"Bullshit Promises"

Our new hero Elizabeth Warren (we had always liked her posts at Credit Slips, and it’s to see her kicking ass and taking names) pointed to a paper “Bullshit Promises,” by Curtis Bridgeman and Karen Sandrik. It looks at the concept of “bullshit” as defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt and discusses the implications for contract law.

For those not familiar with Frankfurt’s construct, (and I wasn’t), bullshit is different than lying. Lying takes place when an individual says something he knows to be untrue. Bullshit is when the speaker is indifferent to the truth. Frankfurt’s example is when a politician goes on about how “our great and blessed country….created a new beginning for mankind.” The candidate may or may not believe it, and in this case, he isn’t saying it to be believed, he is saying it to curry favor with voters.

The authors explain:

The defining characteristic of bullshit, for Frankfurt, is that it is speech that holds itself out as describing reality, but fails to live up to the accepted standards of how we go about making such descriptions. It is not its actual truth or falsity that determines whether a statement is bullshit, but rather whether it is made with or without regard for its truth or falsity.

I have a particularly keen interest in topics like this because I am distressed with the many and varied forms of dishonest that take place routinely in our culture. Not only is there resigned acceptance of much of it, but even worse, people don’t even seem to notice when it happens.

I don’t mean the sort of white lies that will be with us ever and always to smooth over interpersonal relations (although research has found that they are amazingly common, with study subjects telling 20 to 30 lies a day). It’s the skirting the edge of truth in business and public life that sets my teeth on edge.

Maybe I am just showing myself to be old-fashioned, but when I started out for myself nearly 20 years ago, pretty much everything was on a handshake basis, even though I would always paper it up. I’ve seen a decline in those sorts of situations over the years, and my colleagues have had similar experiences. In recent years, I’ve had a few situations where people have attempted to retrade deals radically at the 11th hour, even with a paper trail and authorizations, almost for sport, just to see what they could get away with.

As an aside, maybe that’s why Clint Eastwood remains so popular. He has come to play anachronistic, cranky (most recently, in Gran Torino, bigoted) old men, who are nevertheless appealing because they adhere rigidly to antique, unabashedly masculine notions of honor, in particular, living up to one’s word.

I wonder how the decay started. Politicians have always been famous for exaggerating, but Lyndon Banes Johnson took discourse down a notch (he lied so unabashedly that reporters, historically loath to say anything bad about a sitting President, started openly about a “credibility gap”). But I believe that it is commercial speech that has fostered a willingness to cut corners with the truth.

I could go on at length, but I will stop with a couple of examples. One of the mainstays of commercials is to show smiling, sometimes ecstatic or giddy, people using the product. Is a better cake mix or floor cleaner really going to make you feel all that good? No, but the images say they will. And because the distortion/overpromise is non-verbal, it’s harder to parse it out and look at it clinically. That is why TV is so remarkably effective.

Another is the pervasiveness of “gotcha” practices, which are particularly popular in financial services. Rebates that have such elaborate protocols that it is clear that the company went to some length to come up with ways to reject completed forms. “Free” checking accounts that are anything but (say, a minimum balance, or only a few month no-fee period). As we discussed earlier this evening, revocable “fixed interest rate for the life of the balance” credit card offers. And then we just have good old fashioned bad faith dealing. I have taken to recording the dates and details of medical claims I submit to my insurer, Cigna, because they routinely throw them out. Two years ago, every single item I sent to them wound up in the system. Now, anywhere from 20% to 35% go missing. But I can’t prove that they are systematically and deliberately “losing” claims, even though that is clearly what they are up to.

Now the list above could all be called lies, made with an intent to deceive. But we have related bullshit. I once went to a focus group (I do so out of professional curiosity) which was to test consumer reactions to a proposed advertising message for a health insurance company. I cannot recall the exact wording, but all the messages said explicitly that the insurer would put the patient’s interest first, be proactive, caring, etc. I took issue, saying the ad themes were rubbish, no insurer acted that way and they would have to turn their business model on its head to do so (ironically, the insurer was CIgna).

The person running the session kept trying to force me into agreement: “But if a company were to do this, how would you feel about it?” The session leader refused to hear that if I saw an advertisement so wildly at variance with the truth, it would annoy me rather than make we think better of the company. So we have bullshit market research leading to dishonest ad campaigns.

Back to the paper for some legal highlights:

Most courts require an actual intent to deceive the promisee rather than just a lack of an intention to perform. A paradigm case would be Max Bialystock from the musical The Producers, who sold 1,000% interest in a musical, planning to make sure the musical was so bad that there would be no profits to divide so that no one would discover his fraud….

In a world of standard-form contracts, however, consumers are faced with what is arguably a much more widespread problem than lying promises. Parties with great bargaining power who deal primarily in standard-form contracts need not lie in order to get the benefits of lying. Instead, what parties can do – as we will see, what they often actually do – is to avoid making a lying promise simply by making more nuanced promises that fall short of committing them to any particular course of conduct. To be sure, these parties use the words of promising, but then they elsewhere reserve the right to cancel the contract at any time or to change its terms unilaterally.

The paper then has a very informative discussion of some of the many tricks that credit card companies play (did you know that it takes PhD level reading skills to parse the interest rate language in credit card agreements?). Cell phone companies are also devious:

….every major cell phone company has been careful not to commit itself to a particular course of performance by reserving broad rights for itself in the terms and conditions.61 For example, Verizon states that the consumer’s service is “subject” to its business practices, procedures and policies, which may be changed at any time without notice.62 Verizon then proceeds to state that “we can also change prices and any other conditions in this agreement.”63 Likewise, AT&T’s has a similar clause: “We many change any terms, conditions, rates, fees, expenses, or charges regarding your service at any time.” Again, like the credit card companies, cell phone companies are not making outright lies so long as they do not have a plan in place to increase the rates at the time of advertising the plan. But they are also not subjecting themselves to the norms of promising even as they use words that would suggest otherwise. While the consumer is committed, the cellphone company can do what it likes.

While these two industries are arguably the worst offenders, similar bad practices are common elsewhere.

The authors content that the protections under current law against such practices are too weak and suggest some modest reforms that could rein them in a great deal.

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  1. Anonymous

    One of the reasons I think this recession is going to be much worse than most people imagine, is exactly this culture of bullshit we swim in. You don’t notice it until you’ve crawled up on land and had time to dry yourself off and think about it.

    So, imagine tens of millions of American consumers, cut off from their credit cards and cable TV brainwashing for several months by economic necessity, and then being coaxed back into the consumerist fold. This culture looks horrible from the outside, and once you’ve been detoxed for a few months, you’re an outsider.

    I’m stingy, not because I don’t enjoy fine things, but because virtually nothing you can afford to buy in this country lives up to the promises.

  2. donna

    Um, did you people not grow up in the 70s?

    Nixon disillusioned me forever. I’ve never trusted a politician since. As to advertising, credit cards, banks, television, etc., they all seem to have been deceptive pretty much my whole life.

    Same as it ever was, really.

  3. Yves Smith


    The point is it got worse before Nixon, and appears correlated with the popularity of TV. Weirdly, Johnson and Nixon kept lyin’ when the footage from VIetnam made it hard to pretend things were going well there. So we’ve now had nearly four decades of pols getting more clever about handling the media.

    And commercials are getting ever more manipulative. I spent two years in Oz, and it was refreshing how straightforward (and often wry) their commercials are. Ours have very weird video game and dream type images, often bizarre and not funny irony. It almost seems as if a very disturbed psyche is behind some of our stuff. And I suspect a lot of research has gone into it and has ascertained that it is effective.

  4. Anonymous

    The de-evolution of the business contract has been a sore spot of mine for many years now. In my field, construction, its a game of who sets the standards, manufacturer of building goods, people with the development monies, right through out the entire food chain.

    Ask a question to a person with authority about a clarification in a spec, may educe a response, but try and get them to sign off on it. I’ve seen contracts ripped up with the statement of go a head and do some thing about it we have better solicitors. In the building boom over here, I have watched as the old and knowledgeable members of the industry have be replaced with increasingly younger and more malleable individuals with little ethical behaver evident in their still maturing brains.

    Ex sample to my point, Young man walks on to construction site, new khaki slacks, fashionable new black shoes, Ralph L Oxford shirt and eyes wide with pride. I greet him with a G’Day and what can I do for you, his response was Hi I’m the new site supervisor (his type would run 5 to 20 jobs depending on size). I jokingly say you guys just keep getting younger every day and his response was “well we are bringing a new youthful energy into the market”. Well after I picked my jaw off he floor, I wished him luck in his new position and got back to my work. My head was filled with pictures of him in a room full of dopplegangers, just down loading what ever some construction/sales Mgr puts in front of them and send them out the door to make life hell for everyone else and all for a company cell phone/car and a title they can bullshit about at the pub to get girls and impress mates lool.

    Society is sick and its the criminals, wolfs in lambs skins, sales, advertising, profit at all costs, politicians for personal gain that are the root of it.

    Yes Yves, I agree with you 110% fix this component in the equation and then things will start to function with more rational behaver for everyones benefit.


  5. Richard Smith

    'Bullshit' has been around for a long long time. It's acknowledged in your Constitution – that's why the right you have is to 'the pursuit of happiness', not 'happiness'. The hucksters facilitate that pursuit.

    For other literary examples see "Huckleberry Finn" (the Duke and the King); or Nabokov "Nicolai Gogol" (1944).

    The term "poshlost" that Nabokov uses is a nuanced version of 'bullshit'. Fake ad promises are pretty much at the core of it. You can see Nabokov pursuing that from magazines & film (40s) through to TV (50s and 60s).

    Ideal exchange for fake happiness? Fake money.

    Easy to see why bullshit peaks might coincide with debt bubbles.

  6. Anonymous

    I don’t think people are any different today than what they were in the past. It’s just that we’ve been in an environment for the last several years where regulation was seen as ‘bad’ and thus the cheats were able to get away with pretty much anything.

    Look at this guy Madoff — still walking the streets even though he admitted to a multi-billion dollar fraud. And his kids will probably live out their lives in the lap of luxury because they ‘didn’t know’. If we would start treating white-collar criminals more in-line with the magnitude of the crimes they’ve committed, then you would start to see less cheating in society.

    All you have to do is ask yourself “What is the downside of cheating today?” The answer: not much.

  7. Nick

    How nice to have an article and be able to agree with every word.

    The gap between promise and performance has never been greater in my lifetime and I was born in the ’30s.

    The advertising industry is of course the prime mover in the creation of bull and from this flow all the weasel contracts, get out clauses and nil responsibility that is a feature of our life.

    BUT, and it is a big BUT, so much of this we brought upon ourselves with the help of the “ambulance chasers”. A packet of peanuts has the words ‘may contain nuts’, a cup of coffee we are reminded ‘is hot’, and everyone who trips over their own feet immediately seeks out a claim compensation firm to sue.

    I have no time for the shysters of the marketplace but we once used to have an ethos of personal responsibility and there was such a thing as the spirit of the law as well as the letter.

  8. Anonymous

    Simple solution: unplug from the Matrix…
    1) Canceled my sub. to the LA Times (no real worthwhile news anyway.
    2) Canceled my contract for cable service (50 channels providing nothing of real value).
    3. Use rabbit ears for local programs (watch few programs and PBS).
    4. Plug into internet to get latest news/analysis and blogs.

    You become detoxed after a couple of months…Frees up time to read and do other things…

  9. Anonymous

    Bullshit is epidemic, no doubt. I have felt as though the majority of companies I have dealt with in the last year were trying to cheat me, from double charges from the phone company, to the appliance store delivering an identical looking but cheaper fridge, to the bank jacking up mortgage closing costs 4 hours before close. These are supposed to be reputable companies yet dealing with them is like playing 3 card monte with a street hustler. You practically have to pack a gun to keep them from robbing you.

    I hope there is a cure for the bullshit epidemic somewhere on the horizon because there are not enough honest companies left to meet one’s needs without dealing with the shysters.

  10. Anonymous

    Of course, if I were a true criminal, I would read "Bullshit Promises" and all other papers of a similar type to fully understand the options and opportunities which await me in my career of Crime. There is lots of useful research in this field. I'm positive Madeoff and their ilk are well schooled in all the accounting possibilities including all the criminal ones. Just ask UBS who were advising US clients how to criminally avoid taxes.

    What we see today is an outgrowth of the S&L Disaster 1990-91 wherein the Criminals were bailed out and there were few prosecutions, just like today. When the Criminals are bailed out, they don't just take their loot and go off into the sunset, they look for new opportunities to get more loot. Thus, today is simply S&L DIsaster with new wrinkles and nuances and sons and daughters of S&L Criminals. Any TV Cop Show tells you one thing, Criminals don't go away; they go to school on their Crimes and they replicate. We see this all around us.

    Add up all the money looted from the War and FInancial Rackets alone and you have tens of thousands of Criminals operating in the USA. Hopefully they will not be moving into my rural, unfashionable neighborhood. And, without any meaningful prosecution in the works, we continue on the same path, the Criminals replicating and the Crime expanding.

    The ultimate question now is:
    When do the Crimes exhaust the Treasury? It may be soon.

  11. shtove

    Any link for the assertion about PhD level skills for parsing a credit agreement?

    I believe it, but would like to see how it was figured out.

  12. Anonymous

    The most pressing problem for consumers today is algorithmic billing. I cannot tell you the amount of man hours a week I spend trying to get improper charges corrected. This problem is not Bullshit as it is intentional lying and cheating.

    It is my belief that most people don’t take the time necessary to dispute charges and just pay them anyway. I wonder how much profit is generated by companies from algorithmic billing.

  13. Anonymous


    I have watched as the old and knowledgeable members of the industry have be replaced with increasingly younger and more malleable individuals with little ethical behaver evident in their still maturing brains.

    In the 1980s new hires at Lehman Brothers in retail sales (financial consultants) training began with ‘leave your brains at the door.’

    I matriculated at a big private university in the early 1980s and again in 2001-2005 when I got my degree.

    The change was like day and night as hype, advertising and new building construction boomed.


  14. ballyfager

    The trouble with big corporations, and cell phone companies are an excellent example, is that they think they have last bats. By that I mean that, ultimately, they think you have to do what they say.

    Only if they have a monopoly (as the cable companies used to). Comcast treated their customers in a highhanded manner but, with the availability of FIOS, they’ve come down to earth somewhat.

    I had a run-in with Verizon a few years back. The lower level people just keep telling you about company policy. I kept telling them that I didn’t give a rat’s ass about company policy. Eventually you get to someone who realizes that you represent a revenue stream to them and they would be crazy to let that get away.

    They think (without actually thinking) that the customer is subordinate to them. This represents a major sea-change in my lifetime, from when the customer was always right.

  15. Richard Smith


    you can get a rough and ready reading list out by shoving “measuring lexical difficulty comprehension” into Google and trawling the results. There are some half decent measures and analysis tools out there now I think.

  16. Richard Kline

    I absolutely loath commercial advertising. It’s existence is a major reason I refuse to own a television. The purpose of commercial advertising is exactly in the vein of this post, not necessarily to lie but to replace reality with a simulacra more favorable to the producer; a brilliant, tawdry, or in fact mendacious simulacra, it matters not so long as the effect is achieved. Our culture is a cheap, dumb culture as long as we tolerate this stuff, which we do.

    . . . Did I mention that I love as much truth as one can realistically approximate? And, too, beauty is a shining star; show me the way thither, and I’m gone. : )

  17. Anonymous

    The BS factor has become worse in the last 8 years. The Federal Trade Commission is a very unique federal agency since they are tasked with rooting out deceptive practices against consumers.

    Oversight from the FTC has been as comprehensive as the SEC and DOJ under Bush.
    When “Laissez-Faire” is the official policy of the US government, then the system breaks down very quickly at every level of commerce and trade.

    The current “Truthiness” approach to commerce will take a hit under the new administration. While everyone is watching the battles over the economy the Obama Agencies will be rewriting regs that focus on protecting the consumer over business. Big business will have much influence over these reg as DiFi had over the selection of the new CIA chief.

    Change is good.

  18. Anonymous

    I generally avoid giving credence to assertions that one cultural phenomenon or another is worse than it was way back then in the good old days. Its hard to measure such things and usually reflects the observer’s advancing age more than anything else.

    That said, it makes sense that bullshit would be worse these days. As long as profit and wealth are primary cultural values, then pretty much anything goes in the business world, leading to spiraling one-upmanship. Increasing disintermediation and the expanding number of participants who are fully integrated into the global economy make it much less likely that a person or organization will have to deal with someone they shafted again, or that the transgression will be widely known. The vastly disparate resources of corporations and individual consumers means the former are able to martial squads of experts to generate BS that consumers just can’t unravel without sacrificing significant portions of their leisure time or family life. And corporations are also able to muscle their way into the legislative process in order reduce the consequences of generating BS.

    Many people are aware of BS coming at them, and view it with a certain amount of ironic detachment at times. But the BS is wall-to-wall 24/7 on all 57 channels, and it becomes difficult to push back on everything. Others are just simply too credulous, which isn’t the worst personality failing to have, but it makes them easy victims.

    As for the political world, I think a lot of people capitulated back in 1980 when they voted for “Morning in America.” The Republican party has been unleashing torrents of BS ever since that initial success. Mission Accomplished.

  19. Anonymous

    The consumer is a little blond girl on the playground and nice Mister Verizon has a puppy in his van and Uncle Citibank wants to show her something silly in his pants. It goes for every single commercial transaction. All of them are predators. Consumer resentment could be channeled with spectacular results.

  20. michael gotkin

    I much prefer associating with
    convicted felons,compulsive gamblers and self acknowledged bullshitters to “honest” folk.
    We all know exactly where we stand and who we are, its the “honest” guys that always worry me.

  21. DownSouth

    When a nation adopts an economic paradigm that expunges morality, what do you expect?

    As Amitai Etzioni wrote in The Moral Dimension: Toward A New Economics:

    The neoclassical paradigm does not merely ignore the moral dimension but actively opposes its inclusion.

    Kevin Phillips explores this in detail in Wealth and Democracy. Taking an in-depth look at the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, as well as our current predicament, he sets out “how philosophy and public policymaking during such periods has shifted to emphasize markets and Darwininan behvior and to find civic virtue in erstwhile private sins like greed, self-interest, and profligacy.”

    Phillips goes on to conclude:

    In the 1980s, as befitting an age of knowledge industries and communications, the selling of a new political economics was mounted through a well-funded network of foundations, societies, journals, and theories. Broadly, their efforts were designed to uphold corporations, profits, consumption, wealth, and upper-bracket tax reduction and to undercut government regulation. Some of those involved antedated the 1970s, most notably University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and the “Chicago School” of free market economics. All together, they would give self-interest–critics substituted selfishness and greed–another philosophic era in the sun….

    Corruption, like larceny, comes in many forms, some blatant, others more subtle. Booms, speculative heydays, and other periods of money worship bring the highest ratios of both corruptions, the hard and the soft…

    It seems clear from the historical record that swindles are a response to the greedy appetite for wealth stimulated by the boom…

    Less obtrusive but at least as important has been the corollary corruption of thinking and writing–the distortions of ideas and value systems to favor wealth and the biases of “econmic man.”

  22. Anonymous

    Prior to deregulation, the terms of your contract with the phone company, airline, etc. were set by the government. Health coverage used to be mainly under union contracts.

    There’s a legal doctrine that any ambiguity or inconsistency in an insurance contract is interpreted against the company. Extending that rule to other natural-monopoly contracts would go a long way.

  23. DownSouth

    Annonymous at 9:22 AM said:

    “The Republican party has been unleashing torrents of BS ever since that initial success. Mission Accomplished.”

    I agree with everything you said minus this statement.

    To assert that our descent into the moral quagmire we now find ourselves was a partisan endeavor is also a distortion of the truth.

  24. Aaron

    The movie Thank You For Smoking was quite illustrative of the culture of bullshit.

    The rationalization was the Yuppie Nuremburg defense.

  25. Dan Duncan

    Just another way of saying “Equivocate”.

    These types of contracts have some relation to the following types of syllogisms:

    “A feather is light.
    What is light cannot be dark.
    Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.”

    …only the “fallacy” is purposefully employed…which, of course, then makes it an artifice and not a fallacy.

    Speaking of bullshit, though…the lawyers who wrote the paper on bullshit promises— purposefully and conspicuously—fail to highlight tort lawyers complicity in this drama.

    In fact the authors reveal themselves with the statement that “tort law is the remedy” to the unequivocal bullshit. Read the article—they offer no other solution but more litigation.

    And on this, I call bullshit—because tort law is part of the problem

    Yes, these bullshit promise clauses are nauseating.

    But so are aggressively brazen trial lawyers who “congregate at the intersection of human tragedy and human greed.”

    There’s a chicken and egg question here–except there’s not a spontaneous hatching of a chicklet. There’s only incremental growth of a bigger egg—like a tumor on the underside of society. You can look at this as “bullshit promises begets more aggressive litigiousness”–or vice versa. It realy doesn’t matter.

    But for these lawyers to claim that bullshit promises have proliferated in a vacuum…and for these lawyers to state that we need MORE tort action…and more litigiousness…..

    is not a “bullshit promise”—rather, it’s the promise of more bullshit.

  26. Anonymous

    One thing I had been considering as a possible future benefit of this crisis was that at least a whole bunch of smart people, previously involved in finance scams, would probably have to start doing something productive with their lives.

    At some point it occured to me that it can also be viewed as whole bunch of dishonest people, presumably adept at getting financing for themselves, are now going to be infecting other indutries.

  27. kristiina

    It was said about Hermann Göring’s brother, who saved jews from nazis at risk of his own safety, that he was a moral man in an immoral time. Isn’t this what it is to be human: showing ones’ true colours?

  28. horsefeathers

    pretty much everything was on a handshake basis, even though I would always paper it up.

    I particularly enjoy that turn of

    In my field of endeavor the handshake, though rare, is to me a contractual agreement which
    implies an even deeper level
    of trust. This also requires
    years of experiential discernment.An ability
    to see through the bullshit
    if you will.

    But then again, what isn’t bullshit? For that matter
    bullshit seems to benign a
    tag. Call it what it is-

  29. Stromvall

    Trace the decline back to the proponents of the malleability of truth. Why, a person would be an intolerant curmudgeon to insist on applying his own views of right and wrong on the rest of us!!!!
    The lack of ethics can be traced to changing philosophies. I suggest any one interested read Nancy Pearcey’s “Total Truth”.

  30. Keenan

    Yves and all:

    Frequent flier programs have proven to be another of those cleverly crafted marketing programs, long on promise but short on redeemability.

    Various insurance companies attempted to nuance between wind blown water and flood water to reduce payouts to policy holders in the wake of Katrina.

    Anon 6:46: Disconnecting from the Matrix certainly works for the individual, but our society remains its captive. And the Matrix is determined to maintain its hold as demonstrated by the unavailability of converter box coupons and the Feb 17 switchover that could leave several million unplugged.

    “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” – George Orwell

  31. Keenan

    …the Matrix is determined to maintain its hold as demonstrated by concerns over the unavailability of converter box coupons and the Feb 17 switchover that could leave several million unplugged.

  32. Anonymous

    Well the rooster has come home to roost.
    Is not the root of the current financial disaster that no institution will trust another one?

    The theory of reciprocal altruism suggests that trust demands close regulation (think a baseball game with a bad umpire).

    You are correct that TV is much to blame. It is able to create a simulacron good enough to be taken as real. Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451) already saw this by 1966!, in his character of Linda the wife and her life-sized TV.
    So perhaps TV is our Social Thalidomide, whose unintended consequence on our morality you have outlined.
    We have chosen to allow it unregulated into our living rooms and our life. And as I suggested strong but thoughtful regulation is needed for the continuance of any culture.

  33. mrmetrowest

    Bullshit has become more prevalent because our world is now based on bullshit. We no longer make our livings by creating products and services that others find useful. We make our living by borrowing huge sums of money from foreigners, using the money to import foreign made goods (we make little here) and then employ ourselves in retailing those goods to each other. This has been going on for at least thirty years, at an accelerating pace.

    Rather than bring a new product to market, an American company will employ its resources seeking tax breaks, or more recently, direct government subsidy. Likewise, a young person might well avoid an engineering career in favor of law or finance, where there’s opportunity for reward far in excess of what is merited by the genuine utility of their skills.

    The reason there is so little outrage today is that most of us, directly, indirectly, and in varying degree, are complicit in the bullshit. We make our livings from it. Anyone who has worked at a large corporation, or for government, knows what it’s like to be at a useless meeting, knowing that everyone there, including onself, provides nothing of genuine value. None of us would dare look the custodian in the eye if we suddenly scrupled about valuing honest labor.

    And so it shall be, until the world starts bouncing our checks.

  34. Printfaster

    The article is bullshit. Go back to 1900 where snakeoil salesmen abounded. In a museum of 19th century medicines, there is a jar containing pills with tapeworm cysts for weight loss. Medicine before Semmelweis was a horror for maternity. Doctors took birth from midwives and killed women and babies through horrible practices.

    Bullshit is a fact of life and has nothing to do with America. What is more worrisome is that some enlightened soul thinks that we should be protected from silly claims.

    I will admit that the young, old, and disabled should be protected from silly claims, I frankly hold that if you cannot manage your own bullshit filter, you are not fit, and need to be institutionalized.


  35. coldwhiteguy

    I have a question about contract law. An ordinary guy (like myself) would think a "contract" involved the various parties to be bound to some performance standard. The quote-"AT&T’s has a similar clause: “We many change any terms, conditions, rates, fees, expenses, or charges regarding your service at any time.” -indicates that ATT really isn't bound to any performance standard. So how is that really a contract when one party isn't bound or obligated to do anything? It's hard for me to believe that 'I pay you ten dollars and you do whatever you want' is a contract. What if ATT decided the new terms were pay for NO SERVICE? According to the the disclaimer it would be perfectly legal, and that can't possibly be true.

  36. proton

    No, not “caveat emptor”. At least, in USA, there is ongoing a systemic weakening and abusing of the rights we once took granted.

    It is not only the corporations bullshitting consumers. It is also corporations bullshitting investors and even their own employees.

    Those who employ lawyers are constantly rewriting every document to deny the usual rights to others, while reserving their own. Like forcing employees to sign contracts to give up their rights to courts even arbitration in case of dispute.

    The way this goes, you either will have to hire your own legal counsel and negotiate your rights or be subjected to abuse.

  37. Dave Raithel

    Rich’s essay at the NYT – “Eight Years of Madoffs” seems an appropriate reference for all this, juxtaposed against Fried’s and Balkin’s arguments to let the guilty slide for sake of the record. Donna’s confession that for her, Nixon’s escape marks the decline of respect for truth hits close to my own disenchanting, but Yves and the others who counter that bullshit started before Nixon are correct.

    So the question is “When and how can the bullshit cease?” I’m an atheist raised under a wrathful god, so I’m disposed to settling accounts. When bullshitters get to walk away, like Nixon did, we only get future Reagan’s. The opportunities to put an end to the bullshit may only come “generationally” – having let Nixon (and everything his administration implied) get by, Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush were unavoidable.

    It may be that a culture, a particular civil society, gets only so many opportunities to cease its bullshit before it collapses. So the administrations taking power at Federal and State levels the next few weeks may be the last chance to cease the bullshit in politics and commerce that we’ll get.

    But hey, becoming the first (or the next? Does the Soviet Union count?) post-modern, post-industrial, ex-super power failed state would let America once again be number one at something …. other than bullshit.

  38. IF

    I am with Richard Smith and Printfaster. Having grown up in East Germany I’ve read children’s books on the “Can do” attitude of Americans ca. 1900. (You never say you can’t do a job, just learn it later. You never show how little money you have, just roll up your dollars and pull bills out of your pocket etc.) Very different from Euro culture of that time.

    Now, there is a positive side. The US is a great societal equalizer. At least on the Left Coast billionaires mingle with common people. Maybe it is just that I am moving in different circles here than at home. But then, if there is so little obvious difference, why not blur the lines a little more and pretend?

    Lastly, the bullshit in business contracts in the US is explicitly permitted by law. German cell phone companies don’t get away with it. Different legal principles and complaint mechanisms.

  39. PQuincy

    This is a lovely post that gets at deep-structural problems facing modern capitalist-industrial-informational society.

    Law has always been a tool that protects the powerful, but in part by ensuring that the powerless don’t feel so angry that they will risk upsetting the applecart.

    But law in the contemporary world has lost sight of this, and has become above all a method of universal risk mitigation — and of course, universal risk mitigation ultimately is no risk mitigation at all.

    When an academic journal asks me to sign a legal document agreeing to pay the costs of defending the journal anywhere in the world for any reason related to my review, you know that things are out of control. (I refused to sign, and they published my review anyway, n.b.) Lawyers convince all sorts of institutions that every contingency should be mitigated by ‘contract’ — which leaves contracts that are not contracts, and that are unenforceable. But the lawyer gets paid.

    This way insanity lies!

  40. kristiina

    Have y’all seen Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self? Absolutely thrilling, inventive and thought-provoking tv-series (made for bbc). Can be found on the net. He claims that marketing bs originates from Freud via his nephew Edward Bernays, who immigrated to us.

  41. Waldo

    Economics of Virtue:

    Back-of-the-envelope analysis;

    Euro = $0.80 US dollar circa 1999
    Euro – $1.40 US dollar circa 2008

    [Bush administration]

    0.8/1.4 = 0.60

    unitize = (1-0.6) = 0.4

    Our level of vice has increased 40% as a nation.

    Bullshit is the “manageable portion of vice in a free market”. But felony behavior (murder, armed robbery, treason, conspiracy to murder, etc) will destroy capital and tomorrow’s health.

    So from this analysis today it would be safe to say that the blogging here (truth telling) can now be construed as the “black market”. We are entering an inversion from light into a sort of darkness (weak human mind and character).

    Felony (turbo charged up by the powerful Bush administration for oil profit “blood money”) was not this bad on a national level back in 1999.

    And this has profound theft imbedded in it: my monthly fuel bill went from $800/ month in July of last hear to about $380/month now. The oil (Bush felons) stole $420 from me in July. [That amount is higher if we understand that true market pricing for fuel is $1.10/gallon, anything north of that is stealing, market manipulation).

    So the poem below has a 40% chance I plagiarized it or a 40% chance an individual reading it will copy it and put there name on it. The “Poet’s Ring” is the title of a piece of literature I am currently creating.

    Cowboy Poet

    A land of devils and ravens
    Far West where the aboriginals sing.
    This existence of man and beasts,
    A journey to find the Poet’s ring.

    A trip of ship and sailor
    Destined to sail the majestic sea;
    A vessel of wood and sail,
    This dream of what man can be.

    A beginning of sickness and yearning
    Of a place left behind.
    These people of Europe’s wretched
    Set foot as a free human kind.

    Lonely and lost
    They see Heaven or hell,
    A choice of practical reason
    A start that He befell.

    Some chose work and some chose despair.
    Despair seeked free shelter and prayed;
    Work chose opportunity and happiness;
    This choice created America; their destinies displayed.

    [The man of work and tillage
    Created the place of prayer.
    This creature of truth and trade
    Bestowed the other despair.]

    A community of free Europeans
    English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Irish
    Learned to build, pray, and Love together
    So to survive and flourish.

    Their kind created a man;
    This man of rude strength and wisdom.
    A horseman destined to travel,
    To again find adventure and freedom.

    He enjoyed women and liquor
    A wretched thing of temper;
    Restless and yearning, wanted more.
    Created a legend for all to remember.

    A journey to find the Poet’s ring
    A future beyond the common time;
    This saddle man of holster and chaps
    Real! Because of the power of rhyme.

    His ride brought anguish and tears
    A feeling of loneliness and despair,
    This ride of horse and poet
    Awaked a nation to what is fair.

    A poet carried by a restless hope;
    With the feeling there can be healing.
    To our global Vision of freedom
    Virtue intuited, created, and soaring.

  42. American Goy

    Fantastic read, agree 100% (in keeping with the spirit of the piece, I agree 150% with the premise, said in Billy Mays voice).

    Yves in comment:
    “Ours have very weird video game and dream type images, often bizarre and not funny irony.”

    Agreed, agreed, agreed.

    The unfunny trying to be cool, hip, oh-so-ironic is particularly grating to me.

    The Bugs Bunny method of advertising.

  43. Cash Mundy

    I agree with mrmetrowest’s general thesis. I think there would be some very interesting correlations between social, political and economic bullshit levels and other forms of malaise and the ratio of productive economic activity (meaning activity rooted in goods and basic services) and unproductive or if you will derivative economic activity (marketing, entertainment, financial services and so forth).

    Another factor to be considered is the Judeo-Christian root of American culture. Religious speech in general exactly matches the Frankfurt definition, and while the world has long been afflicted by the three Judaic Monotheisms (Islam now playing the “shadow” role of the essential enemy), the pathology in the USA turned from chronic but manageable into a rapidly-progressing malignancy somewhat before and leading to the election of Reagan, culminating in the present situation wherein somewhat less than a third of the electorate is said to be “Evangelical Christian”, many of whom not only believe their death-cult wish-fulfillment fantasies but are actively working to bring them about (see Palin and “Joel’s Army”, Apocalypse Cheerleaders, the whole “Left Behind” series).

  44. Eric L. Prentis

    Sponsored communication, i.e., from politicians, salespeople and in all corporate media (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines), is geared towards selling you something, to manipulate you in some way and is, therefore, bullshit. Unfortunately, the average person believes everything they see and hear on TV, making them easy pray for corporations and politicians. Being educated requires being cynical and skeptical, i.e., leading with your head and not with your heart, caveat emptor.

  45. Anonymous

    Relatively few people can fathom the depths of the bullshit pool in our society. They’d much rather let others do their thinking for them. Television is custom made for lazy intellects, hence the level of apathy in US society is chronic.

    The 9-11 scam was the mother of all bullshit stories, peddled to a frightened public like some Freddie Kruger horror flick. This enabled the psychopaths to consolidate power, eviscerate the constitution, and launch multiple resource wars while vilifying anyone who dares to question the official bullshit story. I’ll never take anything from these people at face value again.

  46. Anonymous

    The “Bullshit Promises” paper made some excellent observations about the way people deceive.

    Bluntly, it is painful to consider the implications of ths kind of thinking on a national scale, but we need to. For example, our President elect has promised to examine the healthcare issue in 2012, as he is seeking re-election. He has implied that he will encourage for profit companies to offer consumer driven health care (which pushes the meaning of the word “insurance”, because it often represents savings only at the front end, a “choice” of low cost exchanged for risks people can’t afford to take, often leaving to disaster, as Ms. Warren has pointed out so very eloquently in some of her work.) “Insurance” at a fair price, might be very expensive, especially if many healthy people “choose” to go without, as they probably will.

    Fair Price is also ambiguous.. Fair for who, far to both?

    Fair to both does not equal affordable.

    Fair I understand to mean cost plus profit. Obama has also made it clear elsewhere that he does not intend to change the mechanics of the insurance industry except to perhaps (if funding is made available, a big if after the last few months looting spree..) offer an additional option similar to those offered Federal employees (leaving out the fact that many can’t afford it even with the employer contribution)

    He managed to win an early lead in the primaries based on a large GOP crossover vote, eventually defeating Hillary Clinton by the tiniest of margins. (In the open primary states, especially.)

    Obama is a consummate politician, certainly, and he is, also, in fact, a lawyer.

    Wording in his health proposals (such as the below) strongly indicate that as many as one fifth of all Americans – those with chronic illnesses – will remain virtually “uninsurable”.

    “Q. I am a business owner, how does the Obama plan affect my company and the
    economy in general?
    A. By reducing health care costs, the Obama plan will save employers $140 billion
    per year.
    First, Obama’s plan includes a reinsurance pool for employers. If employer health care
    costs exceed a certain amount, the federal government will pick up the tab, as long as the
    employer agrees to pass the savings onto their employees. That helps businesses who
    have that one sick employee to be able to continue offering health insurance to their
    employees and keep their doors open.
    Second, Obama’s plan goes beyond short-term fixes to address the main cost drivers in
    health care, which will help to stabilize the rising costs of health care, which are simply
    unsustainable over the long term. The Obama plan makes a real investment in health IT
    and other health system changes, which will dramatically improve quality and efficiency
    of the health care system, bringing it into the 21st century. The Obama plan will also
    aggressively hold the insurance and pharmaceutical industries accountable for unfair and
    abusive practices that are raising prices for families and employers. Finally, Obama will
    invest in prevention and public health systems, which will help Americans stay healthy
    and lower costs from having to treat preventable diseases.
    Third, for employers that already offer coverage to their employees, Obama’s plan will
    make it less costly for them to continue to do so, because every American will be
    covered. The health care costs of the uninsured will no longer be passed along to those
    who do have health insurance, which will drive down health insurance premiums.
    The Obama plan will also help employers that are unable to offer health coverage to their
    employees right now. The main reason employers do not offer health coverage to their
    employees is because it is simply too expensive. Obama’s plan directly addresses the
    cost issue by allowing small employers to purchase a new public plan with subsidies for
    those who need it. For those who want private insurance, the Obama plan creates a
    National Health Insurance Exchange, which will act as a watchdog group and help reform
    the private insurance market by creating rules and standards for participating insurance
    plans to ensure fairness and to make coverage more affordable and accessible.”

    Surely, based on the above, in the current political environment, the healthcare industry must view Obama as a gift straight from from God.

    Maybe he is their candidate. I wouldn’t put it past them. But also maybe not. We will see by his actions. By their fruit shall you know them. But the omens are mixed.

    Yes, he was the lesser of two evils. Hopefully, these bows to the Democratic branch of the center right in their hidden language of bullsh*t were in themselves, “bullsh*t language” -aimed at them.

    But if they were not, we have much to worry about because the largest equity shift in human history is turnng the US into an “M economy”.

    People voted for Obama because they need change, not because they don’t like the idea of universal healthcare (as some of his supporters have tried to spin it.)

    Literally millions of people think Obama represents REAL change on healthcare, and they wont be happy if he doesn’t.

    Not much could be done. Perhaps we will need to wait until 2016 for healthcare parity with other developed nations?

  47. Gentlemutt

    Anonymous 12:26 pm:
    Why invoke Caveat Emptor as if that is something to which we as a society should aspire? Are we in the Roman Empire of 2,000 years ago?

    Besides, it is used with respect to sales of “real property,” it is gradually being supplanted by more explicit protections for purchasers, and healthcare and telephone service are not typically construed as real property.

  48. Anonymous

    I’m curious as to why we keep referring to these CC people as ‘them’ and ‘they’, as if they resided on a secret volcano island.

    I would guess there are only several dozen individuals as Chase, Citi, BOA, who are responsible for these policies.


    How about a web site?


  49. MarcoPolo

    Skippy – late with this:

    It doesn’t end at the job site. Ivy league charm school good-for-nothing low-down ass-kissin MBA dilatants who have learned nothing more than to land on their feet are assumed to possess the experience, wisdom and credentials which should allow them to oversee projects of enormous complexity and detail.

    Trashkani comes to mind.

    And I’m one who wouldn’t trust anybody over 30. What a world a day makes.

  50. Anonymous

    A few years ago after making a deal, I was contacted by someone who was not my contact, in accounting, and asked to take my price down.

    I said no.

    I was told I had the man in tears. No one had ever said no to this young accountant. I was a small, though experienced vendor going up against a large billion dollar company similar to the Mouse Ears.

    I said no on principal – I made it clear that next time he was welcome to negotiate his price.

    Bullshit exists. But if we do not call it bullshit, and have some spines, then we’ve no one but ourselves to blame.

  51. Anonymous

    Yes, renounce the system, it’s diseased. Curtail your exposure to TV and cable, get a life beyond earning maximum $$$$ or making the scene. Follow the Golden Rule (goggle on it if you haven’t heard of it before).

  52. datadave

    how about an old saying:

    “Money Talks, Bullshit Walks!”

    sadly in someways even non-bullshitters will be walking perhaps..but at least we’ll be less likely to except credit card company sales pitches.

    (my otherwise liberal g/f LOVES Clint Eastwood at least in his latest incarnation. me, not so much for his endorsement of gun violence as a cure-all..though out much of his career.)

  53. Anonymous

    Ms. Smith:

    Listening to the podcast (thanks for that) of this post- I was instantly reminded of that transcendent five-minute, nearly wordless short film, ‘More’. I hope if you have not yet seen it that you would invest that small amount of time in viewing it- because it achieves something nearly miraculous- condensing so much of the problem into a visual parable that delivers one of the most devastating punchlines I have ever seen (even in great feature films).

    More- By Mark Osborne:

  54. Charles Frith

    I work in advertising and I can share that nothing would make me happier than to work for a Ministry of Propaganda. Something I thought we really needed before what is ostensibly a petrocrash.

    The chance to do positive behaviour changing communications probably wont come along now. I can also share that telling the truth led to a number of terminations of employment.

    All of them completely worthwhile.

  55. Anonymous

    Have valued handshake and basic terms paper work for years.

    There are real world ways to make
    liars and crooks face some consequences.

    Take over by professional class and academia tenure kept theorists has really mucked up this society.

    Best to get back to basics and eliminate the exposure to media hacks and consumer garbage filling the dumps.


  56. paddy

    You’ve hit the nail on the head here Yves. Bullshit pervades our culture: in financial services, in advertising, mobile phone contracts, food advertising, pharmaceutical advertising. We’re brainwashed with it from birth on TV. And I totally agree, the mood of an advert, the non-verbal clues are what sells. Branding Bullshit.

    We need a website to disassemble and deconstruct every single obnoxious advert aired.

    There’s a radio advert running in Ireland at the moment by a Health Insurer. The voice over is by a happy-clappy young woman directly targeting young mothers-to-be for health insurance with their insurance plan. The selling point is that you can phone up the insurance company ar any time if you’re worried about the health of your baby (unborn or after birth). The line is “from your head to your toes we’re here”. What I find particularly obnoxious about this advert is that it is so blatantly targeting a very vulnerable group: young mothers. There’s a lot of unmarried single pregnancy in Ireland, most of whom can’t afford private health insurance. In Ireland abortion is illegal. If you want an abortion you have to travel to England. Yet, a state owned insurance company blasts our radio adverts telling young woman who can’t afford health insurance that their babys are 2nd class citizens. And noone here bats an eyelid at the hypocrisy of it.

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