By Cynthia Machamer
Should we sympathize with the victims of Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme? That question seemed to be the one that generated the most discussion during the morning book group meeting on Wednesday, September 17, as 12 men and one woman—North Star editor Cynthia Machamer—sat around the library tables and listened to Con Game: Bernard Madoff and His Victims book author Lionel S. Lewis talk about his book.
The author, who is a neighbor to North Church and a professor emeritus of sociology at the University at Buffalo, in his book tells some of the victims’ stories—the ones who would speak with him—of how they became involved in the scheme; how they gave Madoff money to invest (which he never did!), their expectations and what their losses meant to them. Trust is central to the success of a scheme like this, says Lewis.
“You need to understand how a con game works and the fact that it requires a mark willing to suspend his or her judgment,” said Lewis. He described how first a “roper” or trusted family member approaches the victim on behalf of the schemer (Madoff) and tells of a large return (16 to 20 percent). The mark is greedy and like many people throws away reason in pursuit of perceived great gain.
In his book Lewis says the con man—Madoff—takes the mark’s money and spends it. He doesn’t invest it. There is no return on investment. In con terms, they’re “trimmed.” Now, says Lewis, it is up to the roper and other inside men in the con to “cool out the mark,” or calm the waters to protect those who are running the con. The well-cooled mark, says Lewis, recognizes his part in the con. He’s not pleased but he doesn’t rat anyone out or have a tantrum. In this case, Madoff’s cons were never cooled out.
By now, some of the 12 men in the book group, most of whom had read every page of the book, were indignant about how anyone could be duped by such a scheme. (Roger Gross was by far the most vehement objector!)
Lewis began his research in the fall of 2009, collecting oral and written testimony, including lengthy interviews, from 42 of them. For himself, Lewis says, “Whatever they lost, many of these unfortunate people worked hard to achieve their goals, then opted for an unfortunate short cut pointed out to them by Bernie Madoff.”
North Church was pleased to have Professor Lewis with us in September. The father of two grown sons, he has been retired from UB for more than 10 years. He is currently working on another study about the part “back stage” groups play in a con. He is the author of Marginal Worth: Teaching and the Academic Labor Market (1996) and Scaling the Ivory Tower (1998).