The United States of Carlo Ponzi

Saturday, November 3, 2012
By Paul Martin

Carlo Ponzi, Alias Uncle Sam

Carlo “Charles” Ponzi was a con man who was the Bernie Madoff of his era. For two years, 1918 to 1920, he sold an impossible dream: a scheme to earn investors 50% profit in 45 days. He paid off old investors with money generated from new investors. The scheme has been imitated every since.

Every Ponzi scheme involves five elements:

A promise of statistically impossible high returns
An investment story that makes no sense economically
Greedy investors who want something for nothing
A willing suspension of disbelief by investors
Investors’ angry rejection of exposures by investigators
Strangely, most Ponzi schemes involve a sixth element: the unwillingness of the con man to quit and flee when he still can. Bernie Madoff is the supreme example. But Ponzi himself established the tradition.

The scheme, once begun, moves toward its statistically inevitable end. From the day it is conceived, it is doomed. Yet even the con man who conceived it believes that he can make it work one more year, or month, or day. The scheme’s designer is trapped by his own rhetoric. He becomes addicted to his own lies. He does not take the money and run.

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