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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The World-Wide Ponzie Scheme

I don't get why Bernie Madoff has become such a pariah. Yes, I know he ran a huge Ponzie scheme, but what's the difference between a Ponzie scheme and our economy at large?

Basically, for a Ponzie scheme to work, you have to get more and more people to put money into the pot. Economists and capitalists call this "growth." As long as we have growth, money just keeps rolling in and filters its way to the top. There's never a sucker left holding the bag as long as suckers are born every minute.

Consider the housing market. In order to survive, residential builders need to build houses (or apartment buildings) and sell them. What happens when everyone has a house or apartment to live in? People who already live in houses will die eventually and their houses will be available to the next generation. If the population were to stop growing, eventually there would be a house for every single person on Earth and new construction would cease (except to replace houses destroyed by storms, fire, or other calamities). So, isn't the home building industry really just a gigantic Ponzie scheme which depends on an ever-increasing population coming of age and buying a new house?

As Bernie Madoff eventually learned, a pyramid scheme is not sustainable. Eventually you run out of suckers and the last guys in line start asking uncomfortable questions. I would assert that an industry or whole economy which also depends on a continuous supply of new suckers is not sustainable either. The magnitude and span of the current "economic crisis" may just be the natural death of an economy built entirely on a premise as false as Bernie Madoff's investments.

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