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Madoff Gives Us Lots to Think About This Christmas

Christmastime is the time of giving. So we can thank Bernie Madoff for giving Americans some special gifts this holiday season.


Yes, I said thank him. OK, maybe not a lot. But the one-time financial wizard’s downfall is a morality tale that provides so many lessons it’s almost impossible to know where to start.


If you’ve been living under a rock, the former chairman of the Nasdaq has been charged with securities fraud. Not just ordinary securities fraud, either. Reportedly, Madoff’s sons turned in their father, and who could blame them. He had allegedly confessed to them “that his investment business was a giant Ponzi scheme’ that cost clients $50 billion, a lawyer for the brothers” told Bloomberg.


How someone could degenerate from such status to being reviled the world over is a story that will soon fill textbooks with lessons for future generations. For starters, Madoff proves P.T. Barnum right. Barnum is credited with the saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Given the world’s population growth, maybe that understates the case.


Besides, you don’t need 6.5 billion people when you know the right ones. Those right people lost $50 billion. The list of victims in this story reads more like a social register than a police report – New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon and charities for U.S. News & World Report Publisher Mort Zuckerman, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Steven Spielberg.


It’s hard to think of such luminaries as “suckers,” but that’s about the size of it. A lot of business is based on trust and Madoff won the trust of the rich and famous. That’s a reminder that difference between rich and poor sometimes is merely the size of their mistakes.


According to The Wall Street Journal, nine of the victims had $1 billion or more under management with Madoff. Five of those were banks. Others included Tufts University, several pension funds and even The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. What kind of monster bilks a foundation started by a Holocaust victim?


Since we’re still figuring out the extent of Madoff’s alleged crime, we don’t know enough about him to say. But he’s also giving us a lesson in history, and there we might find some answers. Madoff’s purported crime was a form of pyramid scheme writ large – more commonly known as a Ponzi scheme.


Charles Ponzi, the scam’s namesake, was one of the most unrepentant scumbags in the history of finance. He wasn’t a loveable rogue, just a rogue with no remorse but with oodles of chutzpah. AP describes the Ponzi scam as one where “people are persuaded to invest in a fraudulent operation that promises unusually high returns.”


But Ponzi was special. He bilked Americans for $10 million back in 1919-1920 when that kind of money was a huge fortune. Even as the wolves closed in on Ponzi, making a run on a bank he ran, the namesake of financial schemes personally handed out coffee and donuts to those in line.  


Despite all of the Wall Street problems – Fannie Mae, Enron and more – it’s hard to believe we could be so easily taken in by someone long on promises and short on honesty.


But CNBC’s Jim Cramer had a harsh reminder recently that government does this to us all the time. The “Mad Money” host was critical of “everybody in the press, who’s calling Bernie Madoff’s alleged $50 billion scam the ‘largest Ponzi scheme ever.’”


The Dec. 17 show highlighted a much larger and longer running Ponzi scheme – Social Security. “We all know the name of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history and it’s not even illegal. In fact, it is run by the U.S. government. And the name of it – well they call it Social Security,” Cramer explained.


He’s right. The whole premise of Social Security is that more workers will come into the system to prop up those who retire. Only, the number of people working is declining as the number of retirees grows. Eventually, we’ll all count on one worker named Atlas to keep the program going. Money is also an issue. While the program is projected to be insolvent by 2042, it stops bringing in enough cash to cover the outflows as of 2017.


Cramer actually understates the case. Social Security is worse than a Ponzi scheme. At least with Ponzi and his acolytes, you get promises of great wealth and high returns. With Social Security, many of us will be lucky to get our money back.


Barnum was right indeed.


Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Fellow and Vice President of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute.