American oligarchy-2: The fraud on the American people

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Obama’s nominee to be chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, had to withdraw her nomination following the revelation that she had a mere $946.69 lien on her property in 2005 for failure to pay taxes ($298 in unemployment compensation for household help, $48.69 in interest, and $600.00 in penalties.) This was a fairly trivial issue.

Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle had to also withdraw over the failure to pay a much larger amount of $140,000 in taxes but there was a faintly plausible case of ambiguity there. I was glad Daschle withdrew for a different reason, because he is completely enmeshed with all kinds of lobbying interests.
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American oligarchy

If there is one thing that the current financial crisis has revealed, it is the stranglehold that the big financial interests have on the American government. From the beginning it has been clear that the same interests that caused the financial crisis are the ones that control both the Bush and Obama administrations and that they are making sure that they are the ones who benefit most from the various high-cost “rescue” and “stimulus” packages that have been floated. Nowhere is this more clearly displayed that the way in which the Obama administration is slavishly adhering to satisfy the needs of the major financial interests on Wall Street.

This will be unwelcome news for those Obama fans who thought their candidate would be different. So far Barack Obama’s administration seems to be acting consistently with the model that states that the US is run by a pro-war/pro-business one party oligarchy with two factions that differ only on some social issues.

Exhibit #1 is Timothy Geithner, the current Secretary of the Treasury. He was one of the many Obama nominees who had problems with their past tax payments. But Geither’s case was the most serious because it was clear that he was not paying taxes in a manner that suggested willful deception. There is no way that he could not have known that he was doing something wrong by not paying his Social Security or Medicare taxes while he was at the International Monetary Fund, unless he is such a financial idiot that he should not be Treasury Secretary. The Wall Street Journal describes the problem:

As an international body, the IMF doesn’t withhold taxes for U.S. citizens, and employees are responsible for paying their taxes. The IMF pays employees additional tax allowances to cover federal and state income taxes, and the employer’s portion of payroll taxes.

Mr. Geithner prepared his own federal-tax returns during the first two years he worked at the IMF, 2001 and 2002, according to the Senate Finance Committee report.

“The IMF informs U.S. employees about their tax allowance and what it covers and doesn’t cover — and that includes paying your payroll taxes,” said Michael Mussa, a former IMF chief economist, who is now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The IMF doesn’t leave this out.”

An IMF booklet on taxes, which Mr. Geithner told the Senate panel he received, instructed employees that “you pay the employee’s share of U.S. Social Security taxes.”

Mr. Geithner’s quarterly tax-allowance payments also included a statement of what the money was to be used for, and had an entry for “SE tax” — meaning “self-employment” taxes. In a wrinkle in U.S. tax law, U.S. citizens at the IMF pay Social Security and Medicare taxes as if they were self-employed. Current and former IMF officials said that U.S. officials widely understood “SE tax” to mean payroll taxes.”

I, like Geithner, do my own taxes and there is no way that you can do that without knowing what ‘SE tax’ means. I have been paying self-employment taxes (to cover Social Security and Medicare) every year on the small extra income I get from book royalties and consulting and speaking fees. It is quite simple and straightforward.

Current and former IMF officials said the fund provided numerous warnings to U.S. employees about payroll taxes. According to IMF documents released by the Senate Finance panel, Mr. Geithner regularly received information about his tax obligations.

Mr. Geithner didn’t make any Social Security or Medicare tax payments on his income during the years he worked for the IMF, though he did pay income taxes. After the Internal Revenue Service audited him in 2006 and discovered the payroll-tax errors, Mr. Geithner corrected them for 2003 and 2004. Only after Mr. Obama picked him for Treasury secretary last fall did Mr. Geithner pay the Social Security and Medicare tax he owed for 2001 and 2002.

So even after being audited and having paid back taxes for two years, he did not pay for the other years even though he must have known that the same problem existed there. To me, this was such an egregious act that Geithner’s nomination should have been rejected. But he was confirmed quite easily, which immediately indicated to me then that he was a faithful servant of the oligarchy and that he would faithfully serve Wall Street interests.

As veteran investigative reporters Don Bartlett and Jim Steele said :

The reason we said that Geithner’s was far more egregious is this. He signed a piece of paper acknowledging that he owed both taxes while he was employed by the IMF. He then collected the money from IMF to pay the taxes. Now, most of us, you know, the payroll taxes are withheld. We don’t get reimbursed for those taxes. It comes out of our own pocket. But Mr. Geithner not only signed a paper acknowledging he owed taxes, he collected money to pay the taxes and then didn’t pay them and pocketed the money. This is why it was far more egregious for him and why—you know, the New York Times demanded that Tom Daschle withdraw, and he did. But the same demand was not put on Mr. Geithner.

If this was a real two-party system, you would think that the Republicans would jump at this chance at embarrassing the incoming president by highlighting the faults of his important cabinet pick. But in a one-party oligarchy, it is the interests of the oligarchy that must be served first and Republicans know that.

A number of senators, including Republicans, continued to express their support for Mr. Geithner. “These are not the times to think in small political terms,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “He has a great résumé.”

Yes, he certainly does. A resume that screams that he will do Wall Street’s bidding, and what’s not to like about that?

POST SCRIPT: The other side of piracy

Johann Hari of the London Independent says there is another side to the pirate story that we are not being told.

In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.”

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving.

This is the context in which the “pirates” have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a “tax” on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence”.

No, this doesn’t make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But in a telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali: “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas.” William Scott would understand.

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our toxic waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome?

The whole article is worth reading for its history of how pirates arose in the 17th century as a reaction to the extreme hardship and cruelties suffered by sailors in the merchant and regular navies of that time. Rather than being thought of as evildoers, they were initially seen by the general public as romantic heroes, rebels against oppression. Their transformation in the public mind into senseless and savage bandits was the result of a concerted propaganda campaign by the British government.

Financial frauds-6: The danger of having an oligarchy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In a provocative article, Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges warns that those people who have elite educations often make the biggest blunders because they have been trained to think highly of themselves, and thus become less reflective and more overconfident.

These institutions [i.e., elite prep schools and universities], no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard. Bush was, like the rest of his caste, propelled forward by his money and his connections. That is the real purpose of these well-endowed schools — to perpetuate their own.

Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege and comfort and entitlement. They are endowed with an unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find “solutions,” such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes, and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us.

Hedges is perhaps too pessimistic, sweeping, and apocalyptic. At least I hope so, as otherwise we are done for. There are genuinely clever people who go to these elite schools. They are not the problem. The problems are those who suffer from what William Deresiewicz, a professor of English at Yale, called ‘entitled mediocrity’. i.e., people who see themselves as smart merely because of their background and privileged opportunities and not out of any personal achievement. He takes elite universities to task for having lost sight of their mission and becoming instead essentially narrowly focused trade schools, although the trades students are being prepared for are the professions.

When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students.

Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage.

Among the elites there is also a clannishness, a willingness to shield their own from the barbarians at the gate, i.e. ordinary people. You can see it in the way that the Obama administration is seeking to avoid taking any action against those members of the Bush administration that have been involved in the most outrageous acts of criminality and violations of the constitution, such as torture, war crimes, warrantless wiretapping and the like. The Obama administration is trying to impose even greater secrecy than Bush did and fighting the efforts of those who want openness and investigations of wrongdoers. Such acts (lawlessness and the closing of ranks to cover them up) are the signs of an oligarchy.

It used to be the case that Americans would laugh at the ‘banana republics’ of South America as countries where ruling elites would violate laws with impunity, confident that even their supposed political opponents would protect them because of their common class interests. And yet, on April 7, Peru became the first country to convict a former democratically elected head of state for ordering killings and kidnappings by his security forces. Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

We could learn something from the so-called banana republics.

POST SCRIPT: Why I don’t watch TV news

It looks like TV news is as almost as pathetic in England as it is here.

(Thanks to Earth-bound Misfit.)

Financial frauds-5: The problem with smart people

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Many of the people who were swindled by Madoff were those who suffer from what William Deresiewicz, a professor of English at Yale, calls ‘entitled mediocrity’. These are people who see themselves as smart merely because of their background and formal education and not out of any actual achievement. In a recent article in The American Scholar titled The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, Deresiewicz reflects on his own rising self-awareness of the limits his privileged education has created.

I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

I also never learned that there are smart people who aren’t “smart.”

The second disadvantage, implicit in what I’ve been saying, is that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth.

There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge. There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their sat scores are higher.

It’s no coincidence that our current president [George W. Bush at the time of writing], the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale. Entitled mediocrity is indeed the operating principle of his administration, but as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com meltdown demonstrated, it’s also the operating principle of corporate America.

It is this smug self-assurance of one’s own smartness that leads these people to fall prey to those who know exactly how to play on their weaknesses. Recently a hedge fund manager Andrew Lahde decided to retire after he had made enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life, and he had some harsh parting words about the kinds of people that made it so easy for him to be so successful at making money. He said that the so-called ‘smart people’, who had a high opinion of themselves that was not based on any real achievements, were the easiest ones to take advantage of.

I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades.

Lahde was making money at these people’s expense legally but the people at the losing end were the same kinds of people who were swindled by Madoff.

America prides itself on being a meritocracy, that people get to the top by virtue of their ability and hard work. It is not clear if that was ever really true but there are definitely reasons to doubt it now. It is true that there are no legacies of a feudal system like a formal aristocracy and inherited titles. But we do now have in place a system that seems to perpetuate a ruling class. Wealthy people have created a system whereby they can send their children to elite primary and secondary schools and colleges (often starting with elite pre-schools!) where they move around largely with people like them and develop the contacts that, coupled with their parents’ network of business and social relationships, enable them to get onto the fast track of business and government. So we end up with a self-perpetuating elite.

What we have now is a one-party pro-war/pro-business form of government controlled by a wealthy elite that sees its role as preserving the privileges of the already privileged.

America has become an oligarchy, and that is not a good thing because it is usually a sign of impending collapse.

Next: The dangers of being ruled by an oligarchy.

POST SCRIPT: Telling the truth about religion

British comedian Marcus Brigstocke riffs funnily, but accurately, on the violence and hate and demands for special treatment that permeates the three so-called Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and the so-called ‘moderate’ religious people who are its enablers, something that I have said before.

Financial frauds-4: Bernard Madoff’s scam

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While Bernie Madoff has pleaded guilty to various charges of fraud, what he actually did has not yet been unraveled and who else was involved not revealed, though all the signs are that it was a pyramid, or ‘Ponzi’, scheme in the classic tradition, pretending to have a business that made money while merely taking money from newer investors to pay off the obligations to the older ones.

As with Charles Ponzi and Allen Stanford, there had been clues long before that Madoff was running some kind of fraudulent scheme, but those who suspected it were not sure exactly what. As long ago as November 2005, Harry Markopolos, an investment hedge fund manager and derivatives expert, sent a confidential report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the supposed watchdog agency, saying that based on his analysis Madoff could not be providing his returns legitimately. In his report, Markopolos listed 29 red flags about Madoff’s operation.

As Eamonn Fingleton, a former editor for Forbes magazine and the Financial Times, explains in the CounterPunch newsletter of Feb 1-15, 2009:

Markopolos’ interest had been first piqued as far back as the 1990s, when colleagues told him of this amazing fund manager who was ostensibly using a conservative options-based hedging strategy to generate consistently superlative returns. As an options expert, Markopolos quickly determined that what Madoff was claiming was impossible (in this conclusion, he was joined by many Wall Street authorities, not least analysts at Goldman Sachs). Either Madoff was faking or he was pursuing a quite different investment strategy, in all probability a shady one, known as “front-running” (more about this in a second). At a minimum, Madoff was a liar.

What is front running?

Front-running refers to the practice by brokers of exploiting privileged knowledge about future buying and selling by large financial institutions to make private profits. A typical instance might start when a broker receives a big order from an institutional investor to buy shares in, say, IBM. This is more or less guaranteed to send the price shooting up, and if the broker can nip in seconds ahead with an order for his personal account, he or she is guaranteed an almost certain, risk-free, and instantaneous profit. Front-running is pandemic on Wall Street and, as Madoff’s more sophisticated investors realized, almost no one was better placed to profit from it than Madoff.

So this is the scheme that Madoff led his investors to suspect that he was carrying out. While it is technically illegal (since it involves using insider knowledge), it is not uncommon because it is hard to prove and prosecute. What aroused Markopolos’s suspicions is that, as in the case of the Ponzi and the Afinsa/Escala business models, while it was superficially plausible, the returns being provided implied a scale of operations that simply was not possible. But only people who understand the business model being used and do the calculations realize this. As Fingleton writes:

[A]fter years of piecing together information from a wide variety of mainly private sources, however, Markopolos became convinced that front-running was not the explanation. That left only one possibility: Madoff was running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

But others had also had their suspicions aroused, though they did not make them public.

For years, [Madoff] had been pegged as an outright Ponzi artist by Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse, for instance, and he was blacklisted also at Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, and UBS. Indeed, as far back as 1991, CounterPunch contributor Pam Martens, in her capacity as a Wall Street broker had told him she was on to his game and had so advised a client.

The business media and the regulatory agencies also dropped the ball. Markopolos’ now famous dossier was also given to the investigative reporter John R. Wilke of the Wall Street Journal. As Fingleton says:

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, on the strength of an afternoon’s research, a good reporter could have worked up any one of Markopolos’ points into a cracker of a front-page story. Taken as a whole, the dossier represented the biggest “career development opportunity” any journalist has been handed since Deep Throat delivered the goods on Richard Nixon to Woodward and Bernstein a generation ago.

And yet, nothing happened. Neither the SEC nor the Wall Street Journal picked up on Markopolos’s investigation. Even the New York Times, which had to have been aware of all the worried whisperings about Madoff that were circulating in the elite social circles that their own editors inhabited, did not investigate or reveal these misgivings until after the scandal broke. Why?

Infected by the “greed is good” virus that has ravaged political discourse for nearly three decades, American financial regulation has now become so corrupt and incompetent that it would embarrass a Third World kleptocracy. What is news – at least to those who lack independent sources of information – is that top American editors and reporters now seem no more willing to tackle wealthy and well-connected crooks than their avowedly venal and cowed peers in, say, Jakarta or Harare.

This is what Jon Stewart excoriated Jim Cramer for in the now famous interview. But Cramer was merely a pathetic minor representative, a circus clown, of the financial reporting industry. The sickness runs deep. Consider the recent decision by Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of the New York Times, to publish an an op-ed piece by one Daphne Merkin saying that there were no “victims” in the Madoff case since “no one was holding a gun to anyone’s head, saying sign up with Mr. Madoff or else.”. It is certainly true that some of the investors who gave Madoff money were driven by greed. But who is Daphne Merkin? In her piece she coyly says parenthetically that “I did not know Mr. Madoff nor did I invest with his firm, but have a sibling who did business with him.”

But as that excellent blog Talking Points Memo pointed out, there is far more to this connection.

That sibling is Ezra Merkin, the financier and former chairman of GMAC, who was the second-largest institutional investor in Madoff’s funds, losing billions of other people’s money. In a civil suit filed this week by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Ezra Merkin, who collected over $40 million from Madoff’s funds, was charged with “betraying hundreds of investors” by lying to them about how much of their money he had invested with Madoff, and by failing to disclose conflicts of interest.

So there were many people who were swindled by Madoff because other money managers like Merkin gave him their money, sometimes despite explicit instructions not to. When TPM contacted Rosenthal to question why the full extent of Daphne Merkin’s connections with Madoff was not made explicit and why she was given this platform to mitigate Madoff’s crime, he refused to answer, which suggests how complicit the media has become in the face of massive government and financial corruption.

Next: The problem of ‘entitled mediocrity’

POST SCRIPT: Biblical torture

The story of Job is one of the weirdest in the Bible, which is quite an achievement when you consider that it is a book full of truly weird stories. God essentially allows the devil to torture an innocent man for no reason other than to prove a point. This animation gives you a quick and accurate synopsis of the story.

Financial frauds-3: Introducing Bernie Madoff

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Bernard Madoff has reportedly swindled investors out of $50 billion of their money. You might have noticed that news stories repeatedly emphasize their surprise that the people who were defrauded were ‘smart’ people. If you look at the stories more closely, you will find that they do not really specify what they mean by smart. What they point to is that they had a lot of money, lived well, moved in exclusive circles, and attended elite schools. These are the measures that most people use to determine whether someone is ‘smart’ or not. It seems to be a basic assumption that rich people who have had extensive formal education at elite institutions cannot, by definition, be fools. Hence they must be ‘smart’.

But there is a difference between being merely conventionally ‘smart’ as determined by these measures and being genuinely smart. The biggest suckers are those who have convinced themselves that they are smart but really are not.

I once watched the magician James Randi give a demonstration of his tricks to a group of physicists and he completely bamboozled them. He said that it is really easy to fool people, and the more well educated people are, the more confident such people are of their own cleverness, the easier it is for magicians and other tricksters to take advantage of them.

Madoff seemed to have taken advantage of four psychological weaknesses that such conventionally smart people tend to have. The first is that he provided attractive and steady returns on their investments, but nothing spectacular. ‘Smart’ people are suspicious of get-rich-quick, something-for-nothing schemes, rightly suspecting that those must be frauds. But here was someone who was providing a slightly above average rate of return of about 10% on investments when the stock market was going up, and still managing to provide good returns when the market was going down. So he was definitely outperforming the market but not by amounts that might make people too suspicious. It seemed plausible that he had some kind of system, although he never said exactly what he was doing that enabled him to be so steady, claiming that doing so would reveal his business secrets.

The second was that he was well-connected, a friend of the elite, a former chair of the NASDAQ stock exchange, a public benefactor. He was a member of the exclusive Palm Beach Country Club where he played golf with many of the people who eagerly sought him out to invest their money. They felt he was one of them, their friend. People tend to trust members of their own class, their own social circle.

Third, he played hard to get so that people were made to feel that he was doing them a favor by taking them on as clients. People sought him out, tried to get their friends to recommend them to him as clients, and sought to curry his favor. And he would turn money and people away, thus increasing his appeal. When people have irrationally set their hearts on achieving a goal, they do not pay attention to the normal warning signs that govern their other actions. (Woody Allen riffs on Madoff’s technique and his victims.)

Fourth, and perhaps most significant, was that he gave people a wink and a nudge that the system he was using was perhaps not quite legitimate, that he was skating close to the edge and using insider knowledge that may have come with being former chair of NASDAQ, and that other people, those ignorant poor saps, were being exploited in order to give them their returns. So those who invested with Madoff felt that they were also financial players, that they were on the same side as him, making money at the expense of suckers like you and me.

These very rich people have no problem with people who take money from those less well off, since they often do so themselves, both legally and illegally. That comes naturally to them. What they found shocking was when it was revealed that Madoff’s targets were themselves. Madoff was playing a classic con game, taking advantage of rich and greedy people’s willingness to take unfair advantage of people poorer than themselves.

It is the same psychology that was used by the small-time conman to lure the big-time gangster into the con in the classic film The Sting. If you have never seen this Paul Newman-Robert Redford film, you have missed a treat. Here is the classic poker scene from it.

Next: How Madoff ran his scam.

POST SCRIPT: What we need is more sports!

The Onion News Network reports on plans to expand the NCAA playoffs to 4096 teams.

Financial frauds-2: The original Ponzi model

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Following up on yesterday’s post, Charles Ponzi’s scheme used the fact that a person could legally buy postal coupons in one country using the currency of that country, but in the denomination of the currency of another country. If you mailed the coupons to the other country, the recipient could then exchange the coupons in their post office for stamps.

In 1920, after World War I, the British and German currencies lost value compared to the US dollar. But since postal coupons were based on fixed exchange rates set in 1907 by the International Postal Union and were thus based on a higher value for those currencies, Charles Ponzi saw the chance for a scheme that would work by sending money overseas to buy coupons for American stamps that had greater value than the amount he had sent, and having the coupons shipped back to him. As economist Michael Hudson says, “An American penny could buy foreign stamp orders that could be converted into six cents in U.S. stamps, for a 500 per cent profit.”

But there was a catch.

The problem was that it would take a truckload of such postal orders to make serious money. A million-dollar investment would involve a hundred million penny coupons – which then would have to be converted into stamps and sold in competition with the U.S. Post Office, presumably at a discount, mainly in immigrant neighborhoods.

This shipping of such huge numbers of coupons from one country to another, and then trying to sell the stamps on the street to get back cash, would have involved hard work and been tedious. So what Ponzi did was simply tell investors that this was his business model for making money, but not actually carry it out.

Focusing on the principle of arbitrage rather than such laborious implementation, Ponzi explained that he could make a 400 per cent gain after expenses. He promised that investors could double their money in 90 days, pretending to take due account of the costs and shipping time from Europe to America.

Ponzi, like every other perpetrator of such schemes since, took advantage of that aspect of human psychology, especially common among greedy investors, that as long as they are getting the interest rate on their money that they were promised, they would not inquire too closely into the details of the business, being satisfied with vague generalities that gave them something plausible to believe in.

Ponzi had noticed this trait much earlier when he had worked at as a teller at a bank that attracted investors by paying higher interest rates than their competitors and used that money to invest in real estate, expecting those prices to rise. When the real estate market took a downturn and their investments went bad, the bank went bankrupt. But while they were making money, the bank’s depositors were quite happy, a scenario that should sound depressingly familiar to people today.

Ponzi promised to double his investors’ money every three months and he delivered, at least at the start. What he did was to pay on schedule to the early investors, who spread the word that this was a good investment. More investors gave money, which Ponzi used to pay the promised interest to the earlier investors. As long as increasing numbers of new investors (or to use a technical term, “suckers”) were coming in with new money, he could pay off the earlier ones, thus creating a pyramid of investors, the ever-growing large base supporting payoffs to the smaller group closer to the top.

When his Securities Exchange Company paid early investors the high returns he had described, they spread the word to others. Ponzi’s inflow of funds rose from $5,000 in February 1920 to $30,000 in March, and $420,000 by May. By July an estimated $250,000 a day was flowing into his firm, mainly from small investors who let their book credits build up rather than taking out their money. Some people put their life savings into the plan, and even borrowed against their homes.

Like other frauds, Ponzi spent money lavishly on himself, living well, buying a mansion, and even bringing his mother over from Italy. And Hudson points out that like the Ponzi schemes of today, there were enough clues that he was running a racket if only financial reporters and investigators took the trouble to look for them. In each case, there were a few people who had stumbled upon the fact that the sheer volume of transactions that would have to be involved to generate such returns did not, and could not, match the reality, and that hence there must be some racket going on.

The financial reporter Clarence Barron (publisher of Barron’s) noted that if he really had invested the money as he told his investors he had done, Ponzi would have had to purchase 160 million postal reply coupons. Yet the post office reported that few were being bought at home or abroad, and only 27,000 were circulating in the United States.

There were similar clues that shady dealings were going on in the Escala/Afinsa stamp fraud of 2006, if only people were willing to look into the actual workings of the business.

The denouement came shortly after Lloyd’s of London withdrew from a 1.2 billion euros policy to insure Afinsa’s stamps. One of its experts noticed that if $6 billion really had been invested, it would have bought up all the investment-grade stamps in the world many times over. The fact that stamp prices did not reflect any such extraordinary buying implied that few bona fide stamp transactions occurred at all, and there had been a massive over-billing.

The same is true for the fraud perpetrated by Allen Stanford, which began to unravel when a Venezualan financial analyst looked into Stanford International Bank (SIB) as a favor to a friend who was thinking of investing in it. “No matter how hard he tried, he could see no way in which SIB’s business model could produce the returns that it claimed to or fund the dividends that it was continuing to pay its investors.”

Bernard Madoff’s scheme was similar, as we will see tomorrow.


“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” (From Kung Fu Monkey.)

Financial frauds-1: Introducing Charles Ponzi

Recently there have been two major fraud scandals in the US, one perpetrated by Bernard Madoff and the other by Allen Stanford, both based on so-called ‘Ponzi’ schemes. These exploded on the financial world as big surprises. But there was a similar huge scandal that took place in 2006 but since its impact was felt mostly in Spain, the media here did not give it much publicity, though doing so might have alerted people earlier as to what Madoff and Stanford were up to. Economist Michael Hudson gives the background on the Spanish fraud.

The Spanish scheme involved the trading of rare stamps by a Spanish holding company called Afinsa that bought up a New Jersey stamp auction firm and combined it with a Spanish auction firm to create Escala, the third largest auction firm in the world, after the much better known Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Their business model was to buy and sell rare stamps for dealers and collectors, making money on safeguarding and curating the stamps while also making profits on the transactions. Since the prices of rare stamps seemed to be always going up, they were able to promise and deliver to investors steady rates of return of 6% to 10%, higher than government bonds and much of the rest of the market, and thus convince investors to put money into the company.

But in May 2006, Spanish police raided the firm and on examining the books, found that the stamps they purportedly had either did not exist or were of much lower value than claimed. The firm was accused of running a pyramid or ‘Ponzi’ scheme.

So exactly what is a Ponzi scheme? Hudson recapitulates the original scheme by Charles Ponzi that has inspired a particular kind of fraud that will be forever associated with his name.

Charles Ponzi was a poor Italian immigrant who arrived in the US in 1903. His stated business model was based on what is called ‘arbitrage’. This is where a person takes advantage of a difference in the price of something in two different markets separated by either space or time, so that if one buys in one market and sells quickly in another market for the higher price, then one makes a profit, often without the nuisance of even having to take possession of the item being bought and sold. (True arbitrage, where the buying and selling is done simultaneously in two different places, is only possible in modern times and with deals that can be transacted electronically, such as securities and currencies and other similar financial products.)

People do this with foreign currency trading if they can predict which way the value of a currency will go. Suppose that at some time a US dollar and a British pound are at parity, meaning that they have equal value. You could buy a dollar with one pound and if the pound later depreciates so that it now trades at two pounds to one dollar, then the dollar that your original pound bought can now be used to buy back two pounds, giving you a 100% profit.

The financier George Soros is supposed to have hugely increased his fortune by betting that the value of the British pound would go down. He sold so many pounds for other currencies that the market was actually influenced by his actions, with other traders thinking that he was betting on something that would actually happen and they also started selling their pounds, causing a run on the currency and driving down its price, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The catch with this kind of trading is that the differences in trading values in the two markets are usually very small, especially over short time periods and, because of fees and other costs, ordinary people cannot make money from it. One has to be a trader oneself and thus avoid the commissions or have a lot of money to invest in order to make money. But a hundred years ago in Ponzi’s time, there existed something called postal coupons that enabled an investor to make money on what seemed like a sure thing.

Postal coupons are no more (I think) but they were common when I was a student and were essential back in the days when buying and selling foreign currencies was not easy or if you lived, like me, in a country that did not allow you to convert your local currency into foreign ones.

The problem the coupons solved was this. Suppose that you needed someone in another country to mail something to you but you had to pay the cost of postage. One way was to send money to the recipient to cover the cost of stamps. But this meant that either you or the recipient had to convert your local currency into the foreign one, which could be a nuisance or even, as it was in my case in Sri Lanka, impossible except in the black market.

Postal coupons were created to solve this problem. You could legally buy such coupons in your own country in your own currency but in the denomination of the foreign currency to cover the cost of stamps in the other country, and then mail the coupons. The recipient could exchange the coupons in their post office for stamps and mail your package to you.

What Ponzi did was take advantage of the fact that the exchange rate at which postal coupons were valued badly lagged behind the exchange rates of currencies, enabling him to take advantage of the difference.

Next: How Ponzi’s original scheme worked.

POST SCRIPT: Why not calculate the budget on an abacus?

Why is it that members of Congress, during their debates, still prepare large posterboard charts that are then mounted on hard backing and placed on easels? Do they think they are still in middle school? Haven’t they heard that there are things called computers? Projection systems? PowerPoint? Is there some arcane rule that says that Congressional aides must waste their time producing huge charts that might have just one word or one number? The members of Congress using this seem to think that this produces some kind of dramatic effect when all that it indicates is the sense that the speaker is out of touch.

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Religious dogmatism

The Catholic Church, like other rigid religious belief structures such as Orthodox Islam and Judaism or fundamentalist Christianity, does not hesitate to draw lines in the sand, to state clearly what is allowed and what is not, and then follow that policy wherever it leads, even if it leads over a cliff. In the face of derision they are willing to hold on to their position for decades, even centuries, before quietly conceding that they were wrong.

For example, when they decided that Church doctrine required the belief that the Sun orbited the Earth, they pulled out all the stops to force people to oppose the Copernican model, in 1616 banning the teaching of the heliocentric model and in 1633 putting Galileo under house arrest and forcing him to recant his view under threat of torture by the Inquisition.

Of course, that didn’t work, with even Catholics rejecting that absurd policy. The church quietly reversed that position only hundreds of years later, in 1992 when Pope John Paul II lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo. But the Pope then went on to claim that Galileo may have been divinely inspired, saying: “Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions.” This was a rather pathetic effort to recover some dignity from an embarrassing debacle for religion.

After initially opposing the theory of evolution because it seemed to deny the special creation of humans, it was only in 1996, long after almost everyone had accepted the correctness of evolutionary ideas, that the church again reversed itself. It again tried to salvage some dignity with the Pope saying that there was no problem with accepting the physical-biological basis of evolution, provided you accepted that the soul was divinely created. The Pope did not go so far as to suggest that Darwin too might have been divinely inspired. That might have been a bit too much.

What gets the church (and religious people in general) into trouble is that they enshrine as doctrines beliefs that may have been consistent with scientific knowledge at the time the doctrines were formulated. But science does not stand still. As science advances these doctrines lead to all kinds of contradictions that require religious insititutions to backtrack, something they are loathe to do.

For example, the business of the soul gets the church tangled up in knots because the church says that human life is sacred because god both creates and inserts the soul into the fertilized egg at the very moment of conception. That may have seemed clear enough until one starts asking what happens to the soul if the embryo fails to implant itself in the uterus and the pregnancy is spontaneously aborted? It is now estimated that about five fertilized eggs are produced for every one that leads to a birth. So why doesn’t god wait until the egg gets implanted instead of wasting souls?

Or what happens if the fertilized egg later splits into twins? Does god then have to create another soul? Or does the original soul split also? (There is also the uncomfortable implication that god spends all his time watching people have sex so that he can be ready to manufacture a soul at a moment’s notice at the appropriate time. Either that or he has set up an elaborate automated system that is triggered whenever an egg is fertilized and that also creates and inserts the soul, maybe using a random number generator system for selecting the soul’s qualities. That would free god to do other things, like play golf.)

Based on that doctrine about life and the soul beginning at the moment of conception, the Catholic Church opposes abortion and the death penalty and the use of blastocysts (the stage at which a fertilized egg reaches after about five days when it is a clump of 70-100 cells) for embryonic stem cell research, and the use of anything that has the effect of preventing the fusing of the blastocyst with the uterus wall.

The church also opposes the use of contraceptives. As Pope Paul VI said in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, 14 of July 25, 1968, “Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.”

Their adherence to doctrine has recently again led the church into controversies such as the recent one when the Pope in Africa said that he opposed the use of condoms even to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Then there was the awful story recently from Brazil about a man who raped and impregnated his nine-year old step-daughter. Doctors said that she was too young to give birth to the resulting twins and so an abortion was approved by the girl’s mother and carried out. What did the Catholic Church do? It excommunicated the child’s mother and the doctors but exempted the father from that same punishment or any punishment at all.

Needless to say, this has caused an outcry but the church has stuck to its guns. The Church’s Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Catholic Church’s Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, said that the mother’s and doctors’ crime was worse than the rape because they aborted two twin fetuses, while the step father did not actually kill anyone. “Life must always be protected, the attack on the Brazilian church is unjustified.”

One could make the case that murder is worse than rape, and that since abortion is murder in the eyes of the church, their position is consistent with their doctrine. But when applying doctrine consistently leads you to take decisions that are outrageous on general moral grounds, then perhaps one should re-examine one’s doctrine. For example, if the stepfather had used a condom when committing his appalling crime, then even though that would have prevented the pregnancy that led to the subsequent abortion, would the Church then have punished the man? That is bizarre.

The problem with the Catholic Church is that it takes them a long time to realize that when their commitment to a doctrine leads them to decisions that are patently absurd, that it is their doctrine that must change.

It took the church a long time to change its doctrine on Copernican ideas and on evolution. How long will it take them to realize that doctrines that result in opposing the use of condoms, even though it prevents the spread a horrendous disease like AIDS, or that excommunicates those trying to help a child after a rape while not requiring action against the perpetrator, are doctrines that are in major need of revision?

POST SCRIPT: Great moments in religion

Two Israeli newspapers removed pictures of two women in a group photo of the new Israeli cabinet and replaced them with images of anonymous men, because for some religious Jews publishing pictures of women is viewed as “a violation of female modesty”, another example of using the bogus exaltation of women as a means of oppressing them. But what caught my eye was this sentence towards the end of the article: “Restrictions include using only Kosher telephones”.

There are kosher telephones? Yes, indeedy! It is yet another example of technology being used to find loopholes in Jewish law so that observant people can be pious without inconvenience, in the same way that Certified Sabbath Mode ovens enabled them to eat hot food on the Sabbath.

So apparently these religious people worship a god who is so nit-picky that he gets mad if people close or open an electrical circuit on the Sabbath but is mollified if they find loopholes such as giving a computer chip instructions to do the same.


God save us from the Queen

One of the things about America that most endeared it to me when I first arrived for graduate studies was the lack of stuffiness in personal and business relationships. There was an easy informality, casual yet respectful, friendly yet polite, that I liked and found easy to get used to. I put this down to the American revolution, that decided that along with getting rid of direct rule by the English king, they also decided to get rid of all the pomp that went along with the English court. It seemed to reflect a sturdy democratic and republican (small ‘d’ and small ‘r’) spirit.
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