Bernie Madoff and the Criminal Imagination
Investment advisor and financier Bernie Madoff perpetrated what has been described as the biggest fraud in world history, a fraud that cost 4,800 victims an estimated $64.8 billion dollars as of November 30, 2008. (1.) The colossal crimes of Bernie Madoff constitute personal troubles for decieved victims who range from retired widows living on fixed incomes to America’s most respected institutions including Harvard and Tufts Universities. His crimes were social issues due to their damage to the American economy and political system. (2.) Understanding Bernie Madoff’s crimes and the scope of his deviance from American norms of business conduct and morality involves first an examination of the deviance of Bernie Madoff, the con artist, and then of human and societal tendencies that enabled his crimes.
Madoff started out as an honest man but along the way he got hooked on the ease by which he could defraud investors and friends and get away with it. A classic element of the personality of the criminal is someone who detects an opportunity to secure an unfair and easy advantage by means of fraud and deception, and then makes the easy and immoral choice to act on that opportunity. The first crime might be minor, or might only skirt the edge of crime, but in the case of Madoff the first crime proved to be the equivalent of a gateway drug. Once he siezed his first opportunity to commot fraud, and obtain the easy financial reward, he entered into a deception. One lie leads to another which inevitably expands into a growing miasma of lies. When crimes are subsequently multiplied, as was the case with Madoff, the criminal enters into a world of lies and deception of their own making and begins to live a double life of which, over time, it becomes more and more difficult for the perpetrator to disengage from.
Crimes of the nature committed by Bernie Madoff can affect the criminal like an aphrodisiac, like a growing sexual desire in that there is an element of thrill and, in the case of Madoff, he became a nymphomaniac who needed to feed the thrill with larger doses of stimuli. A major part of the deception, as is often the case with these types of crimes, was that Madoff maintained an ostentacious lifestyle of opulence and excess in order to support the con. He jet-setted with the rich and famous and he spent big money openly and lavishly. At the same time, Madoff maintained a squeaky-clean scandal free image of the family man with a wife who co-authored a kosher cookbook and two college educated sons following in his footsteps as investment advisors. The combination of lavish wealth and conservative respectability set the stage for his attracting big investors who handed over big money into his care. Madoff also made use of noted connections with well-heeled liberal advocacy groups, particularly Jewish groups, as a platform to troll for suckers.
The con artist depends on the aspect of human nature that gives the benefit of the doubt and that doesn’t want to think ill of seemingly successful and accomplished people. We tend to glorify success and look the other way or give a pass to flaws in the image. This may have been the case regarding people in the Madoff’s immediate orbit, including his immediate family and his close associates, although this view is complicated by the fact that they benifited financially from his crimes. Were they also consciously corrupt or were they morally compromised by the tendency to turn a blind eye? This is a question for the system of justice to sort out in response to the lawsuits lodged by the victims. Easy access to big money tends to corrupt the reciepient who might choose not to ask too many questions. This creates a functioning buffer around the criminal and the criminal enterprise which is supported by a culture of corruption that can be both explicit and implied.
A fraud of the magnitude of that perpetrated by Bernie Madoff can work as a metasticizing cancer on the body politic of the United States if the cancer is not identified and treated. Such crimes, if not addressed, pose as a threat to the entire system as evidenced by various smaller, more vulnerable or less experienced nations around the world where corruption has reached a point of critical mass whereby they are controlled by corrupt and criminal oligarchs and syndicates. While the United States, with our independent judiciary and system of justice and our democratic traditions, has been relatively immune to these tendencies, the danger is always there as recently evidenced by corrupt politicians using their offices to enrich themselves by proxy through mechinations in corrupt nations such as Ukraine.
1. "US Prosecutors updated the size of Madoff's scheme from $50 billion to $64 billion". Reuters. March 11, 2009. Retrieved April 26, 2009.
2. The Sociological Imagination: Chapter 1, The Promise, C. Wright Mills, Oxford University Press, New York, 1959. P. 8.