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Henry Stein February 2nd, 2009 12:12 PM

Ponzi Schemes for the Masses
According to Yale University economist Robert Shiller, author of "Irrational Exuberance," the housing and stock market bubbles were "naturally occurring" Ponzi schemes. Successive waves of investors generate gains for the last wave until the bubble bursts. "The essence of a Ponzi scheme is a story that justifies these enthusiasms," Shiller says, whether the phenomenon is Internet stocks or housing prices or Madoff. "The social feedback loop of other people making money causes people to suspend disbelief."

The seductive idea that one can make money without providing a useful product or service, by simply riding the wave of artificially inflated value, is a reflection of a socially exploitive, pampered style of life. The realization of profit without creating a real increase of value, relies on an endless river of gullible investors who assume that other gullible investors will follow them. In the housing market, each investor was willing to indulge the previous owner, believing that another naive buyer would indulge them. Home buyers, real estate agents, and lenders all grabbed what they could for themselves, indifferent to the impending fate of the "suckers" who came late to the party.

Bernard Madoff ran a Ponzi scheme on a monumental scale. Many stock and real estate investors ran their own small-scale versions of the same scam.

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