My dad's a sucker for a business opportunity. First there was Amway. I remember getting "Glister" toothpaste and "Deter" deodorant in many a Christmas stocking. Then there was Melaleuca. For a while there we were putting tea-tree oil on everything from abrasions to jock itch. That's only the beginning of the list. The most recent "business opportunity" my dad has become involved in is called Mona Vie. It's another hocus-pocus antioxidant beverage from an exotic plant. I met my dad for lunch one day recently and the guy in my dad's "up-line" was there to ambush me. He was this skinny, cheesy-looking old fart with a bad blonde toupee and teeth worthy of a polident commercial. I didn't take the bait. (My idea of an antioxidant is bacon grease. Think about it for a second: Oxidation is a fancy word for rust, and grease is a fabulous rust inhibitor, therefore, if you're looking for antioxidants, look no further than the deep fryer.)
My dad isn't the only person in the world who thinks he'll make it big selling snake oil to his neighbors. It seems like every time I turn around somebody is trying to get my wife and I in on the "ground floor" of the next big thing. Everybody from my in-laws, to various old classmates has offered me the key to financial independence. That key has been shaped like nasty chocolate, or vitamins, motor oil, or even financial planning, and it always comes at a price.
I've started to wonder whether this phenomenon is widespread or if it's more local. While certainly there are get-rich-quick schemes everywhere, they really seem to thrive in Utah. I think that one thing a lot of network marketing people have in common is their faith. I'm serious. Multi-Level Marketing might as well be called Mormon-Level Marketing for all the faithful LDS adherents jointly striving to serve both God and Mammon.
(Before you start accusing me of "Mormon bashing" remember that I am a Mormon myself. This is like when Chris Rock uses the N word, okay?)
For those who aren't familiar with MLM, here's how it works:
You don't just buy a product for personal use, but you buy the rights to distribute the product, and you don't just distribute the product alone, you sell the rights to distribute the product as well. Every time someone signs up under you, sometimes for several levels, you will recieve a commission. They are called your "down line." Often the majority of the money circulating through the system comes from the sales of distribution rights, rather than from actual product sales. With some companies, it's difficult to determine what the product even is, but that doesn't deter people from buying in.
Remember 12 Daily Pro? It was a big hit with a lot of local morons. All you had to do was surf 12 webpages per day, spend some money, and you'd get a 144% return on your investment every 12 days. That one came crashing down when a BYU business student presented it to one of his professors as a great opportunity. The professor at least had the sense to recognize it was a scam and report it to the authorities. The student on the other hand, is a fantastic example of whats wrong with education these days. Obviously he was absent the day they taught critical thinking.
I have a theory as to why we Mormons are so gullible when it comes to MLM: It is familiar to us. Multi-level marketing is very familiar in fact. How so, you ask? You might want to sit down for this: The gospel as we know it is spread in the same fashion. I know I'm going to get some angry comments for this, but it's true. Take for example, the following scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants Section 18: "And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father! And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!"
How many times have you heard missionary stories from the pulpit about how a missionary only had one convert and felt like a failure, but then that convert went on to share the gospel with many?
These are stories about a "down line." In MLM they practically quote that scripture when they show you the charts and figures about how you will get rich by sharing the "opportunity."
As missionaries, we were taught that the most effective way of finding people to teach was through "member referrals." This is the process in which active mormons prepare a friend to hear the missionary lessons. We were told to visit member families and ask them to make a list of everybody they knew that wasn't a member of the church. We would encourage them to talk to everyone-- friends, family, cashiers, hairdressers, etc. Have you ever been to an MLM meeting? They do the very same thing!
So you see, Utah is the perfect breeding ground for MLM. Here we have a surplus of twenty-somethings that served missions where they were inadvertently inculcated into network marketing strategies. These young people come to Utah for college, they need some income, they're recruited. It makes perfect sense! I have no hard statistics to back me up, but I think this is what happens. MLM is presented with missionary zeal. The opportunity to get rich becomes a counterfeit gospel.
The other day I was driving and I saw a big yellow SUV with "PRODUCR" on the license plate. It's possible that the guy was in the movie business or something, but I suspected something more sinister. There is a guy here in Utah right now who is making a big noise about what he calls the "producer revolution." He runs a pay-to-play, MLM type real-estate investing scheme that has made him obscenely wealthy. I think the Hummer driver was one of his disciples. His name is Rick Koerber and he calls himself the "Free Capitalist." He has billboards all over the place with pictures of his sneering, goateed face below phrases like "principles govern!" or simply, "I am the free capitalist!"
I wanted to know what a "Free Capitalist" was and what kind of "principles" he was talking about. In my mind, the term "free capitalist" conjures up a robber-baron type whose greed is unfettered by the inconvenient restraints of charity and common decency. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know. But I did find a list of the Free Capitalists 13 principles. You know what principle number two is? "Faith begins with Self-Interest." Seriously. So I guess we are to believe that faith (the substance of things not seen) begins with greed.
I've tried to give this the benefit of the doubt. After all, I've never listened to the guys' radio show, nor did I have the patience to wade through all of the fluffy motivational spinmeistering on his website to actually get to the meat of his programs. But I can't think of any interpretation of "Faith begins with Self-Interest" that doesn't smack of scriptural gerrymandering (a term I just made up to describe how people re-interpret the scriptures to support behaviors that run counter to the scriptures own true message.) Are we to believe that faith is excercised in order to get personal gain? I don't get it. I thought we were supposed to do good because we love God, not because we love money.
Luckily for me, I was invited to a weekend getaway at a cabin that, it turns out, belongs to the free capitalist. It's a modest mountain getaway-- a primitive retreat. It gave me time to reflect on things like wealth, virtuous capitalism, and faith. I especially meditated on these subjects while I swam in the indoor pool there. Maybe the guy is a saint, but what little exposure to him I have had has led me the conclusion that he represents everything that is wrong with Utah County Mormons. When I was getting out of his pool to take a leak, I thought of his freeway billboards and changed my plans.
Now instead of feeling annoyed while I drive down the freeway, I just chuckle to myself quietly.