Friday, March 13, 2009

Bernie Madoff and the Slippery Slope

“When I began the Ponzi scheme I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme.”

So declared Bernie Madoff, 70, in a New York court yesterday when the judge ordered him to “tell me what you did.”

But it is not easy to climb back up once you have slid down the slippery slope. After the lies, the deceits and the denials have snared you, you succumb to their seductions and then there is no turning back.

Inmate No. 61727-054 – Madoff’s new identity – swindled investors out of a staggering $65 billion over a period of at least two decades. His victims range from the barely-making-it to the fabulously wealthy. However you may characterize Madoff as - thief, felon, psychopath - you have to concede that he was democratic in his scheming.

There are many lessons in this, of course, and in time they will no doubt become part of business school text books that also attempt to teach ethics and morality. But we must recognize that we are not exempt from the lure of the slippery slope. It may not lead to the kind of widespread damage and heartbreak that Madoff wrought, but giving in to it even in a small way can destroy lives and relationships. That is why, instead of schadenfreude, a more proper reaction for those of us lucky enough to be untouched by Madoff’s tentacles would be look inward and resolve to resist the slippery slope's seductions.

Particularly in tough financial times as we are experiencing now, resorting to an infidelity here and a swindle there may ease hurt and offer a quick solution but there is often a high price to pay. ("Just this one time and then I will make amends and I will never do it again"). It destroys not only the perpetrators but often their families as well.

Truth is stranger than fiction, as the gigantic scale of Madoff’s swindle proves. Still, literature can instruct. As Patricia Cohen pointed out in a New York Times article in December of last year when the story first broke, Madoff has plenty of literary predecessors: Mr. Voysey in Harley Granville-Barker’s 1905 play “The Voysey Inheritance,” Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope’s 1857 novel “The Way We Live Now,” Mr. Merdle in Charles Dickens’s 1873 novel “Little Dorrit” and Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s 1947 play “All My Sons.”

But ultimately we must look into our own hearts and remind ourselves that nothing beats the dignity of an honest living and of living within our means. Reaching for the mythical “American Dream” can only make sense if we fulfill these twin requirements. If we do, there is the possibility that a better dream will come true and that we will be happy as well.

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