You can only watch a cash register so many times on the evening news before you realize how difficult it is to cover a complex, systemic issue like economics. Economic upheaval — and the resulting unemployment, hunger, and human suffering — is first visible (or invisible) in very “unsexy” computer bytes and programming code that record everything from credit default swaps to out-and-out Madoff-style thievery.
The other day someone in one of my classes remarked that, at least in the depression, there were countless visuals of suffering and a group of extraordinary photographers to record them. Those early 20th century images remain eloquent testimony of the suffering wrought by speculators and other assorted financial crooks.
Today, though, white-collar crime is more complex and more quiet. It is a stealth enterprise in which one corrupt accountant can press the send button on his or her computer, and send hundreds of phony profit statements reporting non-existent earnings to victims of the latest Ponzi scheme.
Well today it was all a little less baffling.
The PBS documentary series “Frontline” has produced an extraordinary 90 minute documentary that clearly explains how so many smart people lost so much money in Bernard Madoff’s scheme. The mechanics of the theft are fascinating.
But even more fascinating is the depiction of how people, happy with more and more profits, created a distorted picture of the world for themselves in which it was impossible to see even Madoff’s most ludicrous and bizarre behavior as anything unusual. Bernie was making them money , and it was oh so easy to imagine a world in which it all made sense. The documentary tells the stories of one shrewd person after another who, though capable of due diligence in every aspect of their lives, made room for Bernie’s peculiar practices simply because the money was good.
If Bernie the multibillion-dollar money manager happened to use one only one anonymous accountant whose office was in a strip mall, there had to be a reason. And who knew the reason? Bernie. Because Bernie was, after all, Bernie.
What an incredibly important lesson: At just the right moment, not two weeks or two months later when with hindsight everything becomes clear, we are capable of convincing ourselves of ridiculously implausible realities simply because the money is good.
I can’t recommend this documentary strongly enough. By the way, much of it is the reporting work of Frontline correspondent Martin Smith.