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Ponzi Nation

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.

Jay and Eric Merkle, active church members and successful local businessmen, were well known among Williamston’s residents. In 2004, the brothers discovered that an oil-and-gas venture, which they had invested in and which promised them quick, lucrative returns, was a scam. They’d been duped. Their next move should have been simple: turn in the crooks and get on with their lives, their pockets a few dollars lighter. Jay and Eric, however, grasped the spirit of their age and made another decision entirely -- they teamed up with the guys who had ripped them off, in the process switching from prey to predator.

That first venture actually floundered, but in 2005, court records show, they started their own Ponzi scheme, Platinum Business Industries (PBI).  Based in Williamston, PBI claimed it was socking its investors’ money into lucrative oil and gas exploration opportunities in Oklahoma and Texas, and it promised the investors absurdly high returns -- 6% a month, or 72% a year. Despite such promises, the brothers assured town locals handing over their hard-earned dollars that little risk was involved.  Even if the energy exploration didn’t pay off, the land acquired by PBI was valuable and could be sold to offset any losses.

Like Madoff in Palm Beach, the Merkles in Williamston exploited local ties -- church and family -- to reel in new investors; and like Madoff's investment fund, PBI, too, was a complete sham, and a classic Ponzi scheme -- that is, an investment scam in which existing investors’ returns are paid for with money from new investors.  In the case of PBI, there was no energy exploration in Oklahoma and Texas.

Some of the money they received from later investors the Merkles used to pay off earlier ones and give their scheme the look of success. But in their case, there was a rub. The Merkles were distinctly creatures of the Ponzi Era: they evidently couldn’t help themselves.  Even as they ran their own Ponzi racket, documents show, they were getting fleeced.  What they weren't paying out in fake returns the Merkles bet on high-yield, get-rich-quick schemes in the U.S. and abroad that had nothing to do with oil and gas -- and other Ponzi schemers and con artists were robbing them blind.

Their financial crime spree collapsed in 2008. Dead-broke, with investigators closing in, they told investors that various foreign governments and banks had frozen their assets.  The brothers then asked them to wire more than a million dollars to Nigeria, Ghana, and other countries as “fees” to release their money, even as they warned them against cooperating with an FBI investigation. Then, on a brisk autumn day in October 2008, the feds arrested to the two brothers; the game was up. In all, via PBI and other scams, they had duped more than 600 investors out of $50 million, robbing some of their life savings.

When compared to Madoff’s or Stanford’s heists, that sum was little more than pocket change. But the Merkle brothers caught the true, democratic spirit of a decade of an unrestrained magical thinking that infected rich and poor, successful and ne’er-do-well, the financially savvy and neophytes who couldn’t tell a stock from a bond. Think of their story as a parable for the Ponzi Era: they were taken, decided to become takers, took others, then got taken again.  In the rush for the pot of gold at rainbow’s end, they bet everything Main Street had to offer, believing they could get away with it.

Thanks to an open credit spigot, a booming housing market, and visions of unimaginable wealth on Wall Street, practically everyone in the United States in the past decade seemed to aspire to get rich -- and quick. Perfectly ordinary people refinanced their homes, refinanced again, and used the money they got to stake themselves at the crooked casino table of American life. Some rolled the dice in stocks, bonds, and second homes. For millions more, the gamble took the form of “investment opportunities” that promised wealth in a hurry, opportunities now exposed as little more than financial con jobs. “People were shooting for that home run,” says Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University and white-collar crime expert. “They were saying, ‘I’m just as smart as Warren Buffet.’”

Today, with easy credit and the buy-now-pay-tomorrow culture that it spawned in the dustbin of history, the Ponzis and pyramid schemes of the past decade can be seen for what they really were. Not a week seems to go by without the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or the FBI or law enforcement officials busting another get-rich hustle. Yet the full scope of the criminality of the Ponzi Era remains elusive; no one yet knows just how widespread those Ponzi schemes were -- and how many may remain, hidden or in plain sight.

Beyond the headliners like Madoff and Stanford, Americans may not actually be aware of just how many schemes of this sort were abroad in our land -- but it probably doesn’t matter much either.  Disillusionment with the past decade is such that many Americans now simply assume that our world is little but a giant Ponzi scheme.

Ponzis, Ponzis, Everywhere

The wave of financial crime may have peaked in 2005 or 2006, but the detritus of such collapsed schemes has left regulators and investigators ever busier. Almost four times as many Ponzi schemes broke down in 2009 -- 150 -- as in 2008 -- 40. According to the Associated Press, the FBI began more than 2,100 securities fraud cases last year, an increase from 1,750 the year before.  The SEC likewise dealt out 82% more restraining orders against Ponzi schemes and similar frauds in 2009 than the previous year.

2008 belonged to Madoff, but 2009 and 2010 have displayed a far more eclectic cast of crooks. We learned of mini Madoff, Miami Madoff, and Montreal Madoff, of Ponzis targeting African Americans, Haitian Americans, and Cuban Americans. There were fraudulent real-estate schemes and farm-grain schemes. Some were banal, like a Ponzi built on investments in state-worker uniforms or one that siphoned off retirement funds from bus drivers. Others were sexier, like the high-profile Florida race-car driver who, investigators say, swindled investors for $5 million claiming to peddle iron-ore contracts, or the clutch of professional athletes, among them the National Football League’s Michael Vick, allegedly fleeced for $3 million by an elite “adviser” offering guidance on buying luxury properties and private jets. There were Ponzis piled atop each other, like a recent Detroit scam described by a state official as “a multiheaded Ponzi hydra.”

Faltering Ponzis have spread woe in Dallas and Boca Raton, Livermore and Long Island, Seattle and Atlanta. And the legacy of the past decade’s procession of white-collar criminals has indelibly marked our society in ways that go far beyond the financial losses they caused to their unfortunate investors.

Just use the word “Madoff” and see if you don’t inspire a visceral sense of revulsion in your listeners. (So notorious is the name that Bernie’s daughter-in-law wants to legally change her daughter’s last name from Madoff to Morgan to avoid “additional humiliation.”) Indeed, the Ponzi scheme is now so imprinted on the American imagination that it has, to some extent, become a prism through which we interpret the world.

The World’s a Ponzi, and We’re All Getting Duped

A decade ago, few Americans would have described the world around them in Ponzi terms, if they even knew what it was. Today, it’s become increasingly commonplace to describe American politics as a series of massive, plain-as-day Ponzi schemes. Medicare, for instance, or Social Security are regularly deemed Ponzis by right-wing protestors railing against the spread of big government. “It’s become part of the political nomenclature,” says law professor Henning. “That may be the greatest effect Madoff had.  He’s now taken a term of art and made it into common public discourse.”

Last month, for instance, Tim Pawlenty, the drawling Minnesota governor and potential Republican presidential candidate, described not just Social Security and Medicare but all federal government spending as the “Ponzi scheme on the Potomac.” That scheme, Pawlenty wrote, “sooner or later” will

“come crashing down, and the loss will be mammoth... Ponzi schemes succeed because people want to believe in a free lunch as long as the easy money is rolling in. But a day of reckoning always arrives, and ours is right around the corner. The sooner we open our eyes, the sooner we can clean up this mess."

The inexorable rise of our closest economic competitor, China, is apparently a massive Ponzi, too.  According to some journalists and analysts, that country’s success has been built on a bloated stock market, a growing housing bubble, cheap labor, and the promise of increasing returns. If so, it’s undoubtedly the greatest heist ever pulled in plain sight, involving the duping of China’s billion-plus inhabitants and the billions more worldwide whose lifestyles wouldn’t exist without the Middle Kingdom’s industrial rise.

To some, the Ponzi scheme knows no borders at all. Joe Romm, a climate science expert and blogger at ClimateProgress.org -- a left-leaning website, since the Ponzi mindset is bipartisan -- casts our current climate nightmare as a global Ponzi. By devouring natural resources now and cavalierly spewing greenhouse gases to poison the planet’s future, Romm says, we’re mortgaging the lives of future generations:

"You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior. But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate...'"

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.

Andy Kroll, an associate editor at TomDispatch, is a reporter for Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Washington, D.C.  To listen to him discuss the geometry of delusion in the Ponzi Era on the latest TomCast audio interview, click here, or download it as a podcast by clicking here.

Copyright 2010 Andy Kroll

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