The National Catholic Review

Bernie Madoff would have to live to be 221 years of age to complete the prison term to which he was sentenced yesterday. There is a cold comfort, not to be confused with schadenfreude, in the thought that he shall never again know what it is to be a free man. The difference lies in the simple justice of the sentence, the maximum, for crimes that were so heinous. It is wrong and it is criminal to defraud fellow investors. But, it is something worse than wrong to defraud charities.

Schadenfreude is the taking of delight in the misery of others. It is a sin, but a very delicious one. It is what we can almost forgive ourselves for feeling when the Rev. Ted Haggard, the fire-breathing evangelical who opposed any and all attempts by gay and lesbian people to secure their rights, was forced to admit doing crystal meth with a gay hustler. On multiple occasions. Or, when Jim and Tammy Faye lost their PTL empire as we learned that they had once bought hundreds of cinnamon buns for their hotel room because they liked the smell. Watching a hypocrite hoist on his own petard is what produces schadenfredue.

Bernie Madoff was not hoist on his own petard. His problem was not that he was a hypocrite, also he was also that. The problem is that he was a thief and that he stole from charities, a sort of Reverse Robin Hood for contemporary Wall Street. Righteous anger is the appropriate response. And, in this instance, because most of the money has been squandered already, the only thing that could right his wrong – returning the money – is impossible. This is why it is thoroughly appropriate for the judge to impose a sentence that screams to all the world: You don’t have to be a barbarian to be barbaric.

I was also delighted to see that our legal codes now permit the government to go after all of his assets, including those he tried to shield by placing them in the name of other family members. His wife’s tears left me thoroughly unmoved. Maybe she knew. Maybe she should have known. Either way, there is no conceivable way in which she should be permitted to live in continued splendor off of such ill-gotten gain. There are worse things than being a little poor as she will now find out. I do not wish her ill, unless she really did know what her husband was doing and said nothing. But, I do not wish her to enjoy a continued life of creature comforts either. Her husband should not have the comfort of thinking at least he provided for his wife and she has no inherent right to such comforts. Let her write a book or sell her story to the Star.

I am a softie for most criminals. I bemoan the fact that we spend so much money incarcerating drug addicts who really need treatment more than punishment. I think prisons should aim at rehabilitation, not just punishment. I abhor the death penalty. But, I read about Madoff’s crimes and I turn into the Mikado in the Gilbert & Sullivan show. I want to make the punishment fit the crime. In this case, there is no way to find a punishment that is worthy of the crime but 150 years of thinking about those crimes comes close.

 

Comments

Anonymous | 6/30/2009 - 12:21pm
Ya know Michael, the righteous anger over Madoff has been puzzling me all along. In no way do I want to minimize the loss of some person’s retirement funds. The money they planned to use in old age, a very precarious time for many of us. But...?   Madoff’s crime seems to be a profound metaphor for our age. A bunch of us already well-heeled folks want to make a “killing” through investing what is already plenty of money – more than many (most?) Americans (not to mention Sudanese) will have when they retire. And we get taken advantage of – maybe because our greed blinds us? So we want to exact vengeance upon the head of the criminal who is really only a mirror in which we see ourselves.
Anonymous | 6/30/2009 - 9:02am
The judge should have given him the 50 years recommended in the probation report, not that there is any difference between 150 and 50 at his age. I feel more sorry for the people who actually received a return from him, as these people will be forced to refund a portion of these dividends.  It is likely that most of these funds have been spent, so assets will be sold or delivered to those who never saw a dime.  The cost analyst in me is curious as to what the percentage of shared loss will be.  I suspect that some people are still holding onto a feeling that they are entitled to what was promised them, rather than a simple return of a portion of what they invested.  They will have their own crushing blow, since given the promised return I am sure they thought they had won the lottery.