There are a lot of things that make the life of a con artist a dubious career track not the least being the risk that you'll get caught. No matter how grand your ill-gotten Bentley or your cooked-books villa, they have to be hard to enjoy when you know that at any moment the jig could be up. The hope and the thrill is in the fact that that's only one possibility. The other is that the scam is so good you'll never be nabbed.
But what if your con is certain to fail? Why would any self-respecting scoundrel pick a scheme that's guaranteed to end in handcuffs and a perp walk? That's what a lot of people are asking as 70-year-old Bernie Madoff cools his heels under house arrest, charged with masterminding a decades-long, $50 billion Ponzi scheme that has incinerated wealth around the world. (See the top 10 scandals of 2008.)
A Ponzi scheme as anyone smart enough to engineer one knows is a plan that is uniquely without an exit strategy. It requires a constant infusion of new investors to pay off a growing body of existing ones, and ultimately it becomes impossible to find enough suckers. When that happens, the scam collapses. Sure, you could always flee the country before the roof caves in, but many scammers don't and Madoff famously didn't. The reason lies in the personality or, more accurately, the personality disorder that drives them to such frauds in the first place.
Forensic psychologists studying Madoff-type minds start with the usual menu of personality disorders, particularly narcissism. "These people get real enjoyment from doing what they do," says forensic psychologist Michele Galietta of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "They feel good pulling the wool over other people's eyes."
Other conditions such as bipolar or manic disorders may be involved as well, particularly since they are characterized by grandiosity and impulsiveness, with little regard for consequences. But grandiosity and impulsiveness can also be self-limiting, and lead to smaller-bore crimes that don't require the patience and plotting of a Ponzi scheme. Madoff, says Galietta, "was very planful."
Such deliberateness requires a whole different type of disorder, one that may rise to the level of true psychopathy. In the popular mind, psychopathy is an impossibly broad term that more or less means crazy. But psychologists see it differently and have devoted no shortage of energy to defining just what the condition is. The researcher who may have come closest is psychologist Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia, author of numerous books including Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.
Many criminals, Hare explains, suffer from some form of antisocial personality disorder, a condition that causes them to behave impulsively and aggressively and generally commit violent crimes. Within that group, a subset also exhibits psychopathy, a coldness and lack of empathy for the people they hurt. They are the ones most likely to commit repeat violent crimes. The smallest group of all is the people who suffer from psychopathy alone indifference to others, without the violence. These, says Galietta, are the "white-collar psychopaths." And that group is an incubator of Madoffs.
Of course, a non-violent willingness to hurt other people for your own enrichment describes every mortgage bundler or junk-bond scammer who's ever forged a balance sheet. What distinguishes the Ponzi artist is the sheer scale of the scam.
The same exponential multiplication of funds that makes a Ponzi scheme impossible to sustain also means that, at first, it makes you very rich, very fast. "The financial payoff is so much larger," says Minnesota-based forensic psychologist Steven Norton. "The money comes in, the power comes in and that pushes them." What's more, says Galieti, the pyramid structure of a Ponzi scam means that there can be only one person at the pinnacle an appealing idea for a narcissist who would just as soon not work invisible frauds inside a big investment bank.
It helps too, Norton says, if while you're picking your investors' pockets you can also convince yourself that you're justified in doing so. Maybe you grew up poor; maybe you've been cheated yourself. Or maybe, as with Madoff, the phony dividends you're paying are initially benefiting charitable foundations. You're actually doing the groups a lot of good at least until you bankrupt them.
When the collapse inevitably happens, someone like Madoff is so drunk on the power and the wealth and the illusion of do-gooding that he truly may not have seen it coming. "There was no living in the future," says Galieti. That's just as well. For a 70-year-old man facing 20 years in prison, the past is all that's left.