Most people these days dislike Bernard Madoff. Some people hate him, especially those whose money he stole. I imagine some of them would be happy to see him put to death for his unforgivably catastrophic handling of their money. I have an idea how I would feel in the same situation. I had money, I thought my money was safe, I thought I found a good way to make money on my initial investment, and the participation of so many intelligent others in the same program was an indication of its efficacy. Then the whole thing went to hell. That dirty, no good Madoff.Bernard Madoff

Yes, he’s an awful example of how one person can take advantage of so many others and ruin so many lives. It happens all too often, although not usually on such a large scale. You would probably have to lump Madoff in with Kim Jong-il of North Korea and Adolph Hitler when you talk about major ruiners of human lives. Don’t blame the ruiners entirely, though. Humans have an odd tendency to allow themselves to be used and manipulated by megalomaniacs.

But how did Madoff get started? Did he intentionally set out to bilk thousands of people out of millions of dollars? Why did so many people trust him and like him? Was he corrupted gradually as the money in his “fund” grew ever larger, turning Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde? Money can do that to someone. Or was it something else? Did Madoff have a certain character flaw that worked against him and against all his trusting investors? Perhaps so. I wonder if Madoff will one day become the archetypical example of the very common human habit of procrastination.

My theory goes like this: Madoff might have started off with a very real desire to help his friends and acquaintances. He had some knowledge about investing that had helped him acquire wealth for himself, and his friends naturally went to him for advice. Time went on and the word got out that he could even turn a profit under less than ideal economic times. His friends referred their friends to Madoff, who agreed to help. Money poured in. At some point, there was more money than Madoff could handle efficiently. At that point, instead of calling in help or turning away investors, Madoff procrastinated and put off till later what should have been done immediately. He might have thought about bringing in others to manage the money, and might have thought about changing his investment strategy. He might have understood that some of the money was in jeopardy because of his increasing loss of control of it. Ah yes, I need to take care of that. I will take care of that. I really intend to take care of that. I’ll get to it next week, or perhaps during the next quarter.

At another important juncture in Madoff’s life, he probably understood that it was too late to do anything about any of it. He had put off for too long what should have been done, and there was no going back. He and the investors that had trusted him for so long were in big trouble. Madoff might have changed from procrastinator at that point to a denier. It really doesn’t matter in the larger debate, however. The bottom line is that he led many people and organizations, whether through evil or through bumbling, into financial ruin. Perhaps he just decided to continue on with the sham and hope that he would die before his shenanigans became known to law enforcement officials.

Whether you believe my theory or not (and I’m not sure that I believe it myself), you must see that procrastination could have played a role in all this. But wait; just like the megalomaniacs Hitler and Kim Jung-il, Madoff couldn’t have succeeded without the cooperation of his victims. The people who were scammed by Madoff were probably whistling their own little procrastination tunes. I’ve heard a number of interviews on the radio and TV of Madoff’s investors. Most of them have lost everything or nearly everything. All of them are shocked and depressed. All must be angry and, if given the chance, would exercise vengeance. I could hear these emotions in their voices as well as their words. And I did hear a few of them hint that they wondered from time to time about the process Madoff used to make their money grow.

Let’s suppose that most of the victims were reasonably intelligent. They must have had something going for them to be able to invest such substantial amounts of money. So if they are reasonably intelligent, and from time to time wondered about Madoff’s methods for building wealth, might they not have said to themselves from time to time, I think I’ll look into Madoff’s methods for building wealth. I should do this soon, because something seems strange about the whole thing. I will check into this. I really will.

But they didn’t.

So, for what it’s worth, that’s one of my theories about the Madoff affair. I have others, but they’re pretty much like everyone else’s so I won’t bore you with them. All I know for sure is that the most reprehensible criminal is human and has human characteristics. All humans procrastinate. Some humans procrastinate about minor, mundane issues that affect no one else. Others procrastinate about major issues, such as looking into the investing habits of Bernard Madoff.

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