August 1998. For Grandma’s 80th birthday her entire lineage had assembled at a rented vacation house in Rio Dell, where at least one and possibly two copies of a book called “Entrepreneurship” by a fellow calling himself Bo Bice were in circulation. I like to think that two copies were present, just to add pathos to the weekend, but I can’t say for sure.

I also like to think that I would not publish under the name “Bo Bice,” even if that were my full legal name. If pseudonyms can be used by authors who are embarrassed by their own work or don’t want to be annoyed by pain-in-the-ass relatives or want to obscure their ethnicity or gender, there is no reason that they can’t be used to protect authors against prejudice for having silly names that can’t be taken seriously. A putative Robert Bice would bring more credibility to the printed word, even if that word were the same motivational claptrap about small business.

Shit. I’m thinking like a normal person again. Robert Bice has nothing on Bo Bice for down-home aw-shucks Joe Sixpack relatability. Bo Bice is just an everyday American feller telling other everyday American fellers how to make money as an entrepreneur, not some hoity-toity egghead who publishes under something resembling his legal name. Robert Bice sounds too much like an “expert,” someone who has enough relevant, tested knowledge and experience to comment with some authority on the subject of his published book. Bo Bice sounds like a good ol’ boy who’d join other good ol’ boys on the bayou to catch some crawfish, maybe even noodle up a catfish or two. An egalitarian people like Americans want their books published by people like that.

For the purposes of this essay, I’m not concerned about where Bo Bice was raised or his actual legal name, although if I had to put money on the latter, I’d say other than Bo Bice. The Cliffs Notes version of that screed about nomenclature is this: dude ain’t a heavyweight, and his writings are not edifying. Wagers are placed on worse than that all the time.

We had honest-to-God entrepreneurs in the family, owners and line managers of a then-successful small business, but they weren’t the ones reading “Entrepreneurship.” It was kind of like cops not watching “CSI: New York” with their friends because they already spend their working lives around cops and can’t shut up about the constant wild inaccuracies and outright bullshit pervading crime dramas. The rapt readers of Mr. Bice’s piece de resistance were better described as honest-to-Joel-Osteen entrepreneurs. They were getting the growing instructions for bong-quality Ephesians 3:20 schwag. No need to capitalize and operate an actual small business to take a hit of that killer bud; all you need is an Amway distributorship.

The argument can be made that I’m smearing Joel Osteen by comparing him to a scam on wannabe small businessmen. The opposite argument can be made, that I’m smearing Amway by comparing it to a notorious grifter of a televangelist. I fully support both arguments; I’m purposely doing both because both cons richly deserve it.

Joel Osteen is a bigger slime mold than I care to poke with a ten-foot stick at the moment, but the Amway pyramid scheme is worth discussing. My bad: as Alien Uncle explained to us, a federal judge ruled that it is not a pyramid scheme; more on that below. Mind you, Amway isn’t the sort of pyramid scheme in which Banco Santander’s hugely above-market interest is paid directly by Fred Wilpon’s principal, Wilpon’s interest directly by the next sucker, and so forth until a Who’s Who of New York Jewry are shaking their fists, Bernie Madoff has gone into early retirement in North Carolina, and the whole infernal mess is being untangled, if that’s possible, by a consummately classy and diligent but overwhelmed Irving Picard.

Amway has two notable advantages over a Madoff-style pyramid scheme: income from the scam consistently exceeds expenditures because it’s structured in such a way that the marks get payouts less than revenues, and it’s totally legal. Let me rephrase that: the shysters running the scam have been spared a much-deserved judicial smackdown because they have found refuge and succor in a disreputable cranny of the law, one concerning the inalienable rights of goobers to be defrauded by slick businessmen.

As Alien Uncle told me and my parents in the car on our way back from dinner in 1998, none other than a federal judge had found Amway not to be a pyramid scheme. So there! Alien Uncle waxed eloquent about this case, naming the judge and outlining the facts of the case. Describing Alien Uncle as laconic was normally an understatement. He had drunk liberally of the Amway Kool-Aid.

There are many things about the law that laymen either forget easily or never knew in the first place. One of these is that the bar for adjudicating a party a lowdown dirty scoundrel is a lot higher in a court of law than it is in the court of public opinion or for an individual using common sense. There are good reasons for this, and bad reasons. As we’ve seen in the Casey Anthony case, there are compelling reasons to protect the innocent from rash judgment by inflamed mobs. There are also parties that like to be protected from accountability under the law by claiming that their rights were infringed, regardless of whether these rights in fact existed in any legal or constitutional sense. “This court holds that there are compelling policy reasons, including the preservation of derivative legal scholarship and equal protection under the law for wealthy, influential organizations that have been proven in the past to have acted contrary to the public good, for this court to adhere to the standard set forth by Associate Justice Hiram deLong Johnson in his concurring opinion in Union Pacific Railroad v. California Federation of Grange Socialists, Uppity Negroes and Chinamen: ‘Business is the business of American business, and if you don’t like that there ought to be a law telling you to mind your own damn business.'” Just because a court said so doesn’t mean that it’s right. Or necessarily constitutional in any meaningful sense.

Here’s something that in the judgment of anyone with a moral compass simply isn’t right: forcing one’s salesmen to pay an annual fee for employment. Oh, you say these people are contractors in a voluntary organization? Bullshit. They’re salesmen of your household cleaning supplies, and you’re an asshole and a fraud for making them pay to be part of your sales force. Alien Uncle is of limited means and has rarely sold enough Amway merchandise to defray his dues, which compounds the offense. What Amway is doing is morally equivalent to using a rigged scale to defraud piecerate field laborers of their honest wages. The biblical implications, as we’ll see, are relevant.

Amway isn’t just a straightforward rob-the-peasants scam. It’s also a Rube Goldberg feudal vassalage system, with each salesman paying a commission on his every sale to his “sponsor” and those at the top collecting countless streams of tribute upon tribute upon tribute from all over hell. It’s like the Renaissance Fair: everyone’s the lord of his own manor, except that not all the manors have vassals or peasants or even draft animals (shoulder to the plow, Cedric, it’s all on you), admission costs are dearer, and you’ll have to pay full conference fees for a chance at an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner. Amway thus causes its members to violate the prime directive of life in the Twenty-First Century: Name Your Own Price. (All right, I made up that yarn about the prime directive–mostly). It also thumbs its nose at the fundamental tenets of human equality on which the United States of America was founded. Like that we’re a civilization and a nation of laws and you don’t defraud the poor by contract because that’s fucking medieval. Yeah, yeah, Jefferson and Washington violated those principles by owning slaves, but they didn’t claim that owning their fellow men was a point of honor and pride.

The real kicker is who is at the top of the Amway food chain. The whole sleazy con is orchestrated by pious families from Grand Rapids, mainly the DeVos family. Grand Rapids is the Mecca of goody-two-shoes Dutch Reform piety. Children there are known to play heaven instead of house, which scares the living daylights out of outsiders. Amway is a scam by good Calvinist churchgoers on other good churchgoers, many of them Calvinists. It’s a good, wholesome, family-friendly Christian fraud. (Madoff was a lot better to church folk than Amway is; he overwhelmingly ripped off other Jews. As with any pyramid scheme, the trick is to rob them you know.) I would love to see the overlapping webs of Amway distributorships and tribute relationships in Western Michigan church circles. Some congregations must be like the proverbial village where the entire economy involves people taking in their neighbors’ laundry, but with the villagers paying percentage fees to laundry brokers for the privilege.

I’m all for entrepreneurship, but this isn’t entrepreneurship. It says something about this country that heavily Republican churchgoers, supporters of the political party that declares itself the vanguard of small business, consider this disreputable con anything of the sort.

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