THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

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I did not lose any money because of Bernard Madoff. Good for me. I, however, have become fascinated by those who did. Some of the people were wealthy, others famous, some had advanced degrees in finance, while some were just plain, good, hardworking folks. If it could happen to them…
Because money is involved, of course the word “greed” has been bandied about; as in they had millions to begin with and wanted more, and Madoff took advantage of their avarice. However, the truly greedy can be characterized by the Queen song that goes, “I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.” From what I understand, those who invested with Madoff weren’t looking to get rich quick but hoping for a “slow and steady wins the race”-type investment for the future (in other words, retirement).

Bernard Madoff had the trappings of success.

Bernard Madoff had the trappings of success.

Then there are those who like to pretend everyone else is stupid. Have you ever heard Steven Spielberg described as stupid? There’s a whole assemblage of renowned and educated people who went down on the S.S. Madoff, and stupid would not describe any of them. But there are some who are feeling rather smart right now—like the financial advisor who blogged that he had met with Madoff, smelled scam and told people not to invest with him. They didn’t listen. The “I told you so” glee was practically jumping off the computer screen.
So, if it wasn’t greed or stupidity that let people to invest with Bernard Madoff then what? How about the insecurity theory: thinking that if you associate with someone of importance, a name if you will, that makes you important as well. (Remember, people joined his country club to meet him). Except that not everyone who invested did so with Madoff directly. There were people who put their money into hedge funds that, unbeknownst to them, were managed by Madoff.
No, I think people—even cynical New Yorkers—invested with Madoff because everyone wants to believe that successful people (i.e. the smart, athletic, charming, good looking) count goodness among their other fine qualities. Ugly? Uneducated? No one is surprised when someone like that goes wrong. But the realization that a Harvard MBA CEO took the money and ran, leaving his 10,000 employees in the lurch, or that a handsome and gifted ballplayer is charged with a crime is met with such disappointment. You mean he’s not a good guy?
There’s a scene in the movie Broadcast News where Albert Brooks’ shlubby character describes William Hurt’s good-looking and charismatic character as the devil. His rationale? “Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation…”—like as a highly regarded money manager who’s also a philanthropist and the former president of Nasdaq.
You can’t blame people for not being able to tell the good guys from the bad guys, since many a bad guy owns shining armor and rides a white horse. (Anne Hathaway can verify.)
So, what to do? One thing about investing that I took away from the aforementioned smug blogger is “diversify.” So, how’s this: some money goes under the mattress, some in a pillow case, a little more in an envelope taped to the back of a drawer and a few bills in the cookie jar. You may not gain interest, but you won’t lose sleep over where it is when you need it.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl has been named Humor Writer of the Month by the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Her column appears every other week.

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