How Our Entire Economy Became a Ponzi Scheme

We’re only just discovering how widespread the rip-off schemes riddling our economy are - Published on, by Andy Kroll, March 18, 2010.

Every great American boom and bust makes and breaks its share of crooks. The past decade – call it the Ponzi Era – has been no different, except for the gargantuan scale of white-collar crime. A vast wave of financial fraud swelled in the first years of the new century. Then, in 2008, with the subprime mortgage collapse, it crashed on the shore as a full-scale global economic meltdown.  As that wave receded, it left hundreds of Ponzi and pyramid schemes, as well as other get-rich-quick rackets that helped fuel our recent economic frenzy, flopping on the beach.

The high-water marks from that crime wave, those places where the corruption reached its zenith, are still visible today, like the 17th floor of 885 Third Avenue in midtown Manhattan, the nerve center of investment firm Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities – and, as it turned out, a $65 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in history. Or Stanfordville, a sprawling compound on the Caribbean island of Antigua named for its wealthy owner, a garrulous Texan named Allen Stanford who built it with funds from his own $8 billion Ponzi scheme. Or the bizarrely fortified law office – security cards, surveillance cameras, hidden microphones, a private elevator – of Florida attorney Scott Rothstein, who duped friends and investors out of $1.2 billion.

The more typical marks of the Ponzi Era, though, aren’t as easy to see. Williamston, Michigan, for instance, lacks towering skyscrapers, Italian sports cars, million-dollar mansions, and massive security systems. A quiet town 15 miles from Lansing, the state capital, Williamston is little more than a cross-hatching of a dozen or so streets. A “DOLLAR TIME$” store sits near Williamston’s main intersection – locals affectionally call it the “four corners” – and its main drag is lined with worn brick buildings passed on from one business to the next like fading, hand-me-down jeans. It’s here, far from New York or Antigua, that thanks to two brothers seized by a financial fever dream, the Ponzi Era made its truest, deepest American mark … //

… What does it mean that we so eagerly slap the label “Ponzi scheme” on those things that most frustrate, infuriate, or confound us? Why do so many Americans feel like hapless investors who have thrown away their life savings to pay off guys at the top whose only goal is to screw over everybody else?

It’s an unmistakable sign, at the very least, of a deep, simmering distrust and disillusionment, a dark undercurrent of despair spreading through our culture, whether voiced by Governor Pawlenty or a newspaper reader in rural Ohio who wrote in a letter to the editor that Social Security “is, by definition, a Ponzi scheme.” Today, for Americans, the literal Ponzi schemers may be the least of it.  Sooner or later, they usually go to jail.  But the distrust they sparked has made its way to the very kings of finance, who, like the Ponzi-schemers, were not so long ago going to make us all rich, who struck the match and then stoked the flames of the financial crisis, who created oblique financial products like collateralized debt obligations and pick-a-pay subprime mortgages, and then walked away unscathed with multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses in their pockets.

The distrust extends as well to the government that finally jailed Madoff and is prosecuting Stanford, but has dealt a free pass to Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers.  What might be thought of as an American Ponzi mood can be seen in the rise of anti-government groups like the burgeoning Tea Party movement. The scattered “patriot” groups that comprise the Tea Partiers passionately claim the president, the Democrats, and even the Republicans are “stealing” their country and liberty from them; in some cases, they are prepared to take up arms against what they see as fraud of the largest order, which they term “socialist tyranny.”

Most disquieting in the Ponzi Era is the disillusionment it has bred, the sense that people you know or work with could be ripping you off. In Bernie Madoff’s case, there’s a possibility he deceived his own wife and children. The Merkle brothers exploited members of their church and extended family. “You work hard your whole life to be smart with your money and save and then it is taken by someone you know,” said a resident of tiny Van Wert, Ohio, who’d been duped by the Merkles. “People need to be warned that it can happen in Van Wert, too.”

How long it will take for that embedded distrust to dissipate is anyone’s guess. As the victims of Madoff can attest, justice is bittersweet in the wake of a Ponzi scheme: the ringleader may spend his life in prison, his belongings publicly auctioned off as a form of catharsis as much as restitution, but investors are rarely made whole again. The scars remain.

Ours is now a Ponzi nation. There is a new mood in the land.  Just how it will play out is unknown, but a sense of having been conned is still spreading — as if not just surprising numbers of investors, but the whole country had experienced the last days of a giant Ponzi scheme.  With it goes a feeling that what we’ve been living through, even in “the best of times,” wasn’t an American dream, but pure nightmare.  Welcome to America, sucker. (full long 4 pages text).

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