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Obelix and Co. is the twenty-third volume in the Asterix series. Acting for Julius Caesar, Caius Preposterus claims to be a menhir buyer and offers to make Obelix a rich man, by buying every menhir he can make. Preposterus creates an economic boom in the Gaulish village by continuously raising prices and stimulating more and more menhir production, with the effect that the Gauls have no time for fighting.

Preposterus balances Rome's finances by promoting and selling the menhirs to ostentatious Roman society. However, the plan derails when competition arises from Roman and overseas menhir makers. The price of the menhir sinks, and Preposterus' scheme collapses.

Caius Preposterus seemed to have an answer at every turn of this story, right up to the point that competitors entered the picture. He kept raising the menhir prices but kept finding more ways to make money from them. This all had to end at some stage; so was his plan effectively a pyramid scheme?

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    No, that's not what a pyramid scheme is. A pyramid scheme is a fraud based on recruiting an ever-increasing number of investors.
    – DavidW
    Mar 19, 2022 at 11:59
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    I think the pyramid scheme was in Asterix and Cleopatra.
    – lfurini
    Mar 19, 2022 at 12:08
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    But is there something like a Menhir scheme?
    – Julian
    Mar 19, 2022 at 13:39
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    No, it was a lithoscheme. :-) Mar 20, 2022 at 16:15
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    Whilst the context and trappings are SciFi/Fantasy ... IMO this question actually belongs in personal finance. It's a question about the nature of various economic processes / frauds.
    – Brondahl
    Mar 21, 2022 at 1:50

3 Answers 3

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This isn't an example of a pyramid scheme*, it's an example of Keynesian job creation, the state giving people money to make something that has no inherent value (something that was historically referred to as "digging holes") in order to keep the economy active and the populace busy.

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On top of that, there's a bit of a parable about the nature of Tulip-mania (where people pay excessive fees for worthless objects), how rising prices cause both inflation and new entrants and the inevitable market crash when people realise that their items are worthless.

*"a fraudulent system of making money based on recruiting an ever-increasing number of "investors." The initial promoters recruit investors, who in turn recruit more investors, and so on."

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    This is not Keynes idea of job creation. Mar 19, 2022 at 20:30
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    @DJClayworth - Paying people to do something pointless was literally one of things he suggested - "'To dig holes in the ground', paid for out of savings, will increase, not only employment, but the real national dividend of useful goods and services."
    – Valorum
    Mar 19, 2022 at 20:41
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    This is not correct at all. First, the menhirs are no more ³inherently useless” than any other type of art. (For example, Hollywood movies or French comic books.) The state is not even funding the scheme. A private merchant is exporting works of art abroad. The manufacturers are being paid by their foreign customers in other countries.
    – Davislor
    Mar 20, 2022 at 5:47
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    Keynes never proposed digging holes and filling them in. He did once write that the government could create jobs by burying barrels of currency in abandoned mines, and filling the mines in, since enterprising individuals would then hire miners and buy equipment to dig the money back out of the hole. But, of course, the point of that joke is that this is exactly the same as a gold rush in a country on the gold standard. If one is useful economic activity, the other is too.
    – Davislor
    Mar 20, 2022 at 6:03
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    @Valorum I ended up writing my own answer, with a paragraph about that. Basically, Preposterus is not a Gaulish state agent who’s either trying to create jobs for Gauls or promote a Gaulish export industry. He’s really finding a way for the Romans to pay the Gauls tribute in exchange for peace that both nathons’ pride will allow them to accept. And, when you think about it, it is better for two nations to trade peacefully than fight. Making war is a lot more useless than making menhirs. Preposterus is the good guy!
    – Davislor
    Mar 20, 2022 at 6:34
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I would have to say not. A pyramid scheme is a scam designed to extract money from suckers. The menhir scheme was an attempt to sow dissent among the Gauls. The hope was that they would break their solidarity and turn on each other. Preposterus said it would cost a lot of gold. Caesar expected to lose money on the plot. He recouped some of it by selling the menhirs, but it was never about trying to profit financially.

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    Caesar wasn't too happy about losing money. If memory serves: "Maybe, but you're draining my treasury to keep a few madmen busy." (or something close to that). It was only thereafter that Preposterus came up with the scheme to sell menhirs, not just to break even, but to profit. Caesar and his henchman were drunk on success and celebrating together until someone came into Caesar's chamber with the unwelcome news that the Romans were now making menhirs and putting up signs (along the Appian Way) to discourage Roman citizens from buying foreign menhirs, and instead to support locally-made ones.
    – Deepak
    Mar 20, 2022 at 3:19
  • @Deepak Caesar wasn't happy because the plan wasn't really working. Gauls are merely busy making menhirs and it is clear they will stop doing it and (re)start legion bashing. Mar 21, 2022 at 7:05
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No. A pyramid scheme is a money-making scheme where “participants attempt to make money solely by recruiting new participants”. It’s not even a multi-level marketing scheme, where people end up making more money recruiting new salespeople who pay into the system than by actually selling the product. Nobody is signing up new menhir-speculators who pay up front, and using their money to pay the last round of menhir-speculators, while encouraging them to “reinvest” so they don’t actually have to pay any of the money out.

Based on your description (It’s been some time), what Preposterus is doing is creating an export market for local works of art, similar to selling, say, a French comic in English translation (or a Bollywood movie, or Japanese cartoon, etc.) The menhirs are paid for by willing buyers in other countries, who aren’t being defrauded, with real money. This plan is presented as villainous, but it’s basically win-win. It turns out that, given the opportunity, the Gauls and the Romans would rather trade with each other peacefully than fight all the time.

Many people use the term “pyramid scheme” as a vague pejorative for “type of investment that looks like it will eventually go bust.” For example, if Roman speculators are buying menhirs only because they believe they can sell the menhirs to someone else at a higher price later, that’s a bubble that will eventually burst. It’s important to realize, though, that the people who originally made and sold the menhirs already got paid and have their money. If the price does fall, they will still have their money, and their customers will still have the menhir they paid for. In a pyramid scheme, both would be holding a worthless IOU.

This in not a state-funded or state-directed scheme, either. To the extent that you give the Roman government credit for it, you might think of it as a way for the fictional Romans to pay tribute to the Gauls that their pride will allow them to accept. To the extent that you consider this a Gaulish industrial policy, I would say the real-world economist most likely to approve would be Friedrich List, since it creates a new export industry, originally in a domestic market where it is protected from competition, but which then is required to compete in foreign markets in order to survive, subjecting it to “export discipline.”

The only problem here turns out to be, the idea works so well that everybody else can copy it.

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  • "The menhirs are paid for by willing buyers in other countries, who aren’t being defrauded, with real money." That's not the way I remember it. Rome does manage to resell a few menhirs to willing buyers who can "enjoy" the menhirs. But Rome is buying many more menhirs than they can find buyers for. Rome know they're losing money and buying useless menhirs, but are doing it anyway because what they want is to keep the Gauls distracted. A few menhirs end up "useful" in the sense that they are bought by art enthusiasts. But most menhirs are useless.
    – Stef
    Mar 21, 2022 at 10:09
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    @Stef So the Roman government is a willing buyer that knows what it’s getting. In any case, they’re handing over real money in payment, in exchange for peace, not running a pyramid scheme or even a bubble Neither they nor the Gauls think they’re making an investment with unsustainable exponential returns. This is actually a face-saving way for Rome to pay the Gauls tribute.
    – Davislor
    Mar 21, 2022 at 12:04

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