Ponzi Planet: The Danger Debt Poses to the Western World
Countries around the world, particularly in the West, are hopelessly in the red, with debt rising every day. Even worse, politicians seem paralyzed, unable — or unwilling — to do anything about it. It is a global disaster that threatens the immediate future. But there might be a way out.
When Carlo Ponzi, a dishwasher from Parma, Italy, immigrated to the United States in 1903, he had $2.50 in his pocket and a million-dollar dream in his head. He was able to fulfill that dream, at least temporarily.
Ponzi promised people that he would multiply their money in a miraculous way: by 50 percent in six weeks. With his carefully parted hair and charming accent, Ponzi beguiled investors and fueled their avarice. The first investors raked in fantastic returns. What they didn’t know was that Ponzi was simply using the next investors’ money to pay them their profits.
The scheme continued. Ten investors turned into 100, and 100 investors turned into 1,000, until the scam was discovered. Ponzi spent many years in prison, and he died a pauper in 1949. But his name remains important to every criminologist today — and every economist.
Economists use the term “Ponzi scheme” to describe a disastrous mechanism in which someone pays off old debt by constantly taking on new debt. The repayment of the debt — the most recent loans, plus interest — is deferred into the distant future, fueling an eternal process of debt refinancing.
It’s the classic pyramid, or snowball scheme, practiced by thousands of con artists after Ponzi. The most spectacular case was that of New York financier Bernard Madoff, who was responsible for losses of about $20 billion by 2008. Snowballs are set into motion, becoming bigger and bigger as they roll along. In the worst case, they end in an avalanche that takes everything else with it.
Western economies have not acted much differently than the fraudster Madoff. In 2011, they were virtually inundated with bad news and old sins. Almost everyone — in Europe and in the United States — has been living beyond their means, from consumers to politicians to entire countries. Governments have become servants to the markets upon which they have become dependent.