Monday, June 29, 2009

Reflections on the Madoff Sentence

Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison today for perpetrating an elaborate Ponzi scheme that swindled untold numbers of people out of a reputed tens of billions of dollars over a period of over twenty years.

I feel ambivalent about his sentence. On the one hand, Madoff ruined the lives of so many people that I believe he should spend the rest of his life in prison. Indeed, if we're going to have a death penalty, and the death penalty is reserved for those who commit the most destructive crimes, I believe that Madoff should receive the death penalty, even if that might be less punitive than enduring years if not decades in prison with no hope of getting out.

On the other hand, I'm a psychological determinist. That is, I believe that everything we do is the inevitable result of psychological causes that we did not cause. I don't know what caused Madoff to do what he did, but I believe that, given the interplay of his genetics, his brain structure and functioning, his environment, his life experience, and who knows what else, Bernie Madoff had to do what he did.

Yet, if that's true, how fair or just is it to punish Madoff with a life sentence for doing what he couldn't help but do? I wrestle with this question not only with respect to Bernie Madoff but also with respect to everyone convicted of any crime. I haven't arrived at any clear answers. But so far as Madoff is concerned, I believe that had he known before he began defrauding people that he could receive a life sentence for it, he might well never have done it, and others will almost certainly be deterred by his sentence from doing something similar. I also believe that "we the people" have a sense that justice has been served in the Madoff case and that this is better for our country than if we had the sense that guys like Madoff always get off relatively easy while the rest of us would have the proverbial book thrown at us for far less impactful crimes.

As I read what I've just written, I guess I'm making a utilitarian argument for Madoff's sentence. I'm arguing that its effects on potential white collar criminals and society as a whole is likely to be more good than bad. But still, to a psychological determinist like me, it hardly seems fair or just.

What's more, it would be interesting to ponder what I would think of Madoff's sentence if I could somehow know that it was unlikely to deter others from committing similar crimes or was unlikely to have a net positive effect on society. I suppose the vengeful part of me would still rejoice in Madoff's sentence. But another and presumably wiser part of me would probably feel profound misgivings.

But what I would like to see now is an effective investigation into just how Madoff was able to perpetrate fraud on such an incredible scale for such an amazingly long time despite ample cause for suspicion and even credible warnings that he was up to no good. Who wasn't on the ball, or worse, and what should our justice system do with THEM?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Quote for the Day

In the end, sometimes our reactions were divorced from reason and rationale, and had nothing to do with how we felt about him. They were reactions born of the raw emotion that comes when a seam in the fabric of our culture unravels, when someone as undeniably monumental as Michael Jackson dies.
--Monica Hesse, Washington Post

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Quote of the Day

A new president -- even one as talented and well-motivated as Obama -- can't get a thing done in Washington unless the public is actively behind him. As FDR said in the reelection campaign of 1936 when a lady insisted that if she were to vote for him he must commit to a long list of objectives, "Maam, I want to do those things, but you must make me."
--Robert Reich

RIP King of Pop

"I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours' and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out."
--Andrew Sullivan

I was never a fan of Michael Jackson. I never even owned a copy of "Thriller" or tried to moonwalk. But I am riveted to the news of his shocking death, and I feel very moved and very sad. He was the ostensive definition of "superstar" even decades after the music and videos that made him one. I guess that made him a permanent fixture of my life from the days of the Jackson 5 on.

He was prodigiously talented, he was a shrewd self-promoter, and he worked extremely hard. He was also a bizarre and tragic figure who had himself surgically mutilated to unbelievable depths of grotesqueness and was so out of place in our world that he fashioned one of his own. To paraphrase a commentator on CNN: as a child, he seemed like an adult, and as an adult, he seemed like a child.

Maybe the world would be better off without its superstars and idol worship. And maybe Michael Jackson's death is no more important than anyone else's, including Farrah Fawcett's. But it sure doesn't feel that way.