Thursday, March 26, 2009

Martha and Bernie

I try to be philosophically consistent, or explain when it doesn't appear so. For example, I support making education better, but don't believe that we can try to educate everyone to the same level and then be surprised when we fail to see the outstanding kids do as well as we need them to do. Is this inconsistent, that education needs to be better but, for some students, we need to get them off the college track? I can see where some might think my logic doesn't hold up, but I've laid out my thinking in several posts and ask only for people to try to follow it, then evaluate it.

(At the same time, I don't find it consistent that people say we need to pay teachers more, but we also have to standardize the curriculum; so we're paying more money at the same time we're making teaching easier.)

Crises often present opportunities for great inconsistency. The problems are so large, and, clearly, no one orthodoxy is up to the task of making them better. It might seem incongruent to believe simultaneously in the power of the free market and in the Obama programs; if you believe both those things, you need to be prepared to explain yourself further.

David Letterman is going through such a time himself. He has been merciless in his treatment of "investor" Bernie Madoff, with a barrage of jokes and skits that can only make one believe that Dave has a few million dollars with the faux financier.

At the same time, better living guru Martha Stewart continues to get gentle handling on Dave's show. He has joked repeatedly (and somewhat tediously) about how, first, we can feel safer now that Martha's locked up, and now, how we should be worried that she's back on the streets (chortle, chortle).

But these crimes come out of the same sensibility. It's pat to argue that Bernie victimized people, while Martha's offense was "victimless." But, if you were one of the people who bought stock while tipped-off Martha was selling, you lost money just as surely as if you wrote Bernie a check. In fact, in some ways, her crime was worse; each of the people who signed up with Bernie had every opportunity to do due diligence, and they didn't. The other sides to the Martha trades had every right to believe that they possessed requisite information.

I'm not saying that the crimes were entirely proportional, and the relative prison terms strike me as roughly correct. But it's a much harder argument to claim that one case was unfair, the other fair. For both Martha and Bernie, the attitude of "something for nothing" was present, it informed their actions. And there were people on the other side of those trades who were hurt. Just because it's easy to see one group and not the other does not mean that we can't be bothered by both cases, and it doesn't mean that one perpretator should escape punishment.

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