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Jeffrey Epstein demonstrates how capitalism rewards malign actors

Financier Jeffrey Epstein
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In reporting on Jeffrey Epstein I've been able to speak to a few different people who had firsthand experiences with him. (I also reported this week on how he managed to circumvent Harvard's rule against accepting money from him.) Common threads include his easy charm and the way in which he went out of his way to show concern for others.

Why it matters: Epstein is an extreme case, but charming sociopaths in general tend to do very well in business.

The intrigue: As detailed by investment banker and pseudonymous blogger The Epicurean Dealmaker in the wake of the financial crisis, most if not all senior investment bankers exhibit "a very substantial number of the commonly accepted markers for psychopathy."

These include superficial charm, manipulativeness, lack of empathy, poor judgment and the inability to distinguish right from wrong.

"Sexually deviant lifestyle" and "promiscuous sexual behavior" are also on the list.

A picture tells a thousand words: In one photograph that has been doing the rounds in recent weeks, Epstein smiles genuinely at Larry Summers, who is wearing his trademark rictus. The photo shows how good Epstein was at putting people at ease — very, very few people can appear so loose and relaxed around Summers in particular.

  • "Jeffrey was brilliant in understanding how people felt,” one of his ex-girlfriends told Vanessa Grigoriadis of Vanity Fair. “He could feel energy very clearly. But I think because he’s a sociopath, he would manipulate that for his own needs."
  • Epstein would help people in ways large and small. He would offer them access to top-flight physicians for their medical problems, make valuable introductions, donate money to their favorite charities or find the staff they were looking for. Such actions resulted in those people liking him, trusting him and feeling indebted to him.
  • Epstein's monstrous treatment of the women and girls he sexually assaulted proves that his shows of empathy were deeply fake. But those displays felt real to the targets of his attention.

By the time he was arrested on sex trafficking charges earlier this year, Epstein had amassed a fortune of more than $500 million — even after decades of lavish spending and despite the fact that he never even got a college degree.

  • While the exact source of his wealth remains a mystery, it ultimately must have come from his skill at manipulating individuals.

The bottom line: Capitalism often looks as though it has been designed to reward its most malign actors.