Ponzi Schemes: Where Reckless Abandon Meets, Well, Jealousy-Inducing Cunning

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Opinion by Jackie Brook, not necessarily the opinion of AMP3 Public Relations
Updated October 17 2017

Bernard Madoff, the <expletive> behind the $50B Ponzi scheme that was just uncovered isn’t going to get kudos in this blog.  As many of his investors were from my hometown, it’s bound to (embarrassingly for them) come out that people I know were affected by Madoff’s actions.

What I do want to examine, though, is why people continue to dabble in this type of fraud (and if you’re muttering to yourself, “It’s for the money, stupid,” congratulations for thinking the obvious).

There are plenty of ways (this economy notwithstanding), legal and illegal, to make money, so surely that’s not what makes a Ponzi scheme so appealing.  I would venture to say that Ponzi schemes are more about ego than assets.

How is that possible?  How can you claim that someone’s ego could be what cost thousands billions as opposed to the simple desire to get rich quick?  you might be asking yourself.

Well, here’s my take on it:

It’s very easy to lie, cheat, and/or steal.  People do it all the time, and more often than not, they get caught (it’s typically just a matter of time…).  It’s the reasons why people steal that make particular actions more egregious than others, as mitigating factors can be taken into consideration.  I would venture to say that there’s a sliding scale.

Let’s say a man or woman is responsible for a baby for which they can’t provide food.  Stealing a loaf of bread or a carton of milk, though wrong, could be justified.  Some might even say it’s a failure of our social infrastructure that someone would be in a position to steal in order to feed a child.

More heinous would be, oh, someone stealing a car stereo to pawn in order to get drugs to feed a habit.  Sure, there’s now vandalism thrown in the mix, along with drug use, but physical dependency (which could lead to altered reasoning) creates an urgency that often supersedes the logic of “maybe it’s not smart or right to steal.”

Then there are people that steal, but not for a physical need.  Having worked in retail, I can attest that the bulk of the shoplifters we caught were not people that needed clothes.  And since what was often being stolen was jewelry, I can’t believe there was a need for some fake beveled jewel cocktail ring.  Most of the people that shoplifted were stealing for a thrill.  Most of those people had made purchases (often in excess of $100), so they could afford the marked-down bangle bracelet they slipped into their purse.  The “need” these people were filling was that of a thrill; they were just bored people looking to get away with something.

Often, the justification was that the prices were outrageous, and the large corporation wouldn’t miss the product (which, for the store, were kind of valid), but that doesn’t give someone the right to steal.

Next we find ourselves with my personal least favorite: plagiarists.

Why would I put plagiarism above drug-addicted thieves and merciless shoplifters?  Because I genuinely believe that the product of theft (someone’s intellectual property) is more valuable and I just don’t believe there’s ever a need (even the lame excuse of a need for a thrill is better than plagiarizing someone’s work).

Now, you have to understand that often times, as a publicist for a New York PR firm, stuff I write will get picked up and used by bloggers, and professionally, it’s great.  Coverage! Personally, when someone takes a press release I’ve written and claims those words as his or her own, it irks me.  But it’s part of the job.

Since bloggers and press aren’t bound to cover anything anyone sends their way, I’d prefer to have them take what I write than not.  I’d venture to say that my clients gain more out of the exposure than the blogger does in possible ad sales from any single post, so I can roll with it.

But look at examples like the Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan who was so bold as to plagiarize from, among a number of people, Salman Rushdie, Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, supposedly ripped of the 1980’s cult book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and even H.G. Wells.

These were people putting effort into stealing other people’s ideas.  There was the distinct intent to profit from other people’s work that they claimed as their own.

But my beef with plagiarism goes beyond looking to profit from other people’s hard work.  I mean, that’s one of the properties of capitalism, right?  My issue is the laziness involved.

Don’t get me wrong: I am lazy.  When I want to be, I’m absurdly lazy.  But despite my intense laziness, I’ve never stolen another person’s words and claimed them as my own, let alone capitalized on it.

Anyway, that’s why I loathe plagiarism.  And for a great post on site’s retribution to a plagiarizing ne’er-do-well , check out this Cracked.com blog.

(Full credit to famousplagiarists.com for providing information on the plagiarists mentioned above.  The site is actually really interesting and there are some people on it that you’d never guess…)

Finally we wind up with those Ponzi schemers.  What sets them apart (and above) from the others is the fact that they incorporate the worst parts of the others noted below (save for physically needing the money, which could be varied on a case by case basis).

I think what drives the Ponzi schemer is the inflated sense of self-worth that they get once their fraudulent plot gets rolling and they begin to see success.  It stops being about the money, and it becomes a challenge to see how long it can last; “I’m good enough, smart enough to keep this thing going.”

The swindler’s eyes are bigger than his belly, and both are smaller than his ego.

We should, however, give credit where credit’s due.  Not many people can consider themselves to be on par with the evil genius that is a Madoff.   I know I certainly couldn’t pull of an 11-figure scam like that.   A Ponzi scheme like Madoff’s mostly bother people, I believe, simply because they themselves hadn’t thought of it first.

I’m certainly not advocating the creation or maintenance of criminal enterprises, and I don’t support stealing people’s money or harnessing their own greed to feed your own, but the dedication and attention to detail are staggering and should be commended in their own right.

Just imagine what legal operation a guy like Madoff could have had…

Jackie for AMP3 Public Relations Agency NYC

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