteen hours a day digging fence post holes don’t want to switch to doing that, but we have always admired the people who can do it. We admire people who have three full-time jobs, even if their combined income is a fraction of our own. Those people work hard. And God bless ’em for it. Salt of the Earth. At least they’re not taking charity, right, Puritans?

You know, I’ve never had a serious physical labor job, like digging ditches or picking fruit. But I have done physical labor — I was a janitor and maintenance flunky for five years in college — and I have done home improvement type stuff, for hours at a stretch, out in the hot sun. So I understand how brutal physical labor can be.

I’ve also taught high school English for sixteen years, and in the process, I’ve written four novels and several hundred blogs and book reviews. So I understand mental labor, too. And while a full day of hard work in the hot sun leaves me completely drained and empty and torn, like the plastic wrapper after you take it off the Twinkie, that exhaustion is nothing compared to what it feels like to spend eight hours grading essays on June 15th when grades are due at 4pm. That kind of tired is the kind of tired where you don’t get brain-dead, and you don’t want to just sleep for days; you’re so tired you get angry. You don’t want to sleep, you want to punch things, starting with your own brain for getting you into this mess. It’s a whole different kind of tired, because it’s a whole different kind of hard.

So my point is: if we admire laborious hard work so much, why the hell don’t we admire those who put in the genuine effort to study, and really study hard, and learn? Why do we think it’s better to put in eight hours at an office — or in a ditch — than it is to put in eight hours at a library? Imagine how much better off we all would be, if the people who work so hard to sell shit, and pile up shit for their bosses to sit on top of while they, the hard workers, squelch around underneath, suffering and dying while they just keep adding more shit, like Giles Corey in The Crucible calling for “More weight!” if he then put the stones on his own chest until he died — imagine if all of those people who work for these ridiculous goddamn companies (And the biggest pyramid scheme of all, by the way, is the United States military — but that’s a topic for another day) could actually produce their own original ideas. Imagine where we would be then.

If you actually put in the effort to read all of this, that is.

Those of you who have half a dozen water filters in boxes behind your couch? I know you didn’t.

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