By Raffique Shah
December 28, 2008
PREDICTABLY, Time magazine named US President-elect Barack Obama as its “Individual of the Year, 2008”. Obama would undoubtedly emerge as “the Man” for publications and institutions that usually bestow such annual honours. In fact, for most people across the world, Obama is the Man of the Century, matters not that we are a mere eight tumultuous years into an era that is as unpredictable as Obama’s stature is predictable.
As a “Trini”, I look first among my own brethren before I scan the world for persons deserving of honour or dishonour. Invariably, I bypass the politicians. Really, who among this lot is worthy of praise? Jerry Narace, who, after half the population was stricken with dengue, still insists there is no outbreak of the dreaded fever? Colm Imbert, who last week discovered that developers and individuals had mutilated the hillsides, causing unprecedented floods? Basdeo Panday, “mash-up-master-supreme”, who is poised to smash yet another of the many political houses he helped build over three decades?
Sorry, none of them qualify, not even two-cucumber-Ross. In a year that saw us ride an economic roller coaster and enjoy some glory at the Olympic Games, who is my choice of “Man of the Year”? I scammed-sorry, scanned-the world, looked at banks and huge conglomerates, icons of unbridled capitalism, turn to quasi-socialism to rescue them from billion-dollar distress. I saw multi-billionaires reduced to a few billions, poor sods. In this vast ocean of exploiters and “scammers”, I found the Man: Bernard Madoff!
Before readers think that Shah has finally gone mad or “off”, or both, let me explain. I would have chosen Barack, but Bernie out-trumped the President-elect on the eve of his moment of glory. Obama raised and spent over $100 million to beat all comers in the race to the White House. When you add the sweat, tears, sacrifices and other inputs he and his team put together to win, they must have expended billions.
What has he inherited for all this output? A country steeped in debt to the tune of as much as US$30 trillion, according to some estimates. Two ongoing wars that cost, and from which extrication is difficult. How he would cope with this is probably giving Barack a permanent headache. Bernie’s case is quite the opposite. Here’s a man who started out as a life guard, never attended Ivy League colleges, but remained street-smart. Most of all, he recognised that people are greedy, and that the rich tend to be more greedy than the poor. Even better, being Jewish, he found it easy to gain the trust of Zionists, the well-heeled who were pumping money into Israel so that country could wipe Palestinians off the map.
These suckers were well, suckers. It the early 1990s, Madoff set up Kingate Global Fund that promised investors hefty returns on their investments. While stingy banks and other finance institutions were offering puny returns, Bernie guaranteed-and delivered-above 10 per cent. Much the way the “pyramid scam” invaded Trinidad in the 1980s, based on misplaced trust and greed, Bernie used initial depositors’ money to honour rich dividends to those who entered the scheme early. Late-comers were the biggest suckers.
The exclusivity of his scam was bait for the wealthy, the greedy and the stupid. Soon, multi-millionaires and billionaires were breaking down his Manhattan office-doors to get in on the action. So you have, say, $5 billion, and you want to invest $100 million of that in Bernie’s golden pond. “Sorry,” Bernie would say. “I have no room for that now .the fund is all taken.” “Pleeease, Bernie!” “Tell you what. As soon as there’s an opening, I’ll be in touch with you.” His agents would call you weeks later: “We do have an investment opportunity for you, but it’s for $200 million or more. And you must commit in 24 hours.” The rich and stupid: “I’m transferring the cash now!”
Bernie made his club so exclusive, the rich and famous were battering his gateway to heavenly wealth. A favourite haunt of his was Palm Springs in Florida, an enclave of ultra-rich, all-White, mainly Jewish retirees.
He took the Zionist Hadassah “charity” for a cool $90 million. He got his fellow-Jews to crawl at his feet before he “reluctantly” accepted their millions. He had big foreign banks (the Royal Bank of Scotland was one) invest in his scam. Interestingly, neither the SEC nor the most respected firms of auditors detected anything wrong in an investment business in which the numbers never added up.
Finally, after some US$50 billion in investments could not be accounted for, the 70-year-old Madoff was arrested and charged with fraud. He was smiling as he was taken to court. That smile told the story of a sophisticated “smartman”, the ultimate in my view, who was laughing at the fools whose greed he exploited to the hilt. Madoff ought never to have been charged with any offence. Those who entrusted him with their money, the fools who thought money was manna, are the ones who should be sent behind bars.
Bernie Madoff is my choice as Man of the Year.