The New Economic Reality: Smoke and Mirrors as a Substitute for Substance

We are losing sight of the difference between presentation and reality, what we say we do and what we actually do. The ascendance of the Trumps has given rise to a society where branding trumps substance. There’s no better example than Ivanka Trump, who is touted as a savvy, Wharton-educated businesswoman, but who is in reality an heiress employed by her billionaire father. Her icy beauty is part of her brand dedicated to having it all—a loving family, a flourishing career and magazine-cover good looks. The truth is that she, like her father, are living off the proceeds of an inheritance while contributing precious little of lasting value to the greater world.

This sort of style over substance is everywhere in our culture right now.  As Carina Chocano discusses in the New York Times Magazine’s First Words column, “We are now expected to favor the story over reality, to accept that saying a thing makes it so.” For example, the Wells Fargo debacle had its roots in projecting a new image in banking that placed “storytelling” over promotion. This “story” resulted in employees being pressured to create millions of fake customer accounts in order to collect additional fees. No wonder this era is being described as a kleptocracy. This is far beyond false advertising—we are in a scam economy where advertising is used to cover up abusing customers and employees.

There is grave danger in letting this go unremarked. The scam economy is generating a groundswell of discontent and anger and an appetite for dystopian fiction that mirrors our own despair. People do not trust the establishment, the elite, or the capitalist system that props up this undeserved privilege. It’s time for business to take a stand and for companies to do an independent audit to reconcile that what they pontificate, promote and advertise conforms to reality. It’s fine to build your dreams in the clouds but no nation will last long built of smoke and mirrors.

Andrew Faas is the author of From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire