Madoff's Shocking Scheme Is Just a Microcosm of a Much Bigger Disaster


We've been hearing a chorus of "Nail him," "Let him rot," "String him by the ..." And the chorus will just grow louder as we learn of more and more victims of Bernard Madoff's corruption and arrogance.

It started with the bass, sung by the megamillionaires suddenly left with bills they can't afford to pay: mortgages on mansions and pièds à terre, a yacht or two, stablesful of Lamborghinis and tuition for their kids' exclusive private schools.

Then we heard from the baritone section, the well-paid employees of said multimillionaires' companies. At the holiday season, they're keeping themselves busy by spending hours and days in line at the unemployment office.

Tenor is sung by the staff and directors of foundations that give away money to worthy causes, including bone marrow transplants, interfaith outreach programs, higher education, health care services for the elderly and disabled, medical research, religious freedom advocacy, criminal justice reform, fighting poverty.

And they're joined by the sopranos -- all the supporters of Jewish philanthropies (safe to say that's probably at least 40 percent of the nation's Jews, plus non-Jewish supporters of good deeds done by Jewish groups) and the other nonprofits that went under when Bernard Madoff broke their banks and their backs.

And screeching above this chorus are all the rest of us. With plenty of reason.

How could such a thing as what Madoff perpetrated against the American people -- and the recipients around the world of their largesse -- have ever happened here? Here, where regulations exist to keep this from happening? Here, where the government looks after its corporations, er, people, and doesn't allow such things to get so out of hand?

The Madoff mess is simply a microcosm of the bigger picture. Madoff did, possibly as a single person (and quite spectacularly) swindle a highly visible and influential amalgam of people and entities in the biggest hoax of modern economic times. Yet what he actually did is no more out of the ordinary than torturing people in U.S. prisons.

All of Wall Street has been engaging in just such crimes against the American people -- and the U.S. Constitution and other people around the world -- for decades. Corporations listed on the stock exchange, led by revered CEOs, COOs and CFOs (the U.S. royalty), pollute our waters, air and soil; peddle unsafe toys; build weapons of mass destruction; use government bailout money (our taxes) for resort vacations and other perks; send U.S. jobs abroad while running their employees' pensions plans and their small investors' life savings into the ground; and pay those top executives obscene amounts of money even as they're gleefully committing all of the above.

We have a hamstrung regulatory system and a Congress that is all too willing to bail out the incompetent (at best), hubris-filled corporate frat boys who are running these corporations. Alas, the federal government isn't the only enabler; state and local governments come down on the side of corporations more often than not.

Worse yet, our "justice" system almost invariably rules for the corporations against the people -- indeed, over the last century, the courts have given more and more rights of "personhood" to said corporations, so that they now literally have more rights under the law than you or I do. (Heaven forbid you should want your corporate neighbor to stop dumping toxins into the ground whence you get your family's drinking water; you'd be interfering with its right to make a profit. Who cares that your toddler's got Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or kidney disease? Nothing can get in the way of corporate profit, least of all a family or a community that's trying to protect its people's health, property and future.)

The Madoff case is simply the latest-despicable treachery in a long line of crimes against us. Truly many people are badly hurt by the man's crimes. We should be outraged, and surely those raising their voices in fury have every right to be singing at the top of their lungs. But what is shocking to me about this cacophony is that none of the singers has stopped to recognize the dichotomy between their reactions to two catastrophic recent events.

The first catastrophe is Madoff's economic starvation of numerous foundations and corporations, as well as scores or hundreds of rich people, and his infliction of severe damage on thousands of others who depend upon said foundations, corporations and individuals for either employment or philanthropy. That's a heinous crime on any scale.

In the second catastrophe, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, et al. have been responsible for the deaths of at least 650,000 Iraqis and Americans as a direct result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A documented 2.5 million Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes and have become exile refugees or internally displaced refugees. So we're talking about a minimum of 3 million homeless or dead, and 22 million more without a country (in the true sense of the word) and without clean water or electricity, not to mention security.

That noise just builds and builds about Madoff; every day there's another story about whom he's raked over the coals. Gabrielle Birkner wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward on Dec. 18: "The ripple effect of the alleged fraud could be felt for decades to come -- as venerable Jewish foundations, organizations, day schools and synagogues find their operating funds and grant-making pools depleted, and their largest donors with newly shallow pockets."

Anthony Weiss wrote in the Forward even more despairingly the same day: "Madoff's collapse has gone off like an atomic blast in the midst of the Jewish institutional world, leaving behind the wreckage of shattered lives and fortunes and creating a gaping hole where there were once billions of dollars -- and more importantly, implicit trust."

Such a chorus of grief. Yet hardly a soul is still crying out on behalf of the Iraqi people. Who is singing their lament?

Who is outraged at their fate? Who is standing for their rights? Who is fighting for them to have permission to leave their country on a visa permit when they need to visit a dying loved one abroad? Who is demanding that the countries that invaded them provide clean drinking water and full-time electrical service? Who is ensuring that their occupiers fulfill their obligations under international treaty by rebuilding their infrastructure and ensuring they have enough to eat? Where is the chorus of demands on U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to withdraw all troops, leaving no military bases, and instead funding a massive humanitarian effort on behalf of the Iraqi people? There's barely even a murmur -- except from soldiers, whose voices are mostly muzzled -- about Iraqi translators who risked their lives and their families' lives to work for the U.S. Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and National Guard.

Now, I'm neither negating nor diminishing the outrage and pain felt in the aftermath of Mr. Madoff's crimes; his wanton greed and disregard for everything that's decent are causing no end of hardship for thousands upon thousands of people.

But there's something grossly imbalanced in our reaction to that suffering when compared with the long-term agony of some 25 million Iraqi people -- agony for which we, as American people, are indisputably and directly responsible, as the invasion and occupation were and are supported by our tax dollars and were perpetrated by people whom we voted into office. There's something seriously wrong with this soundtrack.

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