Dec

28

PonziI'll suggest that empathy does exist, but that sympathy does not. I'll concede that $50 billion is a substantial sum and that Madoff is a bad, bad man. However, I am personally aware of individuals who will argue that they collectively lost substantially more with the dot.com bust up; and, further, that some of the sleazes involved in the never-ending promotion of those equities were as culpable as BM yet suffered either no or minor consequences.

Those burned earlier certainly can empathize with the more recent victims, but find sympathy difficult to muster when the common reply to their plight was "We're sorry, but it should have been obvious that the market was in a bubble."

Additionally, Ponzi schemes and other swindles far more frequently target the farmers, pharmacists, and farriers of my region than the doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs of New England. When it occurs here, it's generally revealed on the 10 o'clock news with some thirty-something Yankee-import filing a 3-minute report concluding with the inevitable finger-wagging "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." While never stated, the implication is clear: "these rednecks will never learn."

However, when we have a Madoff event, we no longer have a "Ponzi scheme." We have a "Very Sophisticated Ponzi Scheme." Again, it is never stated, but the clear implication is "no one but the very, very clever and very, very bad can gull the Masters of the Universe." And news coverage goes well beyond 3 minutes with "specials" running 30-60 minutes; calls for congressional hearings are de rigueur; and presidents (past, present, and future) chime in with words of concern and promises of action. You will not hear a single "if it sounds too good…etc."

Apparently it is bad form to give the finger-wagging lecture to the victims of a "very sophisticated" Ponzi scheme. Likewise, it must be bad form to voice general sympathy or call for congressional hearings when the great unwashed take their first financial bath at the "stay-the-course" urgings of those always optimistic brokerage houses (RIP).

In general, then, it seems to me that the apparent lack of sympathy stems from an unavoidable perception that there is greater concern being shown the wealthy in this, their most perilous moment. And while suicide is a most terrible thing, I would wager there are millions of poor schlepps who were similarly wiped out, yet still go to work every day facing the new reality that they'll never retire…and, indeed, might live the rest of their lives in poverty.

Millions of others, myself included, wonder if the whole story has been told. We don't worry that $50 billion sounds too high. We're concerned it may be too low, that there are other Madoffs out there - that our pension funds may be the next to be listed as insolvent. If we have learned anything in the last decade it is that there are a substantial number of dishonest, unsavory characters populating the financial industry. Worse, rather than being the brightest, some of these individuals are almost criminally stupid - however, many are aware of this short-coming and to cover for it, invest our funds with someone really smart - like Bernie Madoff.

Very sophisticated, indeed.


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2 Comments so far

  1. michael webster on December 28, 2008 2:55 pm

    I like this observation: for the rednecks, it is sufficient to ignore their plight with a “sounds too good to be true”, but the wealthy we need to explain that this was a “very sophisticated Ponzi scheme.”

    Of course both statements are false.

  2. Jim Davis on December 28, 2008 5:57 pm

    That there are almost uncountable thieves and charlatans out there at any given moment is very old news.

    What always amazed me is the societies unwillingness to catch , convict , and force restitution from same.

    The system itself seems to thrive, except for very short bouts (such as now) on this behavior, thus it is loath to end it or punish it too harshly.

    So many are running their own scam or two, that they rejoice in the cover of others doing the same.

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