Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bernie's Burdens

New York magazine reports that Bernie Madoff, when hassled about his Ponzi scheme by a fellow inmate at the federal medium security prison in Butner, NC, said, "F*ck my victims. I carried them for twenty years, and now I'm doing 150 years." http://nymag.com/news/crimelaw/66468/.

Poor Bernie. Life can be truly unfair. Perhaps he can take comfort from being the inspiration for millions of blogs, none of them complimentary. He's our inspiration today. The following is entirely fictional.

The young man was glad to escape the viscous humidity of summertime North Carolina as he entered the visitor's room at the prison. Perspiration dampened even the back of his hands. But when he spotted the man he had come to see, he forgot his discomfort. Business, as always, came first.

"Mr. Madoff?" he asked.

"Yes, I'm Bernie Madoff," said the older, gray-haired man.

"Alvin Doe," said the young man, as the two men shook hands. He tried to project the cheerfulness he had learned people beyond college age expected when first meeting someone.

Bernie wondered if that was the name on the young fellow's birth certificate. He was generic: about 5' 10", medium brown hair, brown eyes and a face you could readily forget. His clothes were also generic--a white polo shirt and khaki slacks. But his precociously jaunty manner seemed out of place for a guy who couldn't be more than a year or two out of college.

"Alvin, it's nice to meet you," said Bernie.

"Here are the things I promised," said Doe, handing three small glass jars over to Bernie.

"The real stuff?" Bernie asked.

"Russian caviar. Cost me more than the plane ticket down here. I asked my Mom to buy it because she would make sure it wasn't fake."

"Well, if your Mom says it's real, that's good enough for me," said Bernie, turning on his salesman's affability and unwinding his impenetrable half-smile. "So, what's on your mind, Alvin?"

"Mr. Madoff, I got an idea . . . an idea for a business. I wanted to talk to you about it."

"Glad to listen, Alvin. My time is yours."

"I was thinking that there's a tremendous opportunity for a business that provides people with excuses," said Doe.

"Excuses?" asked Bernie, genuinely puzzled.

"Look at today's world," continued Doe. "Everyone wants an excuse. No one wants to take responsibility for anything. A business that can supply excuses would be an instant hit."

"Hmm, you have a point there," said Bernie, warming to the idea.

"One of the biggest needs is excuses for financial screwups. There's an almost unlimited pool of customers. We have millions of defaulting homeowners. The ones who strategically default would make especially good prospects. Then there are banks that took bailouts and then made huge profits while the taxpayers who bailed them out struggle with unemployment and falling home values. The banks have armies of lawyers and lobbyists, but their image is terrible. They need the services of a business like mine. Also, there are entire countries over in Europe that borrowed a lot more than they should have and covered it up. But the truth has come out, and they're circling the drain. They don't want to actually take responsibility for all their debts. So they need help talking their way out of trouble. I think there's a lot of money to be made."

Bernie's brow wrinkled. "What you say is true, Alvin. But how do I fit into the picture?"

"Mr. Madoff, you're the champ when it comes to excuses. I mean, you went on for decades and got billions of dollars, all just with good sounding excuses. You didn't need anything else--no real business, no real trading strategy. You made a fortune for yourself out of talk. You have more talent for making excuses than anyone in history. I want you to join my business."

Bernie took a deep breath, while looking over Alvin Doe closely. He could be a junior federal agent, assigned to entrap Bernie in a criminal scheme. But he didn't look like he was wearing a wire under his polo shirt. And why would the feds bother? Bernie was 71 years old and sentenced to 150 years. He couldn't be punished more than he already had been. Doe had the eager enthusiasm of a young guy who saw goals more than he saw obstacles. That was the kind of fellow who would probably succeed.

"Well, Alvin, I might be interested," said Bernie. "How would things work? Since I'm here in prison, I can't put in days at the office. The prison people monitor my phone calls and we can't have computers or Internet access."

"We don't need any of that stuff," said Doe. "I or someone working for me will visit you and talk about the problems clients have. We don't need a lot of paper and we don't need to be connected online. I mean, all we're doing is coming up with excuses. You help us create excuses for the clients when we meet with you. That's all. No need for paper, no need for computers."

"That could work," conceded Bernie. "But what's the split on the money? Fifty-fifty?"

"I was thinking I should get three-quarters and you get one-quarter," said Doe. "I'll be out lining up clients and doing all the administrative work. And I have to handle communications with them and you."

"Don't I have the brainpower, the shamelessness that you can't find anywhere else?"

"Yes, you do, Mr. Madoff . . . "

"Bernie. Call me Bernie."

"Okay, Bernie. You do have the brainpower. But I can't exactly advertise that I'm partnering with a criminal, if you know what I mean. People won't think they're getting a legitimate excuse if it comes from a con artist."

Bernie paused, and then continued. "I think I understand that point, Alvin. Let's say I'll agree to 75 for you, 25 for me, at least to start with. Now, it seems to me that I should get a $1,000,000 advance on profits."

Doe sat back, momentarily stunned into silence. "Are you kidding?"

"Not at all. This is business. Money talks."

"I haven't got a million. I haven't even got air fare. I had to borrow it from my Mom."

"Tell you what, Alvin, I'll settle for $100,000 paid in advance."

"Bernie, I don't have $100,000. I barely have $100, and I have to cover the car rental and crappy airline food. Besides, you can't keep that kind of money, not here."

"There are places where it can go. We can get into that when you find the money," said Bernie.

"That's impossible, Bernie. I can't come up with a hundred grand. Can't you just help me out and take a split of the profits once we start making some money?"

"Well, Alvin, a man doesn't work for free. And a smart man doesn't work for just a promise. Take my word for it. I'll start out for $10,000."

"Well," said Doe, reluctantly rising to leave. "That won't be easy. I'll see what I can do."

"I think you have a great idea, Alvin, with a huge market. People, banks, governments, nobody wants to take responsibility any more. Everyone wants an excuse. Palming off an excuse is much easier than doing real work. Hell, if we took responsibility for things, we'd all have to stop acting like kids and become adults. No one wants to do that. So keep at it, Alvin."

"Okay, Bernie," said Doe, smiling broadly for the first time and extending his hand again.

"That's a nice smile you have, Alvin. Good for sales presentations," said Bernie. "Chin up. The world may be going to hell, but there's always opportunity in adversity. Making excuses will be a great business because you can count on people to pay for what they want to hear. That's what the real estate bubble market was all about. That's what Wall Street is all about. That's what politics are all about. You'll have a great business while it lasts."

The two men parted with a warm handshake. It wasn't until later, after Alvin had boarded his flight home, that he wondered if Bernie's last words meant he should rethink things.

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