Having read this and listened to a podcast, I’m convinced the Bernie Madoff thing was far more complicated than even he realized.
Madoff, who died last week, has been an intriguing character in American history, though a mysterious one. He tried to fall on his sword regarding his Ponzi Scheme, and when that failed, he haphazardly and, it seems, untruthfully, explained how it worked and when it started.
Diana B. Henriques does as good of a job as one can recently expect with untangling the gordian knot that was the Madoff scandal. She breaks down the financial terms well enough for the layperson; she may not be Michael Lewis but I understood about 30-40% of what was happening, which is a good number for me reading a book about finance. There are some paragraphs that pay lip service to Madoff’s family, victims, and co-conspirators but by and large, this book is a forensic account of Madoff’s crimes, which is what I was looking for.
What also fascinated me was Henriques’ ability to juxtapose what Madoff was doing against the faultiness of American economic regulations. We don’t know concisely when Madoff’s scheme started but we do know he was able to glide for so long, through multiple Wall Street crises, because no one looked under the rug. Both SEC investigations covered in the book were frustratingly weak and ineffectual. While other major banks seemed to know Madoff’s funds were too good to be true, the federal government basically said “Yeah whatever.” Given how hard the IRS goes after middle and lower class Americans, this is incredibly frustrating.
Ultimately, while we may never get the full sense of who Madoff was or what he did, I think one thing is clear: he did it because he could. There was a lot of money floating around and no one to tell him “no.” He was tired of being elbowed out by the white shoe firms of Wall Street. He saw an opportunity and took it. If America is a crime, he’s just another player. Which doesn’t make what he did less horrible. But it does make it relatable to those who get away with it.