A word of warning to financial criminals: you are risking more than your own freedom — the health and well-being of your family may be in jeopardy as well. A 60 Minutes special on CBS paints a harrowing picture of the pain and shame endured by the Madoff family in the years following the unveiling of the Ponzi scheme that supported their lifestyle:
Andrew [Madoff]: Absolutely. It was one of the hardest things to come to grips with, in trying to get my head around this, was that feeling that I had been used– almost as– as a human shield by him. He– it’s– it’s unforgivable. No– no father should do that to their sons…But for Andrew’s brother Mark, the weight of the lawsuits, attacks from the media and the shame became unbearable.Andrew: He was absolutely obsessed with the news coverage. He would wake up every morning, immediately comb through the regular newspapers and that would be followed up by reading blog posts and comments. And I would say, “Look, you gotta– you gotta shut off your computer. You gotta stop subjecting yourself to this because this is not helpful for you and it’s not helpful for me. And if you keep doing this, it’s just gonna lead to misery.”And it did. On December 11th, 2010, the second anniversary of his father’s arrest, Mark Madoff hung himself while his two-year-old son slept in the next room. He said in his last email, “No one wants to hear the truth…” […]They lost a son and brother and will forever carry the shame of the Madoff name.Andrew: What he did to me, to my brother, and to my family is unforgivable. What he did to thousands of other people, destroyed their lives–I’ll never understand it. And I’ll never forgive him for it. And I’ll never speak to him again.
The depraved Bernie Madoff didn’t just ruin the lives of thousands of strangers and associates. His evil destroyed the lives of all who he loved, or who loved him. Besides the obvious loss of wealth, reduced standard of living, and his own 150 year prison sentence, Madoff’s crime has created a stigma which will haunt his family for generations. Public harassment, media accusations and family strife have driven one of his sons to suicide and surrounded his family in an aura of shame they will never live down.
This will get worse as other white collar thieves face the music. Public anger at these lowlife types will only grow as awareness of the systemic corruption and fraud on Wall Street mounts. Judges, too may be less lenient in the future, especially as politicians, responding to public anger, push for stiffer restitution laws and higher fines. Though the Madoffs are no longer living the high life, they were allowed to keep enough money to live more modestly for quite a long time, but later fraud families may not do as well. Why shouldn’t the families of prominent financial criminals have to look for jobs as store clerks and security guards when millions of honest Americans work at hard jobs for little pay every day of their lives?
The shame and disgrace that will stick to newly impoverished family members of big financial criminals and fraudsters is not a bad thing. Compassion for the families of criminals must exist in a healthy society, but it should be properly subordinated to compassion for victims and their families. While individuals, some innocent, will suffer as the stigma of these crimes rises, society as a whole is likely to benefit if America gets back in touch with real moral outrage. A healthy loathing for big time fraud, for the people who commit it, and for those who live in wealth and luxury on the proceeds of nasty crimes is a good thing. Without that kind of strong natural hatred of dishonesty and vice, no society can prosper for long.
Finance is inevitably and properly going to play a big role in American life going forward. The cultivation of a high standard of morality among those who engage in this vital function is something our society must insist upon. We have done a lamentably poor job of creating a culture of honesty and integrity among the financial elite; the costs of this failure are ruinous and things have to change. Severe and deeply painful legal and social penalties must, for now, make up for the deficiencies in morals and mores that brought things to this pass.
The risk of dooming their loved ones to decades of poverty and shame might make a few of these bad apples think twice. Clearly our current laws and social mores aren’t doing enough to keep potential fraudsters on the straight and narrow way. We don’t need witch hunts, and there is a big difference between financial speculation and crime, and even the most odious of criminal defendants should receive the full and impartial protection of the laws, but upping the shame and stigma attached to reprehensible crimes of this type makes a lot of sense.
Capitalism must rest on strong moral foundations, and those at the core of the system need to be held to a higher standard than those less strategically placed. Human beings are flawed and we all fall short in many ways, but moral failure in high places is more shameful and deserves to be censured and punished much more severely than moral failings among the poor, the powerless and the obscure.
The agony of the Madoff family, and perhaps of the Rajaratnam family and others to come may help repair some of the damage that boundless greed and arrogance have done in this world. I hope so, for their sake and for ours.