Friday, December 19, 2008

It's a Madoff, Madoff, Madoff, Madoff World

Agence France Presse quotes Dominque Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, saying the following of the latest financial scandal, "The surprise is not that there are some thieves in the system, the question is where were the police?"

I beg to differ.

Financier Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion global pyramid investment scheme involved such gigantic servings of greed, stupidity and fraud so as to make one wonder about the moral fiber of humanity.

As in the 1963 Stanley Kramer all-star film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World about a wild goose chase for buried loot, nobody comes out unsullied in the Madoff affair:
  • not Madoff;
  • not the middlemen who solicited investments;
  • not the wealthy who put all their eggs in one rotten basket;
  • not the law enforcers who had the problem pointed to them and ignored it nonetheless;
  • not the policymakers who advocated total freedom for the "invisible hand" of the market; and certainly
  • not the whole lot of us who, in some measure, find ourselves able, from time to time, to tap our capacity for mendacity, greed, disregard for others, stupidity, laziness and cupidity.
This is an equal opportunity moral paradigm in which the issue is not who went wrong but why aren't we all in some sort of jail or at least sitting on a small chair facing a corner?

Sometime in my early childhood, at about the age of five, my obsession was to find the answer to the question, "Are people good or bad?"

My mother said people were essentially good, although in my recollection one could have said her motto was "trust but verify." She was always reserved about information that could give rise to envy, greed or pity; in some important ways, no one really knew her.

My father and many other relatives said the opposite, but their behavior was as careless as Madoff's customer list. They lived as if no one would ever fleece them; indeed, no one did, whereas my mother lived through some rank injustices.

Is that the way of the world?

Why should I care? Why does the fleecing of rich retirees in an exclusive country club evoke even the slightest sympathy in a world in which thousands of auto workers will be idled without pay for two weeks or more, and in which more than a 1,000 people have died of hunger in the last hour?

Perhaps because they are part and parcel of the same human condition.

For the first time in history, we have the means and resources for everyone, we just don't have enough of a will to share, to be fair, to be compassionate -- collectively or individually -- to eradicate extreme poverty, or extreme wealth.
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