Nov 16, 2011

Bernie Madoff, Happy at Last?

It has been several years since the Bernie Madoff story first broke, gradually  exposing more and more portions of a financial investing scam perpetrated for years, a genuine Ponzi scheme, whereby investors were bilked put of quite literally billions of dollars, which were then used to maintain the appearance of high financial yields for investors earlier in, higher up in the pyramid.   It became a more and more desperate juggling act, bound to bust eventually, but only after the sheer number of accounts in the air became unmanageable.

Much has already been written about the elaborate structure, scope, and details of the scam itself, and the lengthy lists of those individuals and institutions which lost money -- often money they could ill-afford  -- has long been worked out.  In fact, one might think there is little left to say about the whole Madoff affair, if it were not for the recent publication of truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family, penned by Laurie Sandel, who interviewed in depth the surviving members of Bernie Madoff's family -- his son, Mark, killed himself after the revelation of the scam, in which he appears to have been unwittingly involved.

What I've found particularly interesting to reflect upon in all of the recent discussion is the topic of happiness, which caught my attention due to Barbara Walters' reporting that Madoff says that, in prison, he is now happier that he has been for a long time on the outside.  It's particularly interesting that, as far as I can see, this has provoked very little discussion about the nature of happiness, and the senses in which Madoff could possibly be said to be happy, or at least "happier," a relative term.
It's telling that it is tis comparative term, "happier," that gets used, because all of the reasons provided explaining why Madoff is, in his view, in a better place, both literally and figuratively, involve comparison and contrast to his previous condition rather than any sort of deep satisfaction, pleasure, contentment with his current status.  Why is Madoff happier?
Madoff said that while he had contemplated suicide during his early days behind bars, he lacked the courage and never thinks about killing himself now. . . .
Madoff speaks of being happier now because for the first time in 20 years he has no fear of being arrested.
"I feel safer here than outside," Madoff told Walters.

"I have people to talk to, no decisions to make ... now I have no fear because I'm no longer in control" and "know that I will die in prison," she said he told her.. . .
Walters said Madoff told her, "every once in a while I find myself smiling, and I'm horrified."
It is quite understandable that freedom from the fears he experienced -- as investors began demanding their money and scrutinizing his affairs, and as the government noose started to tighten --would render one less miserable, and by extension thereby happier.  Add to it the knowledge that what he was doing was wrong -- which it appears Madoff had at least some of the time -- coupled with an inability to extricate himself from or end the scheme he had devised and put into play, and you start to glimpse a picture in outline of a profoundly unhappy man.

Ironically, the money that was not used simply to keep the scheme going by paying earlier investors some returns was used to bankroll a lavish lifestyle -- the appearance and even to some extent the enjoyment of prosperity -- for the Madoff family.  That, however, does not appear to have rendered Bernie particularly happy -- nor even his family, for a number of reasons, three of which are worth pointing out (and exploring more in the next post, a follow-up to this one).

First, maintaining the scheme took an immense psychological toll, by all appearances and accounts.  Adding to this was the fact that Madoff had kept literally everyone in the dark about the real nature of his financial activities.  He had no one to confide in, nobody to consult, even to confess to until he revealed the Ponzi scheme to his wife and sons shortly before his arrest. Steve Fishman writes:
 For Bernie Madoff, living a lie had once been a full-time job, which carried with it a constant, nagging anxiety. “It was a nightmare for me,” he told investigators, using the word over and over, as if he were the real victim. “I wish they caught me six years ago, eight years ago,” he said in a little-noticed interview with them.
Second, as Laurie Sandel tells us:
the Madoff family dysfunction was far worse than anything reported in the press: There had been affairs, power struggles between the siblings—even, I was shocked to find out, multiple suicide attempts
Third, the fallout, the consequences, the betrayal and unraveling of an entire world, the shame, vilification, demands for reparations, and inescapable awareness of how much damage was done to so many victims -- that is something that Bernie Madoff may or may not be fully conscious of, but of which his family certainly was and still is.  Those consequences include his oldest son's suicide, and the remaining family's dissociation from him, with the partial exception of his wife, whose stance is that
“I can never forgive him,” . . .  “and yet I’m not angry with him.”
It is difficult to see by what measures Bernie Madoff might in fact be said to be happy.  It might be better to say that in some respects he has managed to find a modicum of escape from misery or unhappiness, and in others that he enjoys certain goods in which some take happiness to consist, some small pleasures.  But, he appears to have cut himself off from many of the typical sources of happiness -- family and friends, occupation or vocation, the respect of others, the exercise of virtue, even from the wealth, possessions, and property that can function as supports or components of the happy life.
"He has terrible remorse, he says he knows that he ruined his family," Walters said, adding that Madoff told her that with the help of therapy he does not think about what he has done, but "at night he says he has horrible nightmares."
This sounds much less like someone who has been liberated from impediments to genuine happiness, and more like someone who is simply trying to make it through, to escape.  Not thinking about what he has done reflects a less integrated self and life.

Actually, from a Virtue Ethics perspective, several of the things reported of Maoff and his time in prison would seem to indicate a slide away from one of the requirements for genuine happiness -- some degree of developed virtue, or at the least recognition of its needfulness and purposive progress towards it.

There has been considerable discussion as to whether Madoff is a sociopath, a person genuinely lacking conscience, from the start -- perhaps fitting the category of a "brutal" person, to use Aristotle's terminology -- in certain ways not as bad as a vicious person, but in other ways, much much worse, where the higher, distinctively human part is not corrupted or damaged -- the case of the vicious person -- but rather lacking or not functioning. One of the more thought-provoking articles is the piece Is Bernie Madoff a Sociopath?, where psychiatrist Peter Kramer -- refusing to diagnose a person from a distance, nevertheless sketches out some possibilities, starting by setting out the current understanding of sociopathy:
. . . there’s this list [of symptoms] that has to do with not conforming to norms, not respecting legal behaviors, repeated deceitfulness, impulsivity, poor planning ability, irritability, aggression, disregard for the safety of others, inconsistent work behavior, irresponsibility, not honoring financial obligations. And then there’s the big one: lack of remorse, indifference, rationalization about people you’ve harmed or mistreated. If we think of some essence of the disease, that has something to do with it — people who just don’t seem to have a conscience, who don’t feel guilt
Kramer also develops an analogy, which does not resolve the issue, but in some way deepens it:
. . . I’m a writer. And I can imagine that I write a book that’s very successful. Somebody says to me, “Can you write another book on a different topic?” And I know I’m not very good at it. But then the ante is raised: I’m offered more inducements. I’m flattered. Then all of a sudden I find myself in a project where I’m way over my head. . . . At what point do I say, “There’s no way I can deliver this. I’m just not that kind of a writer.” . . . .Who can we tell? We’d be ashamed to tell our family that we failed at this and don’t want to tell the editor, so we drag it out for another year.
It’s not like that kind of act necessarily means you’re a sociopath; even the failure to confess, or failure to mitigate and make it better along the way. I think when Madoff puts himself in that narrative — it was a little of this, and it was attractive; and if he could hold on for another year or two, if the markets changed, he would make it all right — it’s the scope of the fraud that makes it harder to believe that narrative.
Kramer's discussion is actually spurred by a reaction to an in-depth article by Steve Fishman, Bernie Madoff:  Free at Last, in which he notes that:
In prison, he crafted his own version of events. From MCC, Madoff explained the trap he was in. “People just kept throwing money at me,” Madoff related to a prison consultant who advised him on how to endure prison life. “Some guy wanted to invest, and if I said no, the guy said, ‘What, I’m not good enough?’ ” One day, Shannon Hay, a drug dealer who lived in the same unit in Butner as Madoff, asked about his crimes. “He told me his side. He took money off of people who were rich and greedy and wanted more,” says Hay, who was released in December. People, in other words, who deserved it.
Fishman interprets this as a lack of conscience, but I'm tempted to see it as the blunting, the easing, the corrupting of conscience -- the reassertion of components of a vicious disposition-- Madoff can certainly be said to have embodied a number of vices, not least greed and duplicitousness -- of a general pattern of character.  A person becomes vicious, classic thinkers of Virtue Ethics tell us, not only through doing or feeling the wrong things over and over again until habits become engrained in the personality, but through regarding them them wrong ways, explaining them away, justifying them -- until these too come naturally to the tongue or to the mind.

It does seem as if moments of redeemability exist, arise, present themselves for Madoff -- not the case for a genuine sociopath -- but that he chooses not to take advantage of the, because they involve hardship, a decision to change, to remake oneself -- and there are temptations to slip back into easy modes of behavior, thought, and self-assessment -- particularly in the portion of the moral environment of the prison Madoff appears to have gravitated towards:
Madoff’s ego was on display in prison, too. “Bernie walked around prison confident,” says ex-con Keith Mack, adding, with a trace of resentment, “he acted like he beat the world.” And to most inmates he had. Many—and I communicated with more than two dozen current and recent Butner inmates (though not Madoff)—can recount stories of his conquests, a good number of them related by Madoff himself. . . .
Inmates were impressed by the sheer scale of Madoff’s operation and turned to him for guidance in getting their own ambitions on track. Madoff had always enjoyed being counselor to the wealthy and powerful. That had been part of the scheme’s seduction: Bernie, the scrappy kid from Queens, depended on by rich businessmen. “He wants to be remembered as a titan of Wall Street,” says Fineman, and one who subsidized the private schools and fancy vacations of his wealthy friends, even if it was with the funds of other investors. And to inmates he still was a titan.
It's not that moral reform is impossible in prison -- in fact, I can say from my own years of prison teaching and conversations with the inmates I came to know, that for some people, it has to happen there.  But it seems unlikely for Madoff.  The vicious remain vicious, convinced within their foreshortened moral horizons that vice is the normal course, the better course.  And, when it comes down to it, the vicious cannot be happy, but enjoy only the shadows or facsimiles of happiness.  They can ruin, preclude, or corrupt the happiness -- even the virtues -- of others, however, and that is what I'll take up in the second part of this already quite long post.

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