So does Madoff think it's worth it?
Bernie Madoff made a pact with the devil. Do you suppose he regrets it? Maybe not. He seems impervious to empathy with others. But for more than 20 years he had a good run. And he was an equal-opportunity fleecer, bilking friends, family, charities, sports stars, fellow financiers, pension funds and people of modest -- and now, thanks to him, no means.
Madoff thought that, all told, he had blown through about $50 billion of other people's money. But he was a better thief than he knew. The government says it was more like $65 billion.
With various penalties, the government is seeking a forfeiture from Madoff of $177 billion. Good luck with that.
Aside from the fact that so many people want him dead that he had to wear body armor to court to announce his intention to plead guilty to fraud charges, do you suppose Madoff thinks it was all worth it?
He's 70, so the possible 150 years in prison he's looking at doesn't really mean much. The feds treat their older prisoners pretty well. He likely stole more than all the criminals in the government's Supermax prisons put together, but he did it nonviolently, so he'll probably end up doing his time in minimum security. And if he gets real old, decrepit and sick, the feds might let him out.
The tradeoff for Madoff is that for more than 20 years he led a really good life. He has a $7 million apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where he has been under house arrest. He has a $9.3 million mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., an oceanfront home in Montauk, N.Y., a house in France and a 55-foot yacht there, as well. The yacht is named "Bull," as in market, or so people thought. Now we know differently.
And he seems to have achieved all this on the cheap, using a two-person accounting firm no one had heard of to do his books and, according to the government, hiring young, inexperienced staff to generate phony documents and create the appearance of heavy-duty trading.
Aside from a gift for generating bogus numbers, Madoff's greatest skill must have been in keeping a straight face. He rose to be the chairman of NASDAQ and regularly advised federal financial advisers, who in any case never did catch him. His sons turned him in to the feds.
His investment fund had a reputation for exclusivity and he actually turned away would-be investors -- not many, but some. Do you suppose he ever thought to himself after rejecting a supplicant desperate to hand over his life's savings, "Do you realize I just saved you from financial ruin?"
He was lionized as a generous benefactor by charities that now revile him -- and belonged to exclusive clubs whose members' pockets he picked. So maybe he's been thrown out of those clubs. But for a couple of heady decades he was a celebrated member. Most of the rest of us will never know what that's like -- being lionized, not reviled.
Madoff had to know that the music was bound to stop. Do you suppose he now wishes he had stayed in law school? Or had never left his job as a sprinkler installer? Do you suppose that if he knew then what he knows now, he'd do it all over again?