Crooks and Cons

The Dropout produced by Taylor Dunn and Victoria Thompson

In college, we learn about “supply and demand” and “rational utility maximizers.” We learn about Business and Economics and Political Science as though – hilarious thought – these were separate subjects. To steal John Ruskin’s analogy, it’s as though you went to human-anatomy class and studied imaginary people with no skeletons. Half the pleasure of reading nonfiction and journalism in adulthood comes from watching people explain, or reveal, how it works with skeletons.

You can get that sort of pleasure on two different levels from “The Dropout,” a fascinating podcast about billionaire conwoman Elizabeth Holmes. (She pretended, to investors and maybe herself, that she’d invented a device that could run many medical tests from a single drop of blood. It could, in fact, not do this.) On one level, the level the show intends, it’s a story about a serious journalist trying to figure out why so many savvy and respectable people – Henry Kissinger! Reagan’s old secretary of state George Shultz! High-level Apple employees! – could get suckered by a biz-school dropout with a weird voice. On the second level, it’s an absurdist detective novel, in which an innocent naif tries to unweave a criminal’s web of lies, but the naif herself, and all the victims, are all themselves representatives of garbage institutions. After all, it’s a product of a corporate American TV news company, and many of the “victims” are themselves crooks. Could a person beloved by Henry Kissinger and George Shultz be anything but a fake? By the time Preet Bharara – the former US attorney who tolerated a culture of endemic corruption in Wall Street, but he also made Donald Trump mad once, so now he’s a #Resistance hero – shows up to talk about whether Holmes will do jail time, the effect has become eerily hilarious, like a painting of a prosecutor and a defendant and a judge, but they’re all one guy, who is also the artist. 

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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