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Today Amongst Our Overcompensated and Underachieving Elites


John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood is essential reading. (The HBO documentary based on it is not an adequate substitute.) The massive fraud it uncovered has a lot to say about the current social and political context. But throughout the book America’s most decorated elites are revealed as bad actors or easy marks (or in the case of David Boies, both.) Another example is alleged Trump administration Adult In The Room (TM) James Mattis:

Theranos was one of the largest business scandals of the past decades, described by the Securities and Exchange Commission as an “elaborate, years-long fraud” in which CEO Elizabeth Holmes and President Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, “exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business, and financial performance.”

Mattis not only served on Theranos’s board during some of the years after he’d retired from military service, while it was perpetrating the scheme, but he earlier served as a key advocate of putting the company’s technology (technology that was, to be clear, fake) to use inside the military while he was still serving as a general. Holmes settled the SEC case, paying a $500,000 fee and accepting various other penalties, while Balwani is fighting it out in court. (Holmes and Balwani are both battling criminal fraud charges.)

Nobody on the board has been directly charged with anything. But accepting six-figure checks to serve as a frontman for a con operation is the kind of thing that would normally count as a liability in American politics. 

While the Theranos scandal was on the front burner of American politics, nobody wanted to talk about Mattis’s involvement. Trump and his co-partisans in Congress didn’t want to talk about it. But the Democratic Party opposition was also inclined to give Mattis a pass. Everyone in Washington was more or less convinced that Mattis’s presence in the Pentagon was the only thing standing between us and possible nuclear Armageddon. 

But Mattis isn’t “the adult in the room” anymore, the supposed savior of the country. He’s just a guy trading on his reputation to try to sell books. And his prior use of his position to profit from a massive scheme deserves scrutiny.


Fundamentally, Trump’s rise to power is part of a broader epidemic of elite impunity in the United States. And Mattis’s ability to dabble in questionable activity, cash a few checks, and then skate away with his reputation intact is very much part of the problem.

But that’s why pencils have erasers!

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