Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Three Faces of Bernie

Will the real Bernie Madoff please step forward?

Stories, news articles, and rank speculation continue to rocket around the mainstream media and the blogosphere concerning everyone's favorite bubeleh, Bernie Madoff. As of this writing, real information about the nature, extent, and Bernie's motivations for what appears to be the investment shitstorm of the century1 remains in short supply, so it is difficult to get a good handle on the former knacker's character. (I do not know the man personally, but he always seemed balbatish to me.)

Since nature—and human perversity—abhors a vacuum, commentators, kibbitzers, and assorted know-it-alls have jumped in to offer their opinions on the great man. Currently, there seem to be three leading theories in circulation:

1) Bernie as goniff
Goniff: Crook, thief, burglar, swindler, racketeer2

As in Snidely Whiplash, dastardly ur-villain of stage and (small) screen, who preferred to act out his antisocial tendencies by tying Little Nell to railroad tracks and rubbing his hands in gleeful anticipation of her impending dismemberment. While perhaps most satisfying to the enraged victims of his shenanigans, this image seems most at odds with the known facts about the life and public personality of Mr. Madoff, who previously resembled one on whose tongue butter would not melt.

So, barring further disclosures—such as the discovery of paste-on handlebar mustaches next to falsified trading records in a locked safe in Madoff's 17th floor volcano lair—I suggest we put this characterization aside.

2) Bernie as Destroyer of the Jews

As in Pharaoh, one distinctly unpleasant Austrian housepainter, or the Senator who voted last month against sending TARP money to Israel. We can probably put this characterization down to understandable hyperbole, brought about by some big shot's momentary rage triggered by an unsettling phone call from his accountant. Otherwise, it does seem a bit much. While fifty billion clams is a lot of shellfish to have lost in your sock drawer, at last report Bernie's victims still seem to have their freedom and their health, which is far more than one can say for millions of their less fortunate ancestors.

That being said, the Madoff Scheme does seem to have been one of the largest affinity frauds ever perpetrated. While Bernie did not limit his predations to Jews, he does seem to have delivered several Members of the Tribe a rather heavy blow, at least in the pocketbook. Representatives of certain Palm Beach country clubs, New York synagogues, and Jewish charities might be forgiven if they view old Bernie as the Jewish Neutron Bomb: a device which vaporizes its victims' liquid wealth while leaving them, their creditors, and their rapidly depreciating real estate intact.

Given that some contend that investors who withdrew funds or collected dividends from Madoff's firm before the scandal broke might be required by a court receiver to repay those monies so investors who lost it all can be compensated, he certainly has set the stage for some long drawn-out, vicious infighting. It could turn out to be the most titanic struggle of Jew against Jew since Bialystock v. Bloom.

3) Bernie as shlemiel

Shlemiel: Clumsy bungler, an inept person, butter-fingered; dopey person

As in Alfred E. Neuman and pathetic shmendriks everywhere. This theory, for which I am developing a growing fondness, contends that Bernie did not start out to swindle his clients, but rather got caught up in spiraling losses and/or overwhelmed by shoddy record keeping. Once he found himself in the soup, he figured it would just be easier to make things up, rather than trying to make things right.3 There is some preliminary evidence for this, but the size and extended timeframe of the fraud does seem to indicate Bernie got pretty comfortable camping out on the dark side.

In any event, given the pathetic behavior of Madoff's investors and other enablers, I am sure we will have plenty of other candidates to choose from as the biggest shlemiel of the bunch. Leading candidates include the SEC, hedge fund-of-funds Fairfield and Tremont, Bramdean Asset Management's "Superwoman" Nicola Horlick, and any individual, charity, or institution foolish or greedy enough to place all or most of their money under Bernie's control. The only question will be whether these players should be considered shlemiels or shlimazels.

Shlimazel: Luckless person. Unlucky person; one with perpetual bad luck (it is said that the shlemiel spills the soup on the shlimazel!)

I know Bernie is waiting for all this to be resolved, too. In the meantime, I imagine

Er drayt sich arum vie a fortz in russell4

Stay tuned, campers. It's going to be a busy Chanukah.

1 Don't relax yet: the century is young.
2 Today's Yiddish definitions and usage brought to you courtesy of Thomer M. Gil. Any errors of emphasis or usage are completely his fault, as my own native knowledge of Yiddish is strictly limited to reruns of Mike Meyers skits.
3 Thereby ignoring the Law of Holes, which states that if you find yourself in a hole with a shovel in your hand, stop digging.
4 He wanders around like a fart in a barrel (aimless).

© 2008 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.