Issue: March/May 09


People fall for Ponzi schemes. People who run them go to jail. But not government people. They’re exempt.

A Ponzi scheme is where people who invest earlier are paid from the proceeds of those who invest later. With private-sector Ponzi schemes, the point is inevitably reached where there are no later investors. Then everybody loses out.

There’re always suckers for Ponzis. Remember the “milk culture” fad that swept SA in the early 1980s, eventually landing “Blue Eyes” Nieuwoudt in Pretoria Central. Think too of “Bonkers Bernie” Madoff, whose recordsmashing $50m operation destines him for similar accommodation stateside.

Which brings us to proposals for SA retirement-fund reform. An option being considered for the national government scheme is a pay-as-you-go system. And what’s pay-as-you-go? It’s where people who contribute earlier are paid from the proceeds of those who contribute later.

Hand it to Karl Marx. He saw it coming. In Das Kapital (1867), he wrote:

Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable.

The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the state will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism.

Thank you Citigroup, Bank of America, Royal Bank of Scotland, Northern Rock...

Now some in our ruling party, or high in the tripartite alliance, might like that idea of where the road will lead. Marx had lots of ideas. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), he and Engels proposed the “establishment of industrial armies, especially in agriculture”.

Sounds a good idea for reducing unemployment, if the red brigade has the guts to go for it.

How quickly words, once sparsely used, can enter the lexicon. “Millions” roll from the tongue, and to talk of “billions” is commonplace. Zimbabwean inflation and the US debt have caused “trillions” to follow.

It still hasn’t reached the stage of abbreviation, like such paltry amounts as R1m or $1bn. “Trillion” is still given the respect of being written in full, as a word. It can’t be written as a number, because this is how much space it would take: 1 000 000 000 000 000 000.

Be comforted that this is the British “trillion”. For the American “trillion”, deduct six zeroes. In SA, few people know whether the number is used in the American or the British way. It’s often used both ways, and it doesn’t matter. Either way, it boggles the mind.

On the subject of words, here are some of the most useless:

  • How are you? We aren’t a nation of physicians. As an introduction to conversation, it makes sense only for sellers of airtime;
  • Very. It’s very superfluous;
  • By the way. When a person starts a sentence with this phrase, it’s a certain giveaway that what will follow is not going to be “by the way” at all.

An 80-year old woman is arrested for shoplifting. When she goes before the magistrate, he asks her what she stole. “A can of peaches,” she replies. “How many peaches were in the can?” asks the magistrate. “Six,” replies the woman. “In that case,” says the magistrate, “I sentence you to six days in prison.”

Whereupon her 85-year old husband shouts out: “But she also stole a can of peas!”

We always expected that one day there’d be a cashless society. But we thought it would happen through banks’ technology, not their behaviour.