Madoff, who ran a massive ponzi scheme that robbed thousands of people and organizations of $65 billion over more than 20 years, was sentenced to 150 years in prison yesterday. What's funny is that while the stock market is so complicated, Madoff's crimes were simple. He took people's money and used it to fund an extravagant lifestyle for himself and his family. He sent his clients bogus statements of how their money was being invested and the returns those investments were yielding. He used some of the money to pay clients who took withdrawals, thus perpetuating the scheme.
The Madoff story has gotten so much press, I am convinced, because he's exactly the sort of schmoe people wanted to blame when the economy tanked (though he had nothing to do with it tanking, and in fact it was the terrible performance of the economy that led to his downfall - too many people were asking for their money back and he couldn't keep up with the demand). Though he robbed from a wide variety of people, many were quite wealthy, and that didn't hurt, either. Not to mention that his worst crime, really, was the huge breach of trust. The government fails to provide people with a safety net, and he came across as a financial wizard, so people trusted him.
The transcript from his sentencing hearing was posted. Some of the victims got to speak at the hearing.
Now, I understand this crime was unprecedented in its scope, though the 150 year sentence seems kind of...well, silly. Madoff is 71 years old and far less would have been adequate to ensure he died behind bars. Even had he been 20 or 30 years younger, he would be facing life in prison. Even as a symbol and as a deterrent, 150 years is dumb.
I also understand that his crimes devastated people. He robbed from charities, heros like Elie Wiesel, the rich, the poor, the disabled, everyone. Imagine sacrificing all your life, working hard and saving your money, only to have this asshole living high on the hog on your money and you left with nothing. It is pretty clear from the victim statements that many are also very frustrated with the government's response (or lack thereof).
And I understand that it's not "just" money. It is freedom, security, education for the young, proper care for the old. It's hope for the future. This crime will probably take years off the lives of many, and leave others still with a much lower quality of life.
At the same time, with all that being said, some of the victim testimony was WAY over the top. One described the scheme as an "indescribably heinous crime." Well, it's not indescribably heinous. It's quite easy to describe, in fact: theft and fraud. Theft of money, of trust, and of dreams. But not shooting babies or murder or torture or mutilation. Had there been a trial, no one would have been wincing or crying at the presentation of the evidence.
Another alluded to Dante's Inferno, indicating that Madoff belonged right up (well, down) there with Brutus, Cassius, and Judas, and voiced the hope that Satan would grow a fourth mouth to hold Madoff. What? While Hitler, Stalin, and Mao (and all of their ilk and their underlings) frolic through a meadow somewhere?In all of human history Bernie Madoff is one of the four most evil people? Can we get a sense of perspective, maybe?
A third called him "that terror, that monster, that horror, that beast" who "walks among us," "dresses like us," "drives and eats and drinks and speaks". Had Madoff brutally murdered this woman's husband, would she be able to find any stronger language? Or is there no distinction?
I don't want to say anything trite about money and happiness, or downplay the pain Madoff caused, or implicitly claim I would be the model of calmness and forgiveness had someone stolen everything from me. But some proportionality, please! No one is dead, no one had their eyes yanked out of their skull, no one was injected with HIV. Everyone is whole and can watch the sunrise and play with their kids. Send Madoff away for sure. The real punishment for him will be having to sleep in a small cell and eat bad food and not enjoy yachts and lobster tails and tailored suits. The human part of the sentence? I doubt he'll notice. The victims have more humanity. Even without their money, they can move on, enjoy what really matters. And I wish them the best.