During the Great Depression, American moviegoers seeking escape could ogle platoons of glamorous chorus girls in “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Our feel-good movie of the year is “Slumdog Millionaire,” a Dickensian tale in which we root for an impoverished orphan from Mumbai’s slums to hit the jackpot on the Indian edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
It’s a virtuoso feast of filmmaking by Danny Boyle, but it’s also the perfect fairy tale for our hard times. The hero labors as a serf in the toilet of globalization: one of those mammoth call centers Westerners reach when ringing an 800 number to, say, check on credit card debt. When he gets his unlikely crack at instant wealth, the whole system is stacked against him, including the corrupt back office of a slick game show too good to be true.
We cheer the young man on screen even if we’ve lost the hope to root for ourselves. The vicarious victory of a third world protagonist must be this year’s stocking stuffer. The trouble with “Slumdog Millionaire” is that it, like all classic movie fables, comes to an end — as it happens, with an elaborately choreographed Bollywood musical number redolent of “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Then we are delivered back to the inescapable and chilling reality outside the theater’s doors.
Just when we thought that reality couldn’t hit a new bottom it did with Bernie Madoff, a smiling shark as sleazy as the TV host in “Slumdog.” A pillar of both the Wall Street and Jewish communities — a former Nasdaq chairman, a trustee at Yeshiva University — he even victimized Elie Wiesel’s Foundation for Humanity with his Ponzi scheme. A Jewish financier rips off millions of dollars devoted to memorializing the Holocaust — who could make this stuff up? Dickens, Balzac, Trollope and, for that matter, even Mel Brooks might be appalled.
Madoff, of course, made up everything. When he turned himself in, he reportedly declared that his business was “all just one big lie.” (The man didn’t call his 55-foot yacht “Bull” for nothing.) As Brian Williams of NBC News pointed out, the $50 billion thought to have vanished is roughly three times as much as the proposed Detroit bailout. And no one knows how it happened, least of all the federal regulators charged with policing him and protecting the public. If Madoff hadn’t confessed — for reasons that remain unclear — he might still be rounding up new victims.
There is a moral to be drawn here, and it’s not simply that human nature is unchanging and that there always will be crooks, including those in high places. Nor is it merely that Wall Street regulation has been a joke. Of what we’ve learned about Madoff so far, the most useful lesson can be gleaned from how his smart, well-heeled clients routinely characterized the strategy that generated their remarkably steady profits. As The Wall Street Journal noted, they “often referred to it as a ‘black box.’ ”
In the investment world “black box” is tossed around to refer to a supposedly ingenious financial model that is confidential or incomprehensible or both. Most of us know the “black box” instead as that strongbox full of data that is retrieved (sometimes) after a plane crash to tell the authorities what went wrong. The only problem is that its findings arrive too late to save the crash’s victims. The hope is that the information will instead help prevent the next disaster.
The question in the aftermath of the Madoff calamity is this: Why do we keep ignoring what we learn from the black boxes being retrieved from crash after crash in our economic meltdown? The lesson could not be more elemental. If there’s a mysterious financial model producing miraculous returns, odds are it’s a sham — whether it’s an outright fraud, as it apparently is in Madoff’s case, or nominally legal, as is the case with the Wall Street giants that have fallen this year.