Finding Joy In Other People's Misery

Good news for people looking to pin at least some of the blame on somebody for the subprime mortgage meltdown. With last Thursday's indictment of two former Bear Stearns hedge fund managers, the American Public can point their collective fingers squarely at Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, who are charged with mail and wire fraud as well as conspiracy (the white-collar crime Trifecta). The FBI bases much of its charges on e-mail evidence, which clearly documents the two as they wheedled their way out of personal financial ruin while publicly singing the praises of their fund to investors. As they walked handcuffed into Federal Court, I couldn't help but feel good that these two idiots are being publicly humiliated.

For some reason, it feels great to see idiotic criminals get caught. Schadenfreude - taking pleasure in the pain of someone else - is a wonderful thing. The Germans historically have a knack for delighting in the misfortune of others (examples: World Wars I and II, David Hasselhoff, etc.). It makes sense that they would have a word for their unofficial national pastime. But it took America to really elevate the practice to an art form. Most cases of schadenfreude shouldn't be funny, but they are. We've all laughed watching people get splashed by huge trucks driving through puddles, seeing children's ice cream scoops plop messily on the floor, and the like. But sometimes feeling great about someone else's crappy situation is absolutely warranted. Say, for example, the Bear Stearns case.

Don't feel bad about hating these guys. They'll be spending a good chunk of time behind bars. The closest thing to Wall Street upper management in prison is the occasional freelance consulting gig regarding toilet wine and stabbing instruments. But seriously, putting away men like Cioffi and Tannin helps investors trust the market again, which is exactly the antidote the ailing mortgage sector needs. People know that a corrupted system is being righted. With time it wouldn't be surprising if more Cioffis and Tannins are caught, brought to justice, and exposed for being the frauds that they are. In situations like that, we should all feel good about someone else's pain - it means we're doing something right.

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  • Jay Tatum

    I'm not certain I can agree with your conclusions, though they certainly make sense in a non-sensical (think emotional) way. Regrettably, while two people are assigned blame for their mis-doings, the corporate giant will get a bail out at the hands of. . . potential taxpayers. What is even more curious to watch in this debacle are just how many folks will have blame assigned to them - as if there are not the appropriate checks and balances within the larger system. Remember the bank employee in France who supposedly bilked billions from bank investors and not one was the wiser? Come on, somebody in a back room cooking the books? Bear Stearns would like to think so.
    The conclusions you've reached, whether German or American, are more commonly referred to in American English as criminal activity. If we delight in crooks getting caught, so be it. The real tragedy is forthcoming when the other major financial establishments have to acknowledge that they, too, have been bilked for billions by a couple of new cyber crooks. I wonder, though, whether we will delight in US taxpayers bailing out lending institutions for making so many loans on investments and then defaulting. When the average American who's collapsing financially is raped by the court system because he or she couldn't pay his or her mortgage, really bad things happen. Do we delight in all those Americans' losing their homes because they were not as tech savvy as those guys as Bear Stearns? I don't. I'm not sure how many people do.
    And remember Ken Lay and his ilk? I wasn't particularly fond of him and his cronies but when many of the company employee's lost their retirment investments, homes, and jobs, I didn't feel particularly vindicated when Ken Lay had to sell one of his seven homes.
    Or how about Martha Stewart? Insider trading and she went to trial, jail, and was out of jail and back on television by the time some of these folks even go to trial! I did not delight in that. I fumed over it! I'm not a Martha Stewart fan, I just find it interesting that she would be publically crucified while some of these other folks sit back and collect interest on the off-shore accounts waiting to go to trial and jail.
    I'm not sure I find joy in other people's misery, in German or American English, mainly because it suggests a sense of righteousness or popular piety I despise. I'll take my chances on being compassionate and just.