More than money
BERNARD Madoff is an American businessman who made off with other people's money. He operated the largest investor fraud ever committed by a single person, defrauding 4,800 clients of $65 billion. At 71, he faces spending the rest of his life in prison and could be forced to pay $170 billion in restitution. Different people inhabit different worlds. In this country, Madoff would have been worshipped as an icon of inspiration, a role model for the rich.
Then, different worlds also inhibit different people. People flee their own countries to dodge taxes or run from the law. Seven-time motorcycling world champion Valentino Rossi took up residency in Britain to avoid paying taxes in his homeland Italy.
Roman Polanski, the noted Hollywood filmmaker, is wanted for having sex with an underaged girl. He has been hiding in Poland and France since 1977 to avoid prosecution in the United States.
So, Las Vegas is the sin city of the world, but when you are in the Vatican City, Hallelujah, praise the lord. If you steal from the public coffers of Zululand, you can stash that money in the banks of Switzerland. People and places have their characteristics. What is despicable in one country is desirable in another. One man's truth is another man's travesty.
Know it that when in Rome it's wise to do as the Romans do. People, like trees, are nourished by the soil in which they grow. Madoff grew up in the land of opportunity, but his unbridled opportunism has landed him in jail. Excess of anything is bad. Even God is upset when limits are crossed.
It's interesting that people and places move in lockstep. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed when their inhabitants went too far with their sins. When a tsunami hit coastal lands, people were its collateral damage, victims of no fault of their own.
"What is our task?" asked former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. "To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in," he replied. People can make places as places can make them.
The ancient Greek city of Sparta raised warriors whereas another city, Athens, raised men of letters and arts. Japan was known as a war-loving nation before World War II. Switzerland never went to war in the history of Europe.
How does the Madoff story connect? It connects by the way of an important question: which comes first, chicken or egg? Is Madoff's greed a product of the American ethos? Or, are people like him to blame for where America stands today? Does he reflect on his country, or does the country reflect on him?
There is a larger context to this question, given the sphere of American influence across the world. Like the sky reflects in a waterhole, America reflects in its dominoes. The Hollywood movies, American education, its fashion industry, scientific inventions, and pop culture have the world spellbound. That, if nothing else, is the most atrocious outcome of the American supremacy. In dress, habit, mannerism, eating and lifestyle, the United States has produced across the world legions of cookie-cutter Yankees from Timbuktu to Tibet.
Likewise, America has also produced many gremlins of greed and dispersed them all over the world. Many of these proto-Madoffs will never go to jail, because while other countries have copied the American style, they haven't copied much of its substance. In these countries dictators run democracy and brigands run business; everybody does crime, nobody gets punished.
But Madoff's mischief reveals a terrifying thing. When people shortchange places, places also shortchange them. Maurice Greenberg, a former CEO of the AIG Group, which owns the American Life Insurance Company, kept his net worth in the company stock and lost much of it. Richard Fuld, Chairman of Lehman Brothers, lost $1 billion. Citigroup's former chairman Sanford Weill lost about $500 million.
The message is both loud and clear. Hollow souls make hollow soils, and vice versa. And, how do the Madoffs of the world handle that tragedy? They build their webs of deception through fancy offices, flashy cars, and travel in private jets. They have pictures of governors, mayors, movie stars, and athletes hung on their walls. What they lose in remonstration, they tend to make up with demonstration effect.
For the rich of the world, Madoff is a living lesson on madness. He sawed off the tree branch while he was sitting on it. Wealth creation is a relative thing, and for that matter if nothing is left for others, it has the vacuity of an empty theatre running an exciting show.
One hopes Madoff will change in prison as he gets his chance to think. Life is more than money. It's more than a legal tender that promises to pay the bearer on demand. At times, life forces the bearer to pay.