“Bernie Made Us Money Because, Well, Bernie Was Bernie!” PBS’s Frontline Takes On the Madoff Scam


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.

Check it out. You can watch it for free online.

Bernard Madoff is Sorry; Or At Least The Person Who Wrote His Statement is Sorry


This is the statement that Bernard Madoff made in court today, as he pled guilty. 

Which leads me to ask the same question I have been asking for years:  is it too much to ask that a high profile public apology for criminal acts of this magnitude be written by the person who is actually apologizing?  For years “repentant” offenders have simply mouthed the handiwork of attorneys and public relations experts whose “rhetoric of deep regret” is as phony and unmistakable as a $2 bill.

I am not saying that Madoff  had nothing to do with this statement, but it is packed  with the kind of morally empty boilerplate that really is no apology at all.

I have a half-serious  idea:  When someone pleads guilty and wants to apologize for his or her crimes,  he or she should be be handed some paper and a pen by the judge and asked to spend an hour writing a hand-written apology.

Of course this doesn’t even slightly guarantee sincerity.  But isn’t it about time we end this charade of supposedly remorseful people reading statements actually written by other people?

What happens to genuine contrition in a world where crafting apologies has become an occupation?