Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Rich

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“Public opinion has to be something that doesn’t matter to us,” so says Catherine Hooper, fiance to Bernie Madoff’s son Andrew, on a 60 Minutes interview with where Ruth Madoff and Andrew speak with the intent of selling their book on Bernie and clearing the Madoff name.

I’m reminded of a common misquote:

Fitzgerald: The rich are different than you and me.
Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.

That exchange never happened, and is a confluence of two unrelated quotes, but it speaks to two philosophies on how we’re to deal with the trials and tribulations of our American aristocracy. If culture is a collective aggregation of how we cope with the necessities of life, then by very definition we can never share the same culture as those who are born into wealth. They, despite being the same species with the same reactions to the same stimuli, will always and forever be a foreign people, for their ‘stimuli’ are wholly alien to that known by the rest of us.

In a lot of the novels I have that are set in Gilded Age New York or Elizabethan London, the rich go out of their way not to mention money in any form – not to demean themselves with the acts of merchantmen. They were gentry, their wealth was assumed, and life was about maintaining social norms. This interview evokes accounts of many of those same views on life.

Indeed, Andrew said that Ruth, when told of the extraordinary theft, first asked, “what’s a Ponzi scheme?” She reportedly never suspected anything. The whole interview, despite – or perhaps due to – their every effort to distance themselves from Bernie, sounded like the account of an odd, decades-long practice of selective blindness. The conversation on the matter, according to Andrew, started and ended with Bernie stating, “you worry about your business, and I’ll worry about mine.” As such, the undercurrent in the Madoff household appears to have been, “I don’t care where the money comes from, so long as there is money.” It was never delved into too deeply. They could contentedly live with the proceeds without ever asking any questions. They never thought to ask questions.

The rest of the interview is mostly Madoff’s wife and remaining son wringing their hands over having to cut back on the lifestyle his theft has allowed them – yet, indeed, Ruth gets to keep a $2.5 million stipend and the proceeds of the book mentioned. They’ve been demoted from fantastically rich to ‘merely’ rich. She’ll have to content herself with cruise ships instead of private yachts.

It’s a surreal juxtaposition: Their problems, even now, are not the same as what ‘normal’ people would have to consider given the circumstances. They’re still living comfortably, and Ruth Madoff declared, even now, that she didn’t know whether she’d report Bernie if she had to turn him in. She stated that she felt sorry for Bernie, for his prison term. That she would prefer not to have to deal with the shame of being recognized. As if they could turn to the public and say, “if you just leave us alone, I think we can get through this.”

If I could, I would ask her the (admittedly rhetorical) question, “why do you think he was put in federal prison?” To me, the answer is obvious: It’s not to defend society from the menace of Bernie Madoff. It’s to defend Bernie Madoff from society.

I wonder if they realize just how angry the public is. I wonder if they ever will be made to face that anger. But wealth is and always will be the ability to shield yourself from exactly that.

Kill the Pigs

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While Obama rails against AIG thanks to yet another scandal with bonuses and payoffs and Bernie Madoff goes to jail (or not) smiling after having a last dinner (and seriously, what restaurant in New York City would serve him?) complete with white wine and aperitifs, I’m thoroughly disgusted with not only the level of corruption, which was as pervasive as, say, late Ming dynasty eyebrow-singing ridiculousness, but in the completely unrepentant attitudes of its participants.

Not only have they destroyed so much in their efforts to make a quick buck or line their own pockets, but even when they’re publicly branded and brought under close scrutiny they still take a mile with every inch. They’re rotten to the core, and disastrous to the well-being of, well, everybody.

Again, the more bloodthirsty of me harkens back a couple years to former China FDA head Zheng Xaioyu’s public apology and summary execution for gross corruption as head of a regulatory agency. Here, even jail time is rare for white collar criminals (hell, Madoff is appealing (!) his jailing) so a part of me must admire the straight-forwardness of China’s handling of white collar crime that hurts real people.

Now, I admired Jim Cramer’s gracious eating of crow even in the face of admitting to short-selling and other devious, underhanded practices in the art of making a quick buck, even though I know that cathartic feeling of watching him simper was irrational, but he proved to be – in the end – a somewhat conscientious man who knew he did wrong. I don’t get that from Madoff or AIG. It’s not “I did wrong,” it’s “okay, you caught me.”

So help me, when the revolution comes…

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