Grifts are undertheorized, and too often conflated with long cons, scams, frauds and other more blatant soft crimes. Lemme offer a definition.

A grift is a scheme that profits from the existence of a real problem without actually addressing it.
Small grifts merely exploit the problem. Big grifts perpetuate it.

A grift is particularly stable because unlike a true scam it doesn’t offer decisive solutions that claim to fully solve it and can therefore proved to not work. Theranos was a scam, not a grift.
Grifts are not long cons either. Cons exploit timeless human fallibility (see for example Erving Goffman classic “on cooling the mark out”). Grifts otoh exploit potentially solvable problems.
Grifts are not frauds either. Occassionaly they may rely on misinformation, bad science or philosophy but rarely on intentionally falsified information or scholarship.

Frauds involve deliberate lying that could be exposed. Grifts are built on shaky but not false ground.
Grifts feed the urge to “do something” to stop feeling helpless in the face of hard problems.

If it looks like a theater about a hard problem, and fits the “-washing” suffix, it’s a grift.

Security theater

All grifts.
Grifts feed what was called the politicians syllogism is Yes, Prime Minister:

We must do something
This is something
We must do this

Usually the utter mismatch between problem and supposed solution is obvious to experienced people. It is obvious how it will fail on day 1.
But it is really hard to explain because the weakness is at the level of systems impedance mismatch. You can’t prove it can’t work. And sometimes a grift is timed right so it is active when broader forces actually cause movement on the problem, and the grifters can claim credit.
Grifts often rely on narrative vacuums. When the real story is too complicated or boring or requires numbers and graphs to understand, people reach for the simpler story. Grifters supply it.

Plastic straw ban bullshit narrative? Pure 100% sustainability grifter theater.
You don’t even have to be a sustainability expert. Five minutes googling reveals that plastic straws are not a real problem, that the whole campaign was based on some kid’s estimate, that fishing nets are the actually biggest source of plastic waste etc etc.
Anybody who knowingly pushed and hyped that thing literally does not care about the environment, climate action or sustainability. They merely want to profit from the existence of climate action as a hard problem,em people are motivated to do something about. Grifters.
The world is currently overflowing with hard problems, so it is overflowing with grift as well.

To be continued. Gotta shower, eat, and do a meeting.
A good way to tell a grift apart from other similar things is to ask: if it is exposed as such, does it get undermined completely or can it still survive. Grifts can survive exposure by claiming to be about instilling values. Which is almost a good argument.
For eg. consider this hypothetical exchange:

"The plastic straws thing is bullshit"

"I know, but still, it raises awareness of plastic waste as an issue"

"But the real problem of fishnet waste and microparticulates aren't addressed!"

"Straw campaign is still worth something."
There are grey area grifts. For example, is recycling a grift?

Most stuff can't actually be "recycled" with net reduction in environmental impact (besides clean PET, aluminum).

Recycling is in crisis (China National Sword, plus Covid)

Still: maybe instilling behaviors is good?
I'm on the fence on this one. Recycling doesn't work now, but *could* be made to work, and it's good to have those behaviors installed -- so long as people are actively working on the problem. If they're not (currently they're not), why bother with "aspirational recycling"?
But overall, I don't think recycling is a grift. At best it is collective wishful thinking. And it could still kinda work out.
But the important point is that when you switch the justification from "it works" to "it installs values/creates awareness" you're suddenly changing the economic and effort logic. Actual solutions are worth much more than "creating awareness" about a problem.
If you've installed a lucrative and profitable habit that an org is used to doing, stopping it is both hard and counterproductive to the grifting motive. Why not charge "solution" rates for "awareness" palliatives if the suckers will continue to pay?
By contrast, scams, frauds, long cons... when they are exposed, they become untenable. Buying back into the narrative on alternative premises is impossible. The lie is just too big and blatant.
Almost all business consulting offerings structured as domain-independent process training and workshops are almost-grifts. Almost because they cut to the chase and pitch "awareness" and "values" level value propositions from the start, never even pretending to solve the problem.
Another clear "tell" of a grift: there are no learnable skills that are unique to the grift itself. For example: lean six sigma is a grift because the skilled content is just standard textbook statistics, industrial engineering etc. The meta-stuff is all theatrical bullshit.
Another clear tell: the grift feeds on what I call "learning curve arbitrage" -- it relies on a steady supply of n00bs who don't yet know enough to know what doesn't work, and can be conned into idealistic and energetic belief and performance of theater.
If you as grifter, can find a particularly idealistic, sincere, energetic, and charismatic young ingenue (not necessarily female) to use as figurehead (*cough* Greta *cough* Joan of Arc *cough*) a LOT of grifter reputations can be laundered by BIRGing a genuine idealist.
The presence of such ingenues within a movement is a very clear tell. Snowden, Damore, Greta, etc. etc. It's almost a sign of arrival for a larger grift, at cottage-industry scale (the unicorn scale for grift startups) when they find themselves a charismatic innocent to work with
Btw, this thread on grifting is complementary to my thread on bullshit jobs and where they come from. Grifting creates bullshit jobs if they succeed in installing themselves. Eliminating bullshit jobs is the defense against grifting attacks.
I will admit I have a soft spot for grifters who aren't too damaging. The optimal amount of grift in a system is not zero. Grifters do serve one valuable function: draining away clueless idealist energy down distraction bunny trails.
Damnit, I had a couple of great turns of phrase I was thinking of for additional points, but then got distracted by something and forgot them. Now unless I remember them, you'll all have to do without them.
AH YES I recall one of the phrases.

Problem aestheticization.

Instead of solving a problem, you make it look prettier. Many grifts are based on problem aestheticization. It's literally palliative to sensory trauma. It's like painting a house but billing the cost of the house.
Problem aestheticization is a great way to construct a grift because it at once presents a cheap thing to sell, and a clear audience that will buy. There are 2 kinds of people concerned by a problem.

People concerned about consequences.

People concerned about ugliness.
The thing is, people concerned about the consequences of a problem going unsolved tend to investigate and think through boring, wonky, solution options. You do NOT want these people if you're a grifter.

You want those emotionally traumatized by the *symptoms* of the problem.
If you're a woke grifter working in the racism market, you do NOT want to focus on say incarceration rates because that problem is literally locked away out of sight. There is no opportunity to aestheticize the problem.

You want to focus on say casting decisions in hollywood.
Aestheticization of a problem immediately soothes the emotional trauma of those who can't deal with ugliness. But will they buy the bullshit non-solution?

Yep. They are also the most likely to be values-based idealists who will stan causes with beautiful performative actions.
Aestheticization, performance, theater, emotional trauma, values, signaling. These are all aspects of the UX design of life. The producers of grift are ideological UX designers. The consumers of grift are people acutely sensitive to the sensory presentation of problems.
Ultimately what you're selling as a grifter is a self-image as an integrated, good person who has agency and exercises it wisely and morally.

The buyers are precisely people who both lack that self-image and not inclined to poke beneath surface appearances.
Note: this is not exclusively restricted to sensory beauty. Certain kinds of abstract beauty work too. You can aestheticize a problem with beautiful spherical cow economics, and paper over the problem with lovely infographics and chartporn. That's aestheticizing a problem too.
Wonky investigation of the good sort is invariably very, very ugly. The data is a mess. The graphs are underwhelming, there is a messy mix of anecdote and tenuous trends. There is need for a good deal of repeated digging and refinement and ugly data dumpster diving.
Covid is a GREAT example of problem that presents opportunities for both kinds of grifting.

Sensory-aesthetic grifting: dumb-ass designs restaurants with beautiful perspex partitions, mask chic.

Abstract grifting: endless pretty chart porn of case counts.
I'll end with a small mea culpa. Yeah, a lot of what I do is also a bit of a grift.

I aestheticize problems by finding pretty turns of phrase around which to build satisfying appreciative discourses. But in my defense, I'm ironic about it, and don't make much money off it.
Bonus: South Park S11E7 Night of the Living Homeless has a great joke about problem aestheticization. Can't find a clip, but here's the script fragment.

"We could give the homeless all designer sleeping bags and makeovers. At least that way they'd be pleasant to look at."
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