As Ponzi-schemer-to-the-stars Bernie Madoff heads to the pokey---perhaps his first use of public transportation in quite some time---let's pause to consider the mindset that got us here. We can begin with a report in The New York Times that Madoff lured wealthy investors using "the promise of steady, unwavering returns." That wasn't the only lure, of course---what really got them drooling was Madoff's promise that these unwavering returns would also remain unwaveringly high.
Now, I'm no billionaire. I'm not even a millionaire, or a hundred-thousandaire. My household is baby rich, cash poor, with the hope that one of our boys has a phenomenal pitching arm. I never took a finance class, never traded online. However, one thing I did pick up along the path of my cobbled-together financial education is that there are no such things as high and unwavering returns.
Something else I learned is that risk is reward's ugly sister. You can't invite reward to your party without risk tagging along. This is why the standard advice---so standard that even a neophyte like me heard it---is that as we age we ought to shift more and more of our savings into safer investments, like municipal bonds and Treasury bills.
Safer means a lower return, though, and for a good many of our fellow citizens that became intolerable in the manic days of the eternal bull market. I know people over 60 who had the bulk of their savings in stocks, or even riskier vehicles. Some of them were banking on ever-increasing home prices to finance a portion of their retirement. To the ranks of millionaires who put their money in ungoverned hedge funds, banks that overleveraged themselves in derivatives, and quick-buck graspers who gambled on Florida vacation homes, we must add a good many average folks who knew better but forgot to act like it.
Don't get me wrong---had I been in possession of the time and the money, I likely would have made the same mistakes. This is because I, like a good many people, resent the natural economic law that says, quite simply, every mouthful of food has to be grown by someone. There is, in the end, no free lunch---and certainly no risk-free seven-course dinner.
They worst part is that the pain doesn't fall on the profligate alone. Incompetent Wall Street executives don't just put overpaid bankers out of work. A good many of us lusted for wealth and comfort these past several years, but a good many more beyond that are in the soup now.
There's something ironic in urging drunken spending as the solution to ills unleashed by lust for material comfort. Spending is the tonic among the chattering classes---spending by the government (i.e., by our grandchildren) and spending by citizens. Nothing would be better for the economy right now, we're told, than for everyone to go buy something fancy. Never mind that unwillingness to delay gratification is what got us here in the first place.
I'm not an economist. Perhaps spending an ocean of cash is the short-term solution to our dilemma. But here's hoping that this catastrophe will make us, in the long run, more prone to save, more willing to live within our means, and less likely to believe that we can have everything while sacrificing nothing.