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Michael Sigman Headshot

Lying Strategery

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2,500 years ago, when The Buddha called for "right speech" as an ethical cornerstone, he wasn't referring to orations by conservatives. His message: happiness is based on the ability "to abstain from false speech and especially not to tell deliberate lies."

Trying to live this way doesn't stop me from begging off lunch with a nasty business associate by saying I'm "on deadline" when in fact I'm gearing up to take a nap. We mere mortals take The Buddha's advice to mean that untruths that harm others will cause suffering not only to the victim but also to the liar.

But I had a boss once whose default response to a tough problem was this: "We could lie." Morality had nothing to do with it; lying -- as opposed to, say, telling the truth or having no comment -- was purely a strategy.

Deep crises give birth to large-scale liars. Vietnam produced Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and many of their respective cohorts. The Iraq war was -- and continues to be -- underpinned by the elaborate lies of Bush, Cheney and company, from weapons of mass destruction to the conflation of 9/11 with Saddam Hussein. (Monica Lewinsky only became a lasting crisis because Bill Clinton thought lying would make him happier.)

The financial collapse has been spitting out strategic liars faster than you can say "AIG bonuses." Most of us first knew we were in serious trouble last summer, when Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson "did a 180," a term another old boss used when reneging on a promise.

In July, Paulson told us, "Our banking system is a safe and a sound one;" barely two months later, he warned that "we're literally maybe days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system." ("Literally maybe"?!) Both those statements can't be true; in fact, both were strategic falsehoods -- the first meant to invoke a false sense of security, the latter to scare the shit out of us.

The monumental underlying lie of the current economic debacle -- that returns and valuations can grow indefinitely -- met its match in Bernie Madoff. Contrary to conventional wisdom, his company was examined at least eight times in 16 years by the Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators. They did a disgraceful job, but it didn't hurt that Madoff showed world-class skills in misleading investigators. Even though he's now fessed up to his crimes, he still tells a whopper every time he says he was in it alone.

Aside from the Nixon tapes -- which reveal in minute detail how the former President routinely lied to his country, his adversaries and even his own closest staffers -- big-time prevaricators have rarely let us in on the process of how they do it. So it was extraordinary to hear the rationale of the classic Wall Street strategic liar in the video clips of Jim Cramer's 2006 interview with thestreet.com, broadcast on The Daily Show last week with Cramer himself sitting and watching the whole thing.

The know-it-all host of CNBC's Mad Money, bragging about how he made his fortune as a hedge fund manager, put it this way: "What's important when you are in that hedge fund mode is to not be doing anything that is remotely truthful, because the truth is so against your view -- it is important to create a new truth to develop a fiction." It may be hard to believe if you don't watch it for yourself, but Cramer then compounded his lie, arguing not that he advocated deception in the clip we all watched with him, but that he had merely been wrong in his analysis of the direction of the market.

I had an email exchange with Cramer shortly after the Iraq invasion, when he and the odious Larry Kudlow, his then co-host on "Kudlow and Cramer," lambasted war protesters, coming close to calling us traitors. Quoting him, I wrote that he'd gone too far; his response, unsurprising now in light of the 2006 clip, was to assert that he'd never said what he clearly did say, and I gave up.

In the digital age, where everything seems to pop up on YouTube sooner or later, you'd think strategic lying might diminish if only because it's not as efficacious as it used to be. But it doesn't seem to be working that way.

Since the narcissists who so often run things don't care much about their victims, the best hope for at least a little more truth-telling may be to try and show them the damage they're doing to themselves. Even if it fails to produce right speech, it just might give them an incentive to re-strategize.