Government needs to be the umpire in a game of greed

First there were Jesse James, Willie Sutton, and Al Capone. Now, there’s Bernie Madoff. It’s still hard to believe that he did it — over 50 billion dollars worth of Ponzi scheme. People begged to get fleeced. They begged the man to take their money. What they got back was the equivalent of, “Oh, OK, if you insist.”

It is just so fascinating to try to get inside the mind of a criminal. What in the world could he have been thinking? Did he realize that he was a crook? Did he just get into it and it got bigger and bigger? Did his kids, who helped him run the business, know? Did his wife, with whom he spent night after night? Did she really withdraw all that money just before the scheme came tumbling down, not knowing what her husband had done? Is Madoff now protecting his family who somehow, incredibly, didn’t know anything? Did the so-called auditors know? How could they not have known?

There are times when pleading guilty just doesn’t cut it. We have to know more. How was it done? What happened to the money? As a result of Madoff’s actions, people are suicidal or close to it. A kid goes into a grocery store, takes out a gun and spends a lot of years in prison even though he never fires his weapon. This Madoff guy killed dreams and retirements and inheritances and made people so destitute that they had to unretire and sell their homes and whatever futures they had worked all their lives for.

Yet the world moves on and all the hurt and the destruction is absorbed by an uncaring world except for the Schadenfreude (pleasure gained from someone else’s misery) that so many people experienced when they watched the fall of the rich and famous.

It doesn’t help that all kinds of fox-like authorities who were charged with watching the chicken coop were told that it didn’t add up. That was a reflection of the Bush years of a Securities and Exchange Commission that didn’t do its job and a Bush Justice Department that never seemed to meet a monopoly it didn’t like. It wasn’t girls gone wild. It was greed run wild.

It was another opportunity for the anti-Semites to get crazy. It didn’t matter that major Jewish institutions were among the most ripped off and that some of the most prominent Jewish families in America were among those most victimized. The nuts and the crazies were out there to the extent that Jewish organizations had to start thinking of ways to counter the kind of poisonous thinking that, as we have seen before, can lead to the unthinkable.

Did any of this go through the mind of Bernie Madoff as he did his damage? I have long thought that most criminals had to be mentally ill by definition. They seem to have no capacity to understand the chaos they cause. These people are labeled things like sociopaths and psychopaths. They leave their family, other people’s families, and their institutions vulnerable and in ruin and yet, they don’t seem to understand the consequences.

The government and all its watchdog agencies seem to have failed. The man committed criminal acts and the government, whose sworn duty it is to protect us, failed. As I interviewed one congressperson after another about the banking failure that was happening at the same time as the Berne Madoff affair (people got anxious and wanted their money which, it turns out, wasn’t there) I asked them what we have learned. What do we have to do to ensure that we can monitor the greed and proclivity for evil? I hear very little in the way of a sensible program to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

You had better believe that Bernie Madoff, allowed to go about his business despite warnings, is symptomatic of a larger problem. Let the government — federal and state — do its job. It is nice that the state attorney general gets on those executives who got bonuses but what is really needed is a systematic approach to protecting all of us from harm. If no one believes in our financial institutions, we are doomed to recession and depression as things freeze up. No one seems to want government running business but it is time to make sure that government becomes the umpire in a game rife with greed. Bernie Madoff is but a symbol of what unbridled greed can bring.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/20/09

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