The New Yorker: Steve Jobs, Charles Ponzi and the American hustle

January 18, 2014, 4:27 PM UTC
Jobs in 1977.

FORTUNE — Americans have a soft spot for con artists — those greedy hucksters whose dreams never come true. So writes
The New Yorker
‘s James Surowiecki in an essay that starts with two Oscar-nominated movies — American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street — and ends with Steve Jobs.

There’s a thin line, he argues, between con men and entrepreneurs. Both represent virtues Americans aspire to: “They don’t have to kowtow to a boss—no small thing in a country in which people have always longed to strike out on their own. They succeed or fail based on their wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism.”

Which brings Surowiecki — by way of William (the original “confidence man”) Thompson, Leland (Central Pacific Railroad) Stanford, Jay Gould, Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff — to Apple’s (AAPL) co-founder and late CEO. Surowiecki’s conclusion:

The greatest business icon of our era, Steve Jobs, was legendary for his “reality-distortion field,” which allowed him to convince people that improbable outcomes were not just possible but certain. Jobs’s endless rehearsals for his public presentations and his scripting of every moment for maximum effect—these are all straight from the con artist’s playbook. So, too, is the sense of conviction he projected. In Weinberg’s words, “Before you sell a deal you have to live the deal. You have to believe in it, because, if you don’t believe in it, you can’t sell it.”

Of course, the fundamental difference between entrepreneurs and con artists is that con artists ultimately know that the fantasies they’re selling are lies. Steve Jobs, often enough, could make those fantasies come true. Still, that unquantifiable mélange of risk, hope, and hype provides both the capitalist’s formula for transforming the world and the con artist’s stratagem for turning your money into his money. Maybe there’s a reason we talk about the American Dream.

A bit of a stretch. But not that big.

LINK: Do the Hustle.