It is hard to think of any writer living or dead more fit than Alexander Cockburn to comment on the Ponzi scheme for which Bernie Madoff admitted culpability in a guilty plea six years ago today. When the news broke in late 2008, Cockburn wrote:

We need the brush of Caravaggio to depict the awful scene where—at least on their lawyer’s account—the sons of Bernard Madoff confronted the errant paterfamilias, who informed his offspring that the cupboard was bare, the investors had been duped and all these years he’d been running “a giant Ponzi scheme.” But this time, reversing Caravaggio’s terrifying image, it was the old man who was bowed over the sacrificial rock and the sons with knives raised to dispatch their white-haired progenitor, turning him in to the FBI. Of course, there have been unkind souls eager to suggest that the three men had been working cheek by jowl for twenty years and that Bernie and his boys were in cahoots on the triage as an exercise in damage limitation. To such cynics I saw, “Pshaw!”

On the other hand, I lend a more receptive ear to those who say that at least some of Madoff Sr.’s clients were not so naive as to believe he had a virtuous investment model that permitted him to report 10-12 percent annual returns on capital invested, through boom and bust. They thought Madoff indeed had a secret model, but one coming in the distinctly unvirtuous form of insider information.

The most gullible marks are those who preen themselves as being privileged accomplishes in a profitable conspiracy where they have no personal exposure to legal sanctions. Madoff’s prosperous victims fatally miscalculated the dimension of the swindle. As instruction on how to get through life in one piece, Madoffgate is proof of the old rule: the more elegant the tailoring, the more handsomely silvered the distinguished locks, the more innocently rubicund the visage, the more likely the hand covertly fishing for one’s wallet.

March 12, 2009