Segment from Bridge for Sale

When Life gives you Lemons

The hosts riff on the history of deceptive salesmen.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
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PETER ONUF: So Ed, this problem that Jay Cook identifies, the problem of deception, of fraud, of confidence games, of needing to learn what’s really going on in a hidden economy in which the surface doesn’t tell you what’s behind the scenes, that’s so 19th century and so not 18th century. We’re not worried about the hidden games and tricks and frauds and confidence games that merchants are pulling on us in the 18th century.

The whole idea of customer, think about it for a minute, means custom. It means a relationship that endures over time. And on both sides of that very personal transaction, there is trust. We trust each other. We’ll always be here for each other.

ED AYERS: Oh, that’s so pleasant, Peter.

PETER ONUF: It’s beautiful.

BRIAN BALOGH: Yeah, it works really well when there are only 17 of you in the whole country.

ED AYERS: Yeah, exactly. Well, but you’re talking about the 19th century, Peter. But we go a long way toward fixing the problem that we create in the first place.

In the very same decade that PT Barnum develops all of this elaborate chicanery, we also developed some elaborate machinery to figure out people’s credit. And so you had people like R.G. Dun, which grows into Dun & Bradstreet, which figures out a way to have correspondence from the various towns across America, sending in evaluations of their neighbors. People send reports back in from every little hamlet in town across America to New York and they put it in a big book.

They would have put it in a computer if they had it, but they didn’t. They put it in books that you could buy that gave a credit rating to every person who did business in the country. And so they would be filled with things like, used to be good businessman, took to drink. Had good business, but wife ran off with merchant, things like that.

And so then they said, well, that’s very unwieldy way of doing it, telling these little stories. They turned it into numbers and names. So the phrase of, if you’re an A1 type of person, that comes out in these credit ratings. But if they say, you’re good for nothing, that means that you’re good for no kind of credit. And so I’d like to think that we pretty much fixed everything in the 19th century. And I don’t know why capitalism would be any problem thereafter.

BRIAN BALOGH: Well, I’ll tell you why, Ed. Selling stuff. While you were worrying about the character of businesspeople, large corporations, starting at the beginning of the 20th century, were worried that their customers, who no longer could see them, know them, they were worried that they would trust them. And the major way that they answered that, besides advertising which was important, was federal regulation.

From the Pure Food and Drug Act in the early 20th century to the Consumer Product Safety Act in the 1970s, we have a government ensuring trust between the seller and the buyer.

The funny thing is today we live in a world of turning to businesses themselves in order to trust the products we buy. So for instance, we have something like CARFAX, which gives us the history of a used car we might want to buy, to protect us against, perhaps the most fraudulent class of businesses out there– those used car salespeople.

ED AYERS: Brian, Brian, Brian, I thought we were friends.

BRIAN BALOGH: We’re not?

ED AYERS: I think you know very well that my dad was a used car salesman.

BRIAN BALOGH: He wasn’t that kind of used car salesman.

ED AYERS: Well, if you are the son of a used car salesman, you notice that people don’t differentiate. There’s one person, there’s one category of jobs that you can make fun of with impunity in this country, and that’s the used car salesmen. And I grew up with one and watched how hard he worked. And he’d come home every day so discouraged by the way that the customers would come in and try to con him.


ED AYERS: No really, that’s the way that he would see it. They come in and they are assuming that he is crooked. And so they’re going to do whatever they can do.

And I can remember the very early days when you could get a published account of how much the car really cost. He hated that so much. People would walk in and let me tell you, no use trying to fool me. I know how much this car really costs.

And dad told me something that has always stuck with me. He says, son, the only piece of business advice I need to tell you is this. Never start lying. Because once you start, you can’t stop. You’re going to get in trouble. And you’re going to have to face these people around. They know where you are. They’re going to come back and get you.

PETER ONUF: Well, Ed, your dad had customers, just like my people back in the 18th century.

ED AYERS: He did. And he required people coming back to say, that was a good car, Tommy. What else you got this time?

BRIAN BALOGH: So Ed, I take it your dad didn’t live to see CARFAX for instance?

ED AYERS: That’s right.

BRIAN BALOGH: So what have we lost with the Consumer Product Safety Regulation and federal laws and lemon laws and CARFAX? Have we lost something between Peter’s custom-oriented customer and your dad, the salesperson?

ED AYERS: Yeah, dad would tell you that the goal was for the customer to leave feeling that he had gotten a good deal.

Today, if you go in and pay something the computer has told you is the right price, there’s no sense of accomplishment. There’s no sense that you actually came out ahead in any way.

I think that’s what my dad loved. If he’d have one used car being traded for another used car, there’s so many variables and so much variation in it. But today, if it’s just a transaction in which it’s like going to Target and just buying something off the shelf, what you’ve lost is any sense of your own personality, your skill, ingenuity, actually getting you something better than the list price.

BRIAN BALOGH: Of course, you do actually make it out of the parking lot of Target.

ED AYERS: See, there’s those jokes against my dad again.


BRIAN BALOGH: It’s time for another break. When we come back, a superhero you cannot deceive and her rather curious origins.

ED AYERS: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. Trust me.