Spun Too Often

Charles PonziWhen a great phrase comes along, there’s no stopping it.

Take Ponzi scheme, for example. Please.

Named after Charles Ponzi, it’s a “fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to its investors from their own money or the money paid by subsequent investors, rather than from any actual profit earned by the individual or organization running the operation.” Or so says Wikipedia, That sums it up nicely.

Such schemes eventually collapse. Bernie Madoff is our most recent and famous example, the largest fraudulent financial operation in U.S. history. But what’s fascinating is the use of the phrase beyond Madoff. Politicians love a phrase that does double duty.

Let’s look at its use over time. Bear with me, a bit of history (and numbers) ahead.

The world didn’t learn of Madoff’s fraudulent behavior until December 2008 (though he may have been running versions of it as far back as the 1970s). From 1990 to 2007, there were 3,540 stories with the phrase Ponzi scheme in them, at least according to the magical algorithms of Google News (see the table below). In 2008 there were 2,440. In 2009, after we learned of Madoff’s scheme, it jumped to 9,140 mentions.

So far this year there have been 5,230 uses of the phrase Ponzi scheme. Clearly Madoff is the root cause of many, but if we search for mentions without the word “Madoff” we find 2,550 mentions. In other words, the phrase remains popular – especially if you’re a candidate for the Republican nomination for president.


All mentions of Ponzi scheme in Google News searches Mentions of Ponzi via Google News without also mentioning Madoff Percent (rounded) of Non-Madoff Ponzi scheme mentions
2011 5,230 2,550 49%
2010 2,960 1,460 49%
2009 9,140 2,810 31%
2008 2,440 526 22%
2000-2007 1,960 1,950 100%
1990-1999 1,580 1,580 100%
1920 4 4 100%


Oh, in the table above, the four stories in 1920 are of the arrest of the man himself – Mr. Ponzi. I couldn’t resist tossing that in for historical reference.

To be fair, we can’t blame this overuse only on politicians. Journalists, too, love a good shortcut. First, it’s like code to help a story make sense to the audience. Second, it lets you get the story out of the way so you can move on to more important things, like happy hour.

But the phrase has other uses. For example, various online poker sites have been labeled little more than Ponzi schemes in recent news stories. Full disclosure, about $21 of my money is sitting at Full Tilt Poker. Hello. I’d like it back.

Of late, the GOP candidates have used Ponzi scheme to describe everything from Social Security to Barack Obama’s economic plans. A separate Google News search for both the phrase and various Republican candidate names landed Rick Perry in first place (428 stories that mention both his name and the phrase, at least he’s leading in something), followed by Mitt Romney. I admit this is an imperfect search approach, but the results don’t really surprise. Following these two come Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich.

I expected more out of Gingrich. Very disappointing.

You can have fun with this at home. For example, here’s a search I did just a moment ago. The first hit is a letter to the editor, the second a story about Perry and Social Security. The rest are a mix of Madoff and Perry stories, with an international story thrown in for good measure.

And on the second page of hits is perhaps the most important one of all – about Full Tilt Poker.

Yeah, I’d like my $21 back.

Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at http://www.whatpeopleknow.com