Tuesday, February 15, 2011

We Still Haven't Put Bernie Away (Jewish Week)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

Bad Boy Bernie is the gift that keeps on taking.

Although tucked away in jail for the next 148 years, Bernard Madoff continues to be front-page news, as new revelations continue to appear about the people who bought into his massive Ponzi scheme. People like Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who traveled in the same social circles as Madoff and who claims to have been bamboozled like the rest of Bernie’s victims. Irving Picard, the trustee for Madoff victims, is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars from the Mets, whom he believes were knowing co-conspirators to the fraud — or, if they didn’t know, they should have. One would think that astute businessmen would be able to sniff out a Ponzi a mile away, but evidently when that fraud is returning 10 percent every year, the nose becomes stuffy.

Bernie’s legacy is much more insidious than a few headlines about wayward baseball owners. Cheating has become rampant in our culture. We may have put Bernie away, but he did not take our greed with him.

Greed alone does not a cheater make. Two other factors must be required: pressure and opportunity. People must feel that there is no choice except to cheat in order to keep up with everyone else, because, after all, everyone else is cheating. Plus, it must be relatively easy to break the rules. Those two factors are now more prevalent than ever.

How widespread is cheating? Take the recent scandal at the University of Central Florida, where 600 business students were forced to retake an exam after the professor got wind that hundreds of them had gotten access to the answer key online. The professor’s speech to the students has become a YouTube classic. The incident has sparked soul searching on that campus and well beyond, as people have speculated about a generational divide as to what constitutes cheating.

A recent poll by Common Sense Media reports that 23 percent of teens said that accessing stored notes on a cell phone during a test is not cheating, and 19 percent gave the thumbs up to downloading essays from the Internet to turn in as their own. The current “Tiger Mom” craze and the popular documentary “Race to Nowhere” depict a world of unbelievable pressures on teens to achieve — and the rampant cheating that naturally occurs in a Lombardi-esque society when winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

According to one survey, 74 percent of undergraduate business students admit to trying to gain unfair advantage on tests and other assignments. These are the students who will be steering the economy 10 years from now — steering it, apparently, into another moral ditch. People are cheating everywhere, in their public and private lives, in the workplace and in the bedroom — but I’ll leave Kosher Sex for others to discuss, while I focus on Kosher Stocks. Business schools report an upsurge in cheating. Scandals still abound — most of them likely not yet discovered.

If current [cheating] trends continue, the Wall Street gang of 2020 will make the slithery coterie of 2008 look like a Cub Scout pack in comparison.
Financial scandals have become a fixed component of our civilization. In 2003, Forbes created a Corporate Scandal Sheet tracking major corporate accounting scandals of the prior year. They listed 22, including Halliburton, Enron, K-Mart and Merck. But those were the “good old days,” an innocent age when most people would have thought a Ponzi scheme was something hatched up by Henry Winkler on “Happy Days,” quaint in comparison to what was to come.

Then in 2008, we were walloped by an ethical Katrina — or more accurately, Sodom and Gomorrah — because the cascade of outrageous revelations seemed biblical in scale. Shearson begat Siemens, which begat Morgan Stanley, which begat the auto companies’ mismanagement and AIG’s post bailout spa retreat. And towering above all was Madoff’s magnum opus, called by British investor Nicola Horlick “the biggest financial scandal, probably in the history of the markets.”

Madoff perpetrated the mother of all Ponzi schemes, but in his wake more Ponzis were uncovered, and the rogue’s gallery grew to include such schemers as Allan Stanford, Barry Tannenbaum, Scott Rothstein and Brian Jared Smart. The list of the investigated, indicted and convicted since Madoff is long and tawdry, a Who’s Who of corruption and the collateral damage has been almost incalculable.

But these scandals have yet to produce the moral sea change one might have expected in their wake. Washington has punted on serious reform, which is to be expected, but religious organizations have also been strangely apathetic — and that is blasphemous. At a time when honorable voices have most been needed to be heard, few have risen above the din of talk show accusations and Capitol Hill grandstanding. In fact, I can’t think of one.

When Bernie Madoff was captured, we had a narrow window of opportunity, a moment when religious, political and business leaders could have come together to transform the culture. That moment has passed, and now we’re faced with the worst possible scenario, a landscape of public mistrust and cynicism for a business world that has yet to be reformed. This is bad for everyone, but for Madoff’s coreligionists it is even worse. Like it or not, Bernie Madoff has become the poster boy for Jewish business ethics, and now that he is back on the front pages, we’re back in the morass.

We may have put Bernie away, but we’ve yet to exorcise Madoff’s disease from our midst. As long as greed is allowed to run amok, we’ll be hard-pressed to return to the values of basic honesty and the hard-earned dollar. Religious, political and business leaders need to unite now to neutralize Wall Street’s moral meltdown — Jewish leaders especially, because the stench we smell comes from the smoke-filled rooms of our own country clubs and philanthropic boardrooms. If we don’t, that will be the greatest scandal of all.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

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