Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bernie’s Journey

In the past 24 hours alone, I’ve heard Bernard Madoff called “an economic terrorist,” “a monster,” and repeatedly—can it be anything other than affectionately?—“Bernie.” Bernie’s “a swindler,” Bernie’s “a shit.” Good old Bernie’s the local boy who made bad.

Headline Bernie is everybody’s Bernie! He’s the stuff of song: “Bernie and Ruthie were sweethearts.” “It Was Always a Very Good Year.” We Loved You Be-er-nie.” Conrad Birdie’s cloying fan clubs have become Con Man Bernie’s tsk-tsk-clucking claques.

Every day we don’t learn more about “Bernie”--we learn the same details again and again. From Queens to Wall Street and Palm Beach and Park Avenue. A killer trader, a family man. He was, paradoxically, friendly and aloof, casual and compulsive, enigmatic and without airs. He was true blue until he was a fraud.

So who was “Bernie” before he became Beelzebub? Until proven wrong, I have my own scenario. I believe he was an earnest, industrious, well-intentioned young broker who initially produced honest annual profits for others, perhaps beyond even his own expectations… until he had an “off” year. At which point his pride got the best of him. Rather than acknowledge poor performance, hence failure, he thought of making up some of the shortfall by taking money out of his own pocket to give to his clients (who had come to expect ready-Madoff profits)—and “borrowed” funds from additional clients. He would make up for it the next year and no one would be the worse for it.

Criminologists and psychoanalysts will tell you that once someone breaks the law, once he or she crosses that line, doing so the next time, and the next, gets easier and easier. Either “Bernie” failed to make up the discrepancy the next year (or two), or it became increasingly difficult and soon impossible to, or he grew to realize he didn’t have to. Never again had to!

And as he dug himself in deeper and deeper, he became delusional. Sociopathic. Criminal.


  1. It will be interesting how the court case develops and how much your assessment is proved correct.But perhaps as interesting will be the stories of how rich celebrities were lured to trust him with their millions and are now very irate. But what will the court cases do...(thoughts of 'horses' and 'stable doors'..perhaps just remind everyone that as with Enron....power corrupts !

  2. The important thing about crossing that line, Ray, is if they get caught! That is one of the psychological discoveries about cheating and honor codes. Once you don't get caught (and you notice others doing the same and not getting caught) then what was law seems merely custom.

    The culprit is more than Bernie, but the cult of finance. The failure of the SEC to stop him and our willingness when times are good to ignore the improbability of his fund's performance illustrate how little we've learned since the Roaring 20s...

  3. I think you are absolutely on the mark, Bernie doesn't come off as an evil genius so much as a man caught by a slowly enveloping web of small misdeeds which caught him in the end and had become so big that he had resigned himself years earlier to the inevitable outcome which he really could do nothing about. That is why he is smirking rather than looked shocked, its the smirk of the man who knew his fate and would have done something to cure it before it happened if he had the means, which he didn't.

    By the way, have you considered the possibility along the same thoughtful lines that he did no great harm, or not as much as people think? It turns out he never blew it on fancy living, at least, they are recovering a $1 billion which is probably not much less than he spent on himself. Admittedly he spent some in the early days financing his family.

    Anyhow the $65 billion was stolen and sent into oblivion, it was merely passed from the new participants to the old participants. He never invested any of it in trading and there were no trading losses.
    Therefore the people who have the money the newer people have lost are the older people that did it first.

    But according to the rules of the legal clawback which should and will be undertaken all people who have withdrawn any money from the fund have to give it back - even those who got out completely when they smelled a rat. Or even if they didnt smell a rat. They all have to give it back and the pile is then divvied up according to what people put in.

    Net result should be if this is done efficiently that everyone gets back their initial investment. They lose only the interest on that money they would have made if invested in some proper way.

    So Bernie is not really a $65 billion thief!

    But no one has mentioned these facts or anyway their proper outcome, and one wonders, is that because some people are hoping to hang on to their gains? And is this why they were being kind to Bernie in keeping him out of jail and now trying to let him off till he is sentenced?

    One wonders.

  4. Sorry that should be that he spent some money early on financing his family business (not his family, though maybe that too).

  5. Damn I left out a "not" also. The line should read "Anyhow the $65 billion was not stolen and sent into oblivion"