I can't quite shake the feeling that Bernie Madoff is the lucky one. He's been indicted; how he has pleaded guilty and has been whisked off to federal custody while awaiting sentencing. He will no doubt be sentenced to a long period of incarceration. He's free, in a way Epictetus would have understood. The rest of us are still tethered to lines he helped fasten around our necks.
Epictetus was born at about the time Paul was writing letters to folks all over Asia Minor. He was a stoic philosopher who taught that a life lived according to reason could yield a sparing sort of happiness or eudamonia. What the fates present, we must accept. Living within the limits, what we might call the means presented by reason, is the key to a good life.
Epictetus is believed by some to have been born a slave. Central to his teaching is that accidents of fortune should have no bearing on how the wise man lives.
Madoff can learn wisdom in a prison cell. He'll get three hots and a cot, health care, access to reading material and companions no better, and certainly no worse, than the folks with whom he rubbed elbows on Wall Street. In an uncanny way, he is now free: free from the fear, the dread, and the anxiety that came of living a lie he knew would end someday. "I knew what I was doing was wrong, indeed criminal," Madoff told the court. "When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients."
So much for the waking nightmare of living a lie.
The rest of us aren't nearly so lucky. Madoff made off with the money of folks who were at bottom no different than him. We all wanted, and perhaps still want, something for nothing. Madoff brokered a dream many investors were desparate to sell. They, alas, are left holding the bag, with no housing, food, medical care and safety provided to them. The folks who relied on Madoff get the grim fool's satisfaction of watching Madoff walk away in handcuffs; who will ever set those who lost life's savings free from the chains of debt they acquired trying to be just like Bernie?
I watch with a gathering desperation the talk of new tough prosecution of white collar crimes. We're going to nail bankers, brokers and the army of Rolex-wearing glad-handers who read Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and missed the satire. We'll rage, stamp our feet in righteous indignation, and point plump fingers of blame at all those who told us it was safe to grow fat and sassy. But we will not be freed ourselves.
"Did we get answers? Not all all," said George Nierenberg, who attended the change of plea. His family lost everything as a result of bad investmentsto Madoff. Mr. Nierenberg is a fool. The answers are in the mirror. We made Madoff. He was just better at the game than the rest of us. So we threw our money at him, closed our eyes, and kept our fingers crossed. So long as something followed nothing no one asked questions. We liked it that way.
And then one day a bubble burst, and a sea of bad debt flooded the land. Those who juggled the bubbles got arrested, and thrown in prison. Folks at the bottom get a pass and a shot at a new life through bankruptcy. The middle class stumbles along, tethered to bad debt for many years to come.
Bernie is lucky. His spirit is free. Sure, he's a in a cell now. But as Epictetus would say, his spirit is his own. No creditor calling him for repayment, and no sleepless nights worrying about how to make ends meet. Bernie's in a seemless circle and has a shot at redemption denied to those of us who sufffered a mere intermediate sort of greed.