Madoff had a sleek, fancy office on the 19th floor of a sleek, fancy office building. But he had another office in the same building — the 17th floor. That’s where the machinery of the Ponzi scheme was happening: falsifying documents, cooking the books, flat-out forgery. Very few people saw the 17th floor. But the ones who did all commented on how strikingly different it looked. It wasn’t sleek and modern and classy. It was run-down, badly organized, with old computers and crappy furniture and boxes piled all over the place.
But this was the real office. This is where the real work was done.* The classy offices on the 19th floor created the illusion of brilliant financial minds managing the complex world of finance that we puny peasants can’t even comprehend. The actual work happened on the 17th floor — the work of fraud and deception and theft.
And I started thinking about The Godfather.
Famously, The Godfather opens at an outdoor wedding: festive and bright, joyful and boisterous, a big party of family and friends dancing and eating and flirting and singing, with just a little scuffling around the edges to tip you off that something might not be right. And it also opens with the scene behind the scenes: Don Vito Corleone’s office, dark and private, controlled and quiet, where a trickle of supplicants beseeches the Don for favors — favors that are shady, illegal, violent, or all the above.
And so much of the movie’s point is that the one can’t exist without the other.
Because this is true for all of us, isn’t it? The comforts in our lives come at the cost of someone else’s misery. A lot of them, anyway. Our clothing, our food, our electronic doohickeys — they mostly come to us through grossly exploited labor, with either threatened or real violence behind it. And in the U.S., we mostly live on land that was flat-out stolen through deception, brute force, and genocide. In the background of our lives, there’s always a mobster’s office, a rich Ponzi schemer’s 17th floor. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism — or under colonialism.
Now, this doesn’t mean we should all abandon civilization and live on nuts and berries in the woods. And it doesn’t mean that all our pleasures should be laced with constant guilt. But they shouldn’t be laced with self-deception, either. We need to remember that if someone is a powerful puppetmaster with a lot of strings in their hands, they probably didn’t get that way rescuing orphans and playing with puppies. We need to work, not just on cutting the strings, but on understanding the machinery of the puppet show and dismantling it. And to do that, we need to remember that our own comfortable lives depend on the dark offices and 17th floors. Our pleasures don’t need to be laced with guilt — but they do need to be laced with consciousness, and a willingness to work for change.
*I realize this isn’t standard among high-wealth criminals, and plenty of white collar crime is done right there in the shiny offices. It’s a metaphor, okay?