Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I'm not going to spend too much time on this one, because I've already lost over a week.

Too Good to be True is actually quite a good title for this overlong, overwritten, under-edited book, while it's subtitle "The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff" is not. Sure, this one is very informative on the subject of Madoff and his phony hedge fund Ponzi scheme, in its way, but it does not follow a smooth narrative curve like that "rise and fall" bit implies. Instead, one is treated to a very lightly edited pile of pages in which a handful of sentences make verbatim appearances over and over again (yes, it would seem I've stumbled onto the nonfiction equivalent of A Feast for Crows) and in which "paragraph*" simply refers to "a group of sentences that have nothing much to do with each other but are arranged to look like what ordinary users and readers of English might consider to be a paragraph with the use of random indenting." Ditto "chapters." Ugh.

This should have been a fascinating read for me. I love charlatans; one of my favorite films of all time is Orson Welles' F for Fake,, in which Welles riffs elegantly and amusingly on the famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, his biographer Clifford Irving (who went on to commit his own tremendous hoax, a complete fake biography of Howard Hughes) and Welles' own "War of the Worlds" prank. Stories of forgeries and cons delight me even if they often also make me angry, as Madoff's stupefying stunt most certainly did.

But instead, I could barely finish this book, and might not have were I not already quite behind on reading 100 books this year, eyeball deep in a literary example of the sunk cost fallacy. As it was, I required lots of breaks from it in the forms of some other, far more engaging and delightful, books I'll be blogging about here soon.

Madoff is definitely a man who deserves a place alongside Elmyr and Irving and their fellows in the pantheon of fakers. The financial swindle he achieved -- and his success in keeping the details forever out of our purview by pleading guilty from the outset and denying us the discoveries of a jury trial -- is the largest ever, and might still have been going on had not the housing/sub-prime bubble collapsed in 2008, triggering a run on his faux hedge fun by all of his investors (well, at least all of those who knew they were his investors, for, one thing I learned from this book, a lot of people who had invested in other "instruments" actually had their money hoovered up by the Madoff machine, for he was paying a lot of hot shots a lot of money to funnel investment into his phony fund) that yanked the apex of his pyramid right down when even his hoary originals, who had happily been collecting phony dividends for decades, started asking for their principal back.

Which is to say that Madoff did it exactly right. He built a reputation as a whiz-kid and a man of probity, computerizing markets before most people even knew that a mouse was not a microphone and cozying up to the financial industry's regulators when most people were still regarding them as tiresome foes instead of the willing partners Madoff and Greenspan and that whole despicable crew seduced them into being. At the height of his influence, Madoff was the man who taught all the new green lawyers starting their careers at the Securities and Exchange Commission (knowing they need only put in a handful of years before they could leap to the private sector and make the big money, the corrupt cops turning pro as criminals) how Wall Street works! He chose his prey well, too, avoiding those who knew how hedge funds actually worked and how to read a balance sheet and zeroing in, instead, on socialites who could be trusted never to run the numbers or ask how his amazing strategy worked or ask to see evidence that their money was being used to buy stocks at all, every man and woman of them an Emperor parading naked through Manhattan and Palm Springs and London and Paris, believing they were modeling exclusive designs (for part of Madoff's secret was implying always that not everyone was cool enough to invest with him, so that being offered the opportunity to fork over your cash to fund his yacht-intensive lifestyle was a sought-after privilege!).

See? Fascinating. But I chose the wrong book about it, and now am so sick of the subject that I'm disinclined to hunt down a good one. Boo!

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