Prison would be the wrong place to send fraudulent financiers like Tom Petters if the disgraced businessman is ultimately convicted.

 

Imprisonment won’t bring back the billions that flowed through his enterprises. And the idea that punishing him will deter similar behavior by others has it backward. The prime reinforcement in American culture and our tottering economic system has been based on an opposite premise: Punish others in the future so we can enjoy behaving badly now.

Putting Petters away will simply allow us to write him off as a grandiose aberration, when in fact he is an exemplar of the age, and we — even those who pay our bills and keep our greed in check — are coconspirators.

Petters used shell companies to create the impression that his core business, liquidating excess consumer goods, was creating wealth. According to prosecutors, his actual business activity was keeping a blizzard of paper aloft to reassure lenders and attract new investors with high returns paid from money already invested. A classic Ponzi scheme.

But if all we see here is a tale of Petters’ avarice matched with his victims’ gullibility, we are missing the real crime story.

A Ponzi scheme works fabulously for awhile, for a few people. The perpetrators erect ever more complex dodges to forestall inevitable collapse and keep their anxiety at bay with lavish spending, all the while plotting their escape to a safe haven.

This should sound familiar to the citizens of Ponzi Nation.

The Iraq war, the mortgage bust, a demoralized financial market, unsustainable population growth, climate change, and the mother of all meltdowns, the world’s declining supply of oil, are all built on the same shaky scaffold. We are living off dwindling financial and fossil credits, while fantasizing rescue from the consequences — by technology, free markets, space aliens or God.

But there is no way to flip this property and move on. Our children will have to live here, so we better make the best of it.

As philosopher William James said during the last Golden Age, "The most significant characteristic of modern civilization is the sacrifice of the future for the present, and all the power of science has been prostituted for this purpose."

The all-of-the-above litany of "wind, tide, solar, biomass, hydrogen, fuel cells, oil shale, geothermal, clean coal and nuke-u-lar" is not a coherent, long-term energy policy based on science or on a realistic assessment of the challenges we face. It’s a mantra to quell growing fears while picking the last remaining pockets.

"Drill here, drill now, lower prices" is just another appeal to the Ponzi victim’s myopic desire for a good deal in the here and now. It counts on the dupe’s denial of the big picture and ignorance of the fine print, which is this: None of those "solutions" begins to address the reality that our civilization — including food production, transportation, development patterns, pharmaceuticals and most manufactured goods — is reliant on a fuel source that is going, going and soon to be gone.

Given the scale of the challenge, even a new Manhattan- or Apollo-style effort would be the equivalent of launching a fourth grade science fair project. It will require unprecedented public will as well as breakthrough science, because even "success" will mean we have to change the way we live.

Obviously, this is not a change message any candidate is keen to put forward. Gaining support for investment in the required tough solutions calls for superb powers of persuasion from leaders unafraid of the personal and political consequences.

So let’s enlist the financial felons.

Instead of locking him away, we sentence Petters and other notable 12-figure swindlers to life on the road. They would travel the country in the decommissioned Straight Talk Express, renamed "Inconvenient Truth II."

They would testify how every Ponzi scheme starts with the founder’s sense of exceptionalism and gains steam through the illusion of perpetual growth. They would warn that they often cloaked its design with symbols of success and expressions of high moral purpose. They would detail how they turned companies from creating useful products into conduits for stripping value and moved on — until there was nowhere left to go. And they would share the soul-crushing terror they felt as their exploitation accelerated toward calamity.

This road show may not work, of course. Ponzi Nation might still decide we’d rather take the gamble and enjoy the game.

But maybe someday, when the bus runs out of fuel for good, we’ll all be ready to walk.

Charlie Quimby is a retired business owner and communications fellow at Growth & Justice, which describes itself as a progressive economic think tank.