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Saturday, January 10, 2009

A sign of the times

Buried at the bottom of page B5 of yesterday's NY Times was an article with the (very small size) headline, "Ponzi Suspect is 82." The article took up the bottom seventeen lines of one column (there are 127 lines in a column):

"An 82 year old businessman was charged on Thursday with running a Ponzi scheme that took in at least $17 million from a clientele gleaned largely through ads in Catholic newspapers.

"The businessman, Richard S. Piccoli, of Amherst, N.Y., was charged in United States District Court with mail fraud. He was ordered to return with a lawyer on Tuesday for arraignment.

"He declined to comment after the hearing."

That was the entire article. Unless you looked carefully, you wouldn't even have seen it.

What's significant about this story, of course, is how insignificant it is.

Seventeen million dollars is less than 1/2000th of what Madoff took. But in another era, it would have been considered significant. When Dennis Levine made $10.4 million from insider trading in the late 1980's, it was a huge scandal, and was front page news for days. That amount, after inflation, would equate to what, $25 or 30 million today? The amount that Piccoli took was less, but in the same league.

Yet Piccoli's story was barely even worth a mention in the Times. It seemed to be treated almost as a human interest story: wow, can you believe it, an 82 year old did this. Way to go gramps!

Does anyone remember the 1980's, the Decade of Greed? Doesn't it all seem so innocent now?

Of course, naming a decade after any of the seven sins seems a bit naive. Greed, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth, wrath, and pride are pretty much just a description of basic human nature. (Not base, just basic.) So any decade contains plenty of each of those. Actually, any human contains plenty of each. Pretty much every day.

It's just the scale of the greed that's escalated.

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